How We Can Solve The Asylum Seeker Issue Without Making People Want To Kill Themselves

It's the most morally fraught, divisive problem in Australian politics. Here's how we fix it.

asylum seeker, refugees

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In a reasonable world, we would never be forced to offer the Australian government policy alternatives to tormenting innocent people until they set themselves on fire. We could simply point out that, no matter the justification, this is objectively cruel and that would be enough.

Unfortunately both sides of politics have dug themselves into a situation where the denial of human rights to people seeking asylum is not only the norm, but the idea of providing safety to these people is now used as an outright insult and Stopping The Boats is a means unto itself. As Junkee has covered extensively before, the Liberal government, our Labor “opposition” and News Corp have successfully conditioned most Australians to either ignore or support what the UN has labelled the systematic torture of people in offshore detention. The conversation has shifted so far to the right that we forget indefinite mandatory detention only became a thing when, 24 years ago, the Keating government realised it could cash in on the xenophobic vote.

But hey, if we stop referring to people by their boat identification numbers or detaining children with their rapists or paying people smugglers to return to Indonesia, the people smugglers win! As Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told Junkee, “the only way to deter people through cruelty is to be worse than the governments from which they are fleeing”.

“As a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, Australia has an obligation to care for people who are in genuine need of help,” Hanson-Young says. “Punishing one group of innocent people to send a message to another goes against the principles of a fair and decent society.”

Yet preventing deaths at sea has become the default justification for a smorgasbord of human rights violations, and by itself makes for a slyly convincing argument; while some racist people are happy to deny human rights out of a John Howard-like sense of nationalism, the majority of Australians actually back increasing our refugee intake while supporting turnbacks and offshore processing. They simply don’t want people to drown, and a spokesperson for Opposition Minister Richard Marles argued that Labor can’t end its deterrence policies without repeating the hundreds of deaths at sea they saw during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

This means we have to temporarily leave aside the morality of finding a “solution” to people seeking asylum by boat in the first place, or, as Waleed Aly has discussed, how terrible it is that this is literally the only area of society it’s deemed acceptable to enact harmful, utilitarian policies (after all, we don’t indefinitely detain motorists to stop car crashes or implement corporal punishment in actual prisons). If we’ve any chance of changing our current policies, we’re going to have to play by the rules of the popular discourse because the political reality demands it.

In short, we’re going to have to offer solutions that both completely fix the South-East Asia refugee situation and treat people seeking asylum as people. Luckily there actually are some options, so let’s see what, besides torture, is out there.

Increase our intake and resource safer, faster processing centres

This is the “no brainer” solution. Given the chance, anyone would chose a short, safe, and orderly processing option over risking their lives at sea, especially the roughly 90 percent of people who’ve arrived by boat in Australia since 2008 found to be refugees. The only reason anyone risks the trip to Australia at all is desperation; neither Indonesia or Malaysia have signed the Refugee Convention, so asylum seekers face detention and have no right to work, education or social support. This means people seeking asylum within the region have two options: wait up to 20 years to be resettled by the UNHCR, or risk a trip to Australia by boat (and honestly, I would hands down choose the latter, no question).

The build-up of asylum seekers in Indonesia is certainly not helped by Australia cutting off our intake from the region completely in 2014, ostensibly, in ex-Immigration Minister Scott “I Once Held Children in Detention for Ransom” Morrison’s words, to “take the sugar off the table”. With safe access to asylum intentionally being denied and turnbacks cutting off their chance at reaching asylum in Australia, there’s currently a bottleneck of asylum seekers in Indonesia, which has seen an increase of 3000 people since 2013, banking on countries like America or Germany to take them in. But with the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, their chances of being resettled are getting less and less likely.

The solution here is so obvious that it speaks to the actual, racist reasons behind the Liberal’s “nope, nope nope” policies that they have ignored it completely: process asylum seekers in the area directly, safely, and quickly. Fund UNHCR centres across Indonesia and Malaysia to the point that dangerous boat trips are no longer required, and people could instead apply for asylum, wait a reasonable time (days and weeks instead of decades), and resettle in Australia.

“Establishing a safer way for people to reach safety in Australia is crucial if we genuinely want to undercut the people smugglers’ business model,” Hanson-Young says. “Building and then adequately funding a fair and efficient system in Indonesia and Malaysia would allow the UNHCR to assess people’s claims quickly and then bring those who need protection to Australia safely, before they ever need to contact a people smuggler.”

The arguments against this are twofold and equally defeatist: we don’t have the money to fund these centres, and encouraging people to seek asylum (as if war and persecution don’t already do that) will bring an unsustainable flood of applicants.

The first point becomes null when you consider the $3 billion a year we’re currently spending on breaking people in detention. And that’s not hyperbole: the current plan for people stuck on Nauru and Manus is either to continue their indefinite detention, go to human-rights wonderland Cambodia as part of a shaky, $55 million agreement, or just return to their home countries, despite being refugees and this obviously not being a safe option.

So yeah, stop that. Stop all of that, bring those people here, and save a couple of billion we could instead invest in helping people. Closing these centres and accepting the refugees in Australia will obviously have other short-term challenges, which we’ll deal with shortly.

