The question of what to do about boat people flares up periodically: sometimes when they arrive here; more often when political parties need to scrape a few votes off the bottom of the barrel.
Hesitant though I am to contaminate the argument with commonsense, I suggest that we identify the problem before jumping to solutions. Problem solving depends on identifying the problem and marshalling the facts.
What do we know?
We know that boat people come here principally from Afghanistan, where the Hazaras are the target of Taliban genocide, and from Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are being persecuted in the wake of their failed liberation movement.
We know that Hazaras and Tamils are really desperate in their bid for freedom. You have to be desperate to take the risks they take.
We know that most boat people who arrive here alive end up being assessed as genuine refugees, entitled to our protection. About 90 per cent of them or more.
We know that when they get on small boats and try to get to Christmas Island (part of Australia) some of the boats sink and some of the refugees drown. The number who have drowned is not clear, but it looks like about 2-3 per cent of them since 2000.
We know that desperate people will take desperate measures. The experience of the Jews in the 1930s and the Vietnamese in the late 1970s tells us that.
We know that a person facing death or torture is not likely to be deterred by the prospect of being locked up in a detention centre, or even by the risk of drowning. Commonsense and ordinary experience tells us that.
Knowing what we do, what should we do?
Our political leaders have expressed concern about refugees drowning, and have condemned the callousness of people smugglers. They are looking for a Solution.
The problem for which they want a solution is the problem of people drowning. This is good: if refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are going to risk their lives on small boats, we can either look away or decide what we are going to do about it.
To be clear: Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard have said that they are concerned about deaths at sea. They have not said that they are concerned about refugees arriving here un-drowned, although Abbott equivocates on this. He calls each boat arrival a failure of border protection.
Given that about 6 million people enter Australia across our borders each year, it is hard to see 6,000 unauthorised arrivals in a year as a failure: it represents success in about 99.9 per cent of cases. If 99.9 per cent success is now a failure, you have to worry for the self-esteem of kids finishing year 12 exams.
What are our options?
So we have a miniscule leakage of boat people across our borders each year, and some people drown trying to reach safety. What should we do? That’s the current debate, isn’t it?
We can let them drown – our politicians say they don’t want that to happen; most Australians would be shocked at that idea. It’s not an option.
We can use “offshore processing”. This is the new buzz-word, but unfortunately politics has given it a false meaning. As used by Gillard (and Abbott), “offshore processing” means sending people to Malaysia (or Nauru), and closing the door behind them. The ‘processing’ bit is hard to see, because as far as the two major parties are concerned, we don’t care what the result of the processing is: we have solved the problem by giving it to someone else. But the major parties don’t care about that: it’s their way of ‘stopping the boats’, by which they mean stopping the refugees.
The big problem with this is that it only kicks in after the refugees have got on a boat, thus running the very risk Gillard and Abbott say they want to save them from. It’s a strange thing that the Pacific Solution and the Malaysian Solution have this in common: they do not solve the problem they are designed to solve: they operate after the risk has passed.
In short, neither the Pacific Solution nor the Malaysian Solution is a solution at all, unless the politicians come clean and say: “We don’t mind about people drowning, we just don’t want the un-drowned ones who get here.” But they are not saying that.
The other meaning of ‘offshore processing’ is for Australia to process their asylum claim offshore (i.e. in Indonesia, where they are before they get on a boat) and promise resettlement in a finite, specified time. This sort of offshore processing would in fact solve the problem. By processing refugee claims in Indonesia, and increasing our refugee intake, we would be able to create a queue for safe, orderly resettlement.
There are a couple of necessary caveats to this: the processing has to be fair; the increase in refugee places has to be sufficient to keep their waiting time in Indonesia to just two or three years; we would have to warn them about the risk of getting on a smuggler’s boat; we would have to enlist Indonesia’s cooperation so the refugees could live without harassment while they waited for resettlement.
This is genuine offshore processing. I think it would work: it would certainly stop the boats and the deaths; it would not stop the arrival of refugees. I wonder if Labor or the Coalition will embrace it? And if not, let’s ask them why.
Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian Barrister and an advocate for human rights and fair treatment of refugees. View his full profile here.