EDITORIAL: Asylum-seekers: Labor’s failures will hurt Australia
News Weekly, October 1, 2011
The Gillard Government’s failed attempt to establish off-shore refugee-processing facilities to process boat-people arriving from Indonesia will lead to an upsurge of people trafficking to Australia, deepen divisions in Australia on the issue, and worsen the Government’s already low standing with the electorate. At the core of the asylum-seeker problem is the fact that many countries in Asia, including India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, have not signed the UN Refugee Convention and therefore are not bound by its provisions.
All these countries have significant refugee populations within their borders, but the protections guaranteed under the UN Refugee Convention are not available in these countries. This is a reason why so many of the asylum-seekers in these countries want to head for Australia which has signed and ratified the Convention.
As a developed democracy, Australia also gives refugees political freedom and access to jobs, education and social services not available elsewhere in the region.
While the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat is fewer than 10,000 per year, their arrival effectively freezes out of Australia an equivalent number of people who have applied for refugee status in other countries, and who are at the back of a long queue waiting for resettlement.
(Australia’s humanitarian program, which includes refugees, is about 14,000 a year.)
Critics of Australia’s refugee policy have argued that Australia should simply accept anyone who arrives by boat. This would effectively mean the abandonment of immigration controls, a policy which Australians and their governments have never accepted, because of the adverse social and economic consequences which would result.
There is also a very strong sense that people who can find tens of thousands of dollars to fly to Indonesia, then pay people-smugglers to get into Australia, should not be put ahead of desperate people who are living in refugee camps in other countries.
There are hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers living in Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan, who could be expected to avail themselves of the opportunity of entry to Australia, if circumstances permitted.
The Gillard Government’s failed attempts to process asylum-seekers offshore in Malaysia, coupled with its refusal to countenance off-shore processing in Nauru, is certain to be followed by a large increase in the number of boats sailing to Australia.
A report in The Australian said, “An Afghan asylum-seeker who reached Australia after the High Court scuttled the Gillard government’s Malaysia agreement said he easily found a people-smuggler in Indonesia after being told the ‘route was open again’” (September 20, 2011).
The asylum-seeker said he had waited for months in Indonesia. “I found it is so easy … to find a smuggler; we were just two days on the boat and most of us were Afghan,” he said.
One other consequence of this will be the deaths of many more people at sea, as they are enticed to undertake the risky boat trip from Java to Christmas Island.
The Gillard Government’s attempt to by-pass the High Court’s judgment against the Malaysian deal is clearly based on the claim that the Immigration Minister should have unfettered discretion to authorise the removal of asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors, off-shore.
This was one of the issues on which the High Court has already ruled against the Government, so Tony Abbott was right to reject the government’s second Malaysia plan.
The Government’s refusal to admit that it was wrong in relation to processing asylum-seekers on Nauru — when it has already admitted it was wrong on off-shore processing — is totally irrational.
It is true that the refugee problem facing Australia is less serious than that facing many other developed countries, including those of the European Union which are battling a large influx of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa, as well as an influx of illegal immigrants, at a time of record unemployment.
Europe faces deep social unrest, including race riots, because of these issues.
It is also true that Australia’s problem is less serious less than that facing India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
However, these comparisons ignore the fact that over the years, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been successfully resettled in Australia from these countries, while maintaining social cohesion and public support for a humanitarian refugee program.
The only effective means of stopping large numbers of boat-people coming to Australia over the past decade has been off-shore processing, which means that people arriving on boats cannot “queue jump” ahead of other asylum-seekers or people whose refugee status has already been determined internationally.
It is a sad fact that the Gillard Government recognises this reality, but cannot implement it.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.
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