As for the second argument, both the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Project SafeCom demonstrate that there’s no precedent for unmanageable applicants in the region, as Australia only handles a tiny fraction of the world’s asylum seekers. Obviously more asylum seekers will be drawn to successful centres within the region, but, with 19.5 million refugees worldwide, South-East Asia’s 500,000 is relatively manageable; it’s less than half of what Germany took in 2015.

Even during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, when we only accepted hundreds of people from Indonesia, the supposed explosion of people seeking asylum by boat amounted to 50,000 over six years, which is nothing compared to what countries like Pakistan, which hosts over 1.5 million Afghan refugees, deals with.

Again, nobody wants to ditch their lives and endure years of insecurity for a chance at a new one. Given the chance, the majority of refugees would return home, so to actually create an incentive for asylum seekers we would have to destroy their homes (which we’re admittedly still doing in Syria).

In terms of numbers, the Greens have proposed increasing our yearly intake to 50,000, while even Labor aim to double our current number to 27,000. Neither of these options would immediately meet demand throughout South-East Asia, but they would easily meet Indonesia’s 13,679 and, within four years, the Greens’ plan would meet Malaysia’s 150,000 as well. And, as Julian Burnside argues in a post advocating this plan, we already have precedent with the Whitlam government’s acceptance of over 80,000 Vietnamese refugees throughout the late 1970s.

Provided these centres offer safety to asylum seekers and guarantee short waits for resettlement, a concerted regional processing plan would feasibly stop people getting on boats. These plans, however, would require fixing relations with both Indonesia and Malaysia, and boy do we have some work to do there.

Develop a regional solution to people smuggling by doing something with the Bali Process, in lieu of nothing

People smugglers come in all shapes and sizes; there are corrupt stereotypes, like the villain from Lucky Miles and, if Amnesty International is to be believed, the Australian Government. There are altruistic smugglers, like Oskar Schindler and Iraqi refugee Ali Al Jenabi, a celebrated humanitarian who brought 500 people to Australia, including his family. And finally, there are the impoverished fishermen tricked into steering boats and facing frankly ridiculous sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

And while fixing our regional processing would make people smuggling redundant in the long-term, it’s still an ongoing issue. People smugglers should, at the very least, be monitored in an effort to both implement safe routes for asylum seekers and disable the networks as humanely as possible. While we cannot and should not stop people exercising their right to seek asylum, we can do more to track organisers.

The problem is that there’s no easy solution to dealing with people smugglers in South-East Asia, which is kind of why we are where we are. Some people argue that criminalising a merchant/client trade has only made it more dangerous and unjust, with people now forced into unseaworthy boats because Australia smashes the nicer ones and our laws disproportionately target local fishermen in lieu of ringleaders. Others, like the UN, require the criminalisation of smuggling people for financial gain, while still protecting the rights of the migrant. And others still, like both of our major parties, think that just kind of shoving them all back to where they came from ends the business, even when it demonstrably does not.

“The government’s claim that it is saving lives by denying people safety and pushing them back out to sea is plainly ridiculous,” Senator Hanson-Young says.  “Forcing people back into the hands of their oppressors or sending them off to attempt other dangerous ocean journeys simply means the deaths are no longer happening within our view.”

Forcing asylum seekers back to countries they are escaping from or likely face persecution in is known as refoulement. On top of being contrary to every human right we’re meant to believe in, this was considered very, very illegal (see Gillard’s failed “Malaysian Solution”) until Scott Morrison emotionally blackmailed the Senate into swapping children in detention for any reference to the Refugee Convention in Australian law.

Instead of just turning everyone back, a real solution for understanding and helping the situation would be strengthening the Bali Process, a policy forum chaired by Australia and Indonesia that’s designed to foster information sharing, cooperation, and long-term solutions for both people smugglers and asylum seekers.

While it has potential to create a sustainable regional framework, the Bali Process as it is is basically useless; for all our talk about stopping the trade, Australia’s done nothing meaningful to engage with Indonesia on the issue, and both countries were criticised in February by co-founder Dr Hassan Wirajuda​ for ignoring the system during last year’s Bay of Bengal crisis. Faced with our disinterest, Wirajuda suggested rotating the Bali Process co-chairs, as there are 40 other members who could lead the system.

But implementing objectively positive regional solutions within the Bali Process is doable, such as dispelling misinformation within asylum seeker communities, sharing information on people smuggling hotspots and key organisers, and developing anti-money laundering systems. This would mean engaging with Indonesia who, for their part, showed interest in strengthening the Bali Process during last year’s UN beat down on Australia’s human rights record. Unfortunately, they’ve also largely focused on arresting crew members in lieu of the still largely-intact networks, which have adapted to new sources of income even with the Australian route shut down i.e. finding asylum seekers better detention centres, and engaging on even more perilous journeys.

But engaging with Indonesia would require us to stop turnbacks, which, while effective at stopping boats from reaching Australia, also infringe on Indonesia’s sovereignty and effectively ignore our international responsibility. Admittedly, even the slightest sign of stopping turnbacks has proven to increase voyages to Australia; we need to acknowledge this if we’re going to stop abusing innocent people and be prepared to re-engage with both the trade and Indonesia.

