Asylum seeker policy... a moral dilemma

Asylum seeker policy... a moral dilemma

10 Nov 2010

second-manne-thumb Professor Robert Manne

First published on the ABC website on 9 November, 2010.

On the issue of asylum seekers, I think we have reached a point of crisis. If it were up to me, and if I did not care about the wider political consequences, I would allow all asylum seekers who arrive spontaneously on Australian shores to live in the community after a short period of detention for health and security checks. I would only ask of them that they report to authority until their cases for permanent residence have been assessed by a scrupulously independent tribunal operating on the basis of strict adherence to international refugee conventions that Australia has signed.

For those asylum seekers found not to be refugees, I would support their repatriation, but only when it was clear beyond any reasonable doubt that they would be safe.

Unhappily, the question of asylum seeker policy cannot be rationally discussed purely on the basis of personal preference, mine or anyone else's. It is a complex question, with a moral, legal and political dimension. I want to stress the moral and political.

I have been observing Australian attitudes to the arrival by boat of unauthorised asylum seekers since the mid-1970s, when I became president of a small lobby group called the Indo-China Refugee Association. From that observation I've arrived at certain conclusions.

To begin with, Australian public opinion is troubled by the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers on boats. It is not troubled by offshore government programs to re-settle refugees. During the period of the Fraser Government, the uninvited arrival of 2000 Vietnamese asylum seekers on boats caused some alarm. By contrast, the government's decision to settle more than 70,000 Indo-Chinese refugees from the detention camps across South East Asia between 1978 and 1983 was more or less uncontroversial.

Thirty years later, this year, a Monash University study discovered that two-thirds of people had a positive attitude to refugees whose cases had been assessed by our authorities overseas. By contrast, in every opinion poll taken in 2010, almost two-thirds supported a tougher policy towards unauthorised boat asylum seeker arrivals.

With spontaneous boat arrivals, the maintenance of some even remotely humanitarian policy is reliant, I think, on bi-partisan political consensus - elite consensus. Fraser was only able to treat the boat arrivals humanely because the ALP opposition in general did not exploit the issue in the way it might have.

In recent times the humanitarian option broke down when Labor introduced mandatory detention in 1992. It was altogether destroyed when, prior to the 2001 election, Howard decided on an asylum seeker policy of military repulsion and indefinite detention on Nauru for those who could not be militarily repelled.

The policy of the Howard Government was overwhelmingly popular by every poll and estimate I've seen. Because of this it injected a poison into the political culture whose antidote has not yet been discovered. It was also by now a thoroughly politicised issue. The question of asylum seekers was important, even perhaps vital, to Howard's 2001 election victory.

In terms of its clear deterrent objective, mandatory detention did not work. Between 1999 and 2001, 12,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat. On the other hand, military repulsion and detention on Nauru, what was called the Pacific Solution, did prove a successful deterrent. Between the institution of the Pacific Solution and its dismantling under Rudd, virtually no asylum seekers came to Australia by boat.

Since the dismantling, the boats have returned. This year there are likely to be more boat asylum seeker arrivals than in any year in Australian history. For some reason, the friends of asylum seekers have resisted what seems to me a self-evident fact.

While Malcolm Turnbull was leader of the Opposition, the asylum seeker issue was a headache for the Rudd Government. Under Tony Abbott, an entirely unscrupulous populist conservative, it became a nightmare. Abbott understood and exploited to the full the political potential of the issue by supporting the re-introduction of temporary visas and the restoration of the Pacific Solution. In this he had the support of about two-thirds of the Australian people.

Rudd's honourable refusal to compete in what he called a race to the bottom was one of the reasons he was removed from the leadership of the Labor Party. In the words of his Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, the issue was thought by many inside the Labor Party to be "killing the government."

