The asylum seeker political game

As we all waited with baited breath for the announcement of Rudd’s new asylum seeker policy on Friday, speculation mounted.  Rumours were rife, especially as the expected 2pm press conference was delayed to 4.30pm.  The asylum seeker and refugee sector waited nervously as Rudd and his contingent appeared before the throng of media along with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) flanked by his officials.  Would Rudd use the opportunity to show leadership on this issue and not lurch to the right or would he try to appeal to voters and continue the politicisation of asylum seekers?

‘Any asylum seekers who arrive by boat will be sent to PNG for processing’.  The severity of the announcement was shocking and unprecedented.  Rudd himself admitted it was a ‘very hard line’ policy.  So hard line that it was approved by Abbott and the coalition and we are seeing conditions now that are harsher than under Howard.  As so eloquently put by Malcolm Fraser, Mr Rudd