The politics behind asylum-seekers misses the boat

Opinion article written on the 27 Jun 2011

In the wake of World Refugee Week, the recent television phenomenon of the SBS documentary Go Back to Where You Came From and in the year of the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, it is now more timely than ever to reflect on Australia’s approach to the treatment of asylum-seekers.

Judging whether the approach is working depends on your measure of success. If it’s about ”stopping the boats”, then you might ask: Could the Malaysia deal, the processing of asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea or a return to the Pacific Solution be the answer? If success is about winning the next election, then you might be more concerned about how your approach is being received in marginal seats across Australia.

But for a complex and global problem, are these really the right questions to ask? Go Back to Where You Came From gave Australians a chance to look at the human face behind the asylum-seeker political debate. We know that for the first time since the Cold War the number of people affected by conflict is increasing. Deep social inequality and marginalisation of vulnerable groups is continuing and more people are forced to leave their homes today than at any point since the mid-1990s. Conflicts are longer and more complex, and opportunities for refugees to return home, or to resettle in a third country, are few and far between.

We also know that Australia is one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region that has signed the Refugee Convention, and yet Australia receives a minuscule number of asylum-seekers compared to other countries in the region. In fact, countries in the region that host the largest populations of refugees are those least capable of providing for their needs and entitlements.

Australia’s approach to asylum-seekers should reflect the complex, regional and global nature of the refugee phenomenon. So, instead of asking if we are ”stopping the boats”, what if we asked ourselves whether Australia’s policies towards refugees and asylum-seekers are working to make them safer? Not just temporarily safer, but safe and secure in the long term.

This is not such a giant leap to make. Often people argue that stopping the boats is the right thing to do precisely on the grounds that risky boat journeys put refugees in harm’s way. But this argument relies on refugees having a viable alternative. For many, there simply is no alternative but to come. If my experience at Oxfam has taught me anything, it is that people fleeing the horrors of war and persecution will stop at nothing to find safety and security, for themselves and their children. It is human nature. It is what we would all do.

I have met refugees and asylum-seekers who have fled persecution by foot, travelling over mountains for weeks with babies on their backs and no food in their bellies. I have met young men who evaded lions and stepped over the bodies of their friends to continue the long and treacherous journey from Sudan to Ethiopia. And then there are people who flee to Australia by boat. This is the common reality of refugee flight. Not pre-arranged, but spontaneous, dangerous and marked by terror.

If we are seriously talking about preventing harm, then we need to examine Australia’s refugee policies based on how well they protect vulnerable people. Are Australia’s policies working to assist other countries in the region provide adequate safety and protection to refugees? Are our policies helping refugees to find safe haven and opportunities for a secure home where they can send their kids to school, find a job and access essential services? Or better still are these policies working to help prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place?

On these measures of refugee protection, Australia is demonstrating little evidence of success. Rather than setting a positive example to the region by treating asylum-seekers humanely, Australia continues to mandatorily detain asylum-seekers, who have committed no crime. This practice has been widely criticised for its harmful psychological impact on asylum-seekers, including children.

Rather than explicitly targeting aid to improve the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in the region, Australia has used aid to fund detention centres. Rather than devising genuine solutions for people who are displaced in the region, we are devising new ways to turn vulnerable people away.

Australia has the capacity to responsibly manage the arrival of asylum-seekers, without resorting to draconian punishment. We also have the resources to do much more to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers in the region.

We are capable of accepting greater numbers of refugees from offshore and ensuring that asylum-seekers within Australia have their claims processed in a fair and timely manner. We must work sensitively and strategically with other governments in the region to establish a coordinated, regional approach to this issue. We need to work together to ensure refugees and asylum-seekers are protected and can access their full range of rights from wherever they are in the region. It is only through such cooperation that we can provide them with real alternatives to having to undertake a desperate boat journey to find safety.

When you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers and unfortunately politicians on both sides have persisted along this path. Now is the time to grapple with the complex causes of refugee flight and how these could be tackled. This requires us to ask the right question: How can we help refugees women, men and kids who face such grave risk of harm to be safe?

Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published in the Canberra Times on 27 June 2011.