During the recent election campaign, the promise to stop the boats by re-instituting the Pacific Solution was one of the three or four most important items of the Abbott election pitch. To neutralise the issue, Julia Gillard proposed the establishment of a regional processing centre in East Timor, to which asylum seekers who reach Australian territory by boat would be able to be sent to have their claims for refugee status assessed. This is best described, I think, as the Pacific Solution with a human face.

In my opinion - and these remarks cause me some pain - the asylum seeker issue now poses an acute dilemma for Australian friends of asylum seekers. Most argue that as both mandatory detention and, even more so, the Pacific Solution are immoral - with which I agree - the Gillard Government should abolish mandatory detention and should not contemplate the establishment of an off-shore processing centre on East Timor.

This position is ethically right, but I've come to believe it is altogether unrealistic from the political point of view. Extrapolating from what we already know, if miraculously the Gillard Government adopted an asylum seeker policy of the kind the friends of the asylum seekers support, three things would follow.

The number of asylum seekers arriving by boat would increase substantially, perhaps very substantially, in the coming years. If I was an asylum seeker, I would come to a country that would accept me and not imprison me.

Public opinion, which has remained extremely hostile to the spontaneous arrival of boats since 2001, would harden even further against the asylum seekers and the government judged responsible for facilitating their arrival would also be harmed. In such a situation, the Abbott leadership of the Liberal Party and the force of populist conservatism would be greatly strengthened.

There are major problems with the only existing alternative policy - the East Timor solution. It will prolong the uncertainty of refugees. It might fail to win the approval of the East Timorese government or people. If the asylum seekers are treated generously with regard to food, medical treatment, education and job opportunities and so on, it might even destabilise the situation in East Timor, one of the poorest countries on earth. If the facilities are humane and if the resettlement of those who are judged to be refugees is swift, the centre might act as a magnet of attraction for others and therefore might become unmanageable.

On the other hand, if these problems are avoided, the idea of the East Timor asylum seeker processing centre has possible advantages. If the asylum seekers who have been stranded in Indonesia and Malaysia for years were brought to East Timor, their chance for re-settlement in a western country might be improved, perhaps substantially.

A system such as I am suggesting is almost certain to provide an antidote to the poison that was injected into the political culture when asylum seekers became a divisive political issue, especially in 2001. Fewer boats would certainly arrive. If they did arrive, those on board would be taken to East Timor for processing. It seems likely that the responsibility of re-settlement of these people would then fall mainly on Australia.

In such a situation, it is not impossible that a humane Australian government could agree to settle a generous annual quota of those in East Timor judged to be refugees and they should be, if that was such a system, re-settled according to the date of their arrival, including in Indonesia where people have been stranded for years.

It is not even impossible that the government might in this case be able to increase its annual quota from the present 13,750 to something like 20,000 places - now advocated by groups on the left like the Greens - while still retaining the support of majority Australian opinion as the Fraser Government was able to do with regard to the re-settlement of the Indo Chinese refugees between 1978 and 1983, because that kind of policy does not inflame Australian public opinion.

It seems to me that friends of asylum seekers are now faced with a real Sophie's Choice. They can maintain their support for a policy - the end of mandatory detention, the rejection of the East Timor solution - which is morally compelling, which is almost certain to be rejected by any Australian government we can imagine, but which, if adopted, would lead to an increase in spontaneous boat arrivals and would therefore almost certainly strengthen the electoral prospects of the political right.

Or they can choose to support a policy centred on the idea of the regional processing centre on East Timor which is deeply morally uncomfortable and troubling, which is clearly more politically realistic, but which from the policy point of view may even be unrealisable.

To adapt the language of Max Weber, friends of asylum seekers are now caught between a morally pure ethic of absolute ends and a more politically realistic ethic of responsibility. We are obliged to find a passage through what has become an ethical, legal and political minefield. In the case of asylum seekers policy, there are, for us, no longer easy and even morally easy options.

Robert Manne is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University. This article was first presented at a forum convened by the Ideas and Society programme at La Trobe University on "Asylum Seekers and Australian Democracy" (15 October 2010).




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