Australia's Refugee Dilemma

Australia urgently needs to stop the snake heads who are delivering an unceasing inflow of unlawful or illegal boat arrivals demanding admission to the country as refugees. The solution being proposed by the Labor government led by Julia Gillard, however, has kicked off a storm of political controversy in Canberra, where it remains stalled.

Gillard has been roasted by opposition political parties for the so-called Malaysian solution ever since it was unveiled in May. The Liberal Party’s leader, Tony Abbott, called it “just another panicked, desperate thought bubble.” Its backers, however, say it represents a region-wide solution to the question of what to do with legions of unwanted people. Giving more ammunition to the opposition, Australia has offered to cover all of the A$300 million (US$321.7 million) in costs.

The refugee situation has been exacerbated by Labor’s abandonment of the previous government’s practice of issuing three-year temporary visas to those accepted as refugees. Such visas are designed to enable the repatriation of the visa holders when stability is achieved in their home nations. The Labor policy change, however, has been read as an indication that Australia has put out a welcome mat for economic migrants seeking entry through its back door.

Under the Malaysian solution, Australia takes 4,000 Burmese refugees approved by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in exchange for 800 boat arrivals to be sent back to Malaysia as a first revised step in border protection. Since the Malaysian high comission says it will choose the refugees to be sent back to Malaysia, it is assumed, given the country’s sensitive racial balance, that all will be Muslims, whatever their nationality. It is thus a great deal for Malaysia because it rids them of 4,000 Burmese Christians and Buddhists in return.

Almost all boat arrivals tear up their documents of identity, leaving open the question what it is they are hiding; whether they are a risk to security (al-Qaeda, Taliban, criminal cartel?) or to the nation’s health (communicable diseases?) or to the taxpayer. Detention is essential.

The Malaysian solution is intended to discourage the people smugglers from putting at risk the lives of women and children, and yet, for those who genuinely need asylum, to permit the UNHCR to assess their claims in Indonesia, Malaysia, or elsewhere. Applicants for refugee status must establish proof, not just claim that they have a genuine fear of official persecution were they to return to their country of nationality, and that there is no other country which will accept them.

So far, in Australia, boat arrivals instead have put the responsibility of proof on the government, with their supporters running interference. The High Court makes determinations through its application of common law but seemingly without regard to relevant policy issues. Parts of the media conflate the UNHCR-accepted refugees, for whom the Australian public has a great deal of sympathy, with economic migrants seeking asylum.

According to their supporters, every boat arrival is a genuine refugee. Since Australia is not inundated, as are parts of Europe and the United States by undocumented emigres, all boat arrivals could theoretically be accepted, the supporters argue; and, quaintly, that there should be a special category of admission for those rejected; and, that the mental health problems evinced by some detainees were not brought into Australia. Finally, they argue, asylum seekers should be allowed to live in the community while they are being ‘processed,’ disregarding questions of how are they to be housed, fed, and medicated as necessary, and by whom.

Thus the advocates for the boat people deny the High Court the responsibility to take into account in its determinations the policy issues identified above, while granting most expensive rights to unlawful arrivals. As for those in the media who choose to misrepresent reality, putting the spotlight upon them might be effective.

Other relevant issues are: is there no part of Afghanistan safe for the Hazara people; are there not areas of Iraq which are predominantly Kurd, Shia, or Sunni, and therefore available to those Iraqis seeking safety; since Australia is seemingly paying Sri Lanka to stop any Tamil boat people, could not similar financial arrangements be made with appropriate authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Looking ahead, the 800 boat arrivals to be sent to Malaysia do not represent a major portion of the asylum seekers in detention. Until the ‘Malaysian solution’ becomes effective in stopping the boats and thereby reducing the massive taxpayer cost of processing unlawful entrants, the Australian authorities will continue to be attacked for ensuring due process and equitable treatment.

For Malaysia, the ‘solution’ is win-win. The refugees, said to be stuck in appalling conditions in Malaysia, would have a home, and Australia would bear the UHNCR’S cost of the processing the boat arrivals that are forwarded by Australia. Those Australians who have raised the issue of human rights, often used as a ploy against nations ‘not like us,’ have been offered the necessary assurances.

It would be more difficult to counter the stance of those reflecting the residues of the historical antipathy towards foreign faiths.

It is probable that too many illegal arrivals have been given the benefit of the doubt in the past, thus distorting the ethnic balance within the refugee program. The Nauru solution, in which former Australian Prime Minister in effect rented the remote, barren island and shipped thousands of refugees there until it could be decided what to do with them, doesn’t seem to have been a deterrent. Repatriation of failed asylum seekers will need to be more robust. Back-door entry to Australia by boat needs to be stopped as inequitable, and thereby unjustifiable. The migration path is open to all those who can benefit the nation.

(Arasa is the pen name of a now-retired long-time official in Australia’s immigration)