Instead of relying on indirect, ineffective and illegal systems that ignore the ongoing people smuggling situation in Indonesia, strengthening the Bali Process would allow us to engage in more cooperative measures, monitor smugglers, and shut down criminal networks.

Resume and increase search and rescue operations throughout the region

Obviously, implementing regional processing and dismantling any smuggling networks would take time, and if we bring the current groups on Manus and Nauru to Australia (or accept New Zealand’s offer), we’ll likely see an immediate increase in people arriving by boat. While this is their legal right and is currently happening at any rate, we should obviously do what we can to stop people drowning during the trip.

Currently, our on-water operations include turnbacks and directly handing people back to Sri Lanka aka The Country They Were Escaping From, which is, again, refoulement. But using our existing resources to instead rescue people seeking asylum by boat will both respect their human rights and directly prevent them dying at sea. This sounds simplistic, and the obvious challenge here is helping the increased numbers of asylum seekers: the death rate for people coming to Australia by boat is roughly 4 percent and, during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years (2007-13) we saw approximately 1,200 deaths at sea.

But while people point to this number as a cause for deterrence and blanket denial of people who seek asylum by boat, we forget deaths at sea have historically been in part due to ignoring distress signals and Indonesia’s requests for cooperation. And this isn’t counting the people we’ve turned back who subsequently drowned, most infamously the 146 kids, 142 women and 65 men who died as part of the Children Overboard fiasco of 2001.

Author Tony Kevin has documented Australia’s “ad hoc and unpredictable” rescue responses in Reluctant Rescuers, and outlined a number of operational reforms for Crikey in 2012. He argued that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has repeatedly hospital-passed distress calls onto the Indonesia’s under-resourced rescue authority BASARNAS or ignored them completely, and that “Australia’s response to distress-at-sea telephone calls from asylum-seeker boats is neither ‘consistent’ nor ‘in accordance with the relevant conventions and international practices’.”

Kevin lists three instances where AMSA either belatedly or simply did not respond to distress signals, and was therefore indirectly responsible for a combined 400 deaths at sea within the three year period. Preventing deaths at sea, at least in these instances, could have easily been a matter of choice, and this is to say nothing of what we might be capable of if we properly engaged with Indonesia as part of the Bali Process.

Again, the actual number of people coming to Australia by boat pales when compared to other countries in the region, and could be managed if we effectively supported these people before they got on a boat. But the ones that do take the voyage are equally deserving of our help, because anything less would be discrimination, and increased, cooperative search and rescue operations would obviously make for a safer journey.

Admit that people might still try to seek asylum by boat and that, while dangerous, this is their right as human beings

“It is the refugee’s right – not the prerogative of any state or humanitarian agency – to decide when the risks of staying put are greater than the risks of setting sail” – Professor James Hathaway, quoted in Alternatives to Offshore Processing.

The world is chaos, and we can’t feasibly control every single person in it. Again, I hate to give any credence to the absurdly cruel utilitarian discourse, but credit where credit is due: we’ve systematically abused refugees for three years now and only some people are still attempting to come to Australia by boat. Not nearly as many as the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments reported, because as inhumane as it is, there’s obviously a perverse logic to turnbacks n’ torture (and because the Liberal government stopped discussing “on-water matters” as part of its obvious contempt for Australians knowing anything about asylum seekers, at least when we’re not in an election campaign). But at least five boats have set sail for Australia this year.

More importantly, the people we have deterred, turned back at sea or refouled are still left seeking asylum. We have arranged for people to be psychologically, physically and sexually abused in order to purportedly save others, but the people who can no longer seek asylum by boat are no better off than when they were originally willing to risk their lives. They’re just as desperate, and just have one less opportunity. Others, who we’ve turned back, have drowned, or go right back to whatever horror they were running from in the first place.

“Taking a few detainees and executing them in public would also be a deterrent,” refugee lawyer and advocate Julian Burnside told Junkee. “Given the deaths we have had in detention which are said to be a deterrent, I am not sure what the moral distinction is.”

Deterrence through human suffering will never solve anything in the long run, and is paternalistic, victim-blaming bullshit in the short run. Whatever success is claimed by our current policies and mentalities literally rests on Australia as a destination being equitable to the places these people are fleeing.

Until Australia becomes the de facto world police our politicians imagine it to be, or we up our foreign aid to the point people don’t need to seek asylum in the first place (which we should also be doing), we can only control our own actions within the situation. So why not make them legal, productive, and purely humanitarian? Admit we can’t actually solve the refugee crisis as long as war is still a thing, but we can do our best to stop deaths at sea with humane policies that don’t involve harming the people who make it here, or anyone at all?

So there you go, Australia. Actually implement a safer resettlement process, work with Indonesia on a regional program to monitor people smuggling networks, revamp our search and rescue operations, and for fuck’s sake stop sending innocent people to island prisons.

That last one should be a no-brainer, but here we are. Doing better than that should actually be super easy.

Chris Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, the Editor-in-Chief of The Tech Street Journal, and proud author of a Scum piece he wrote two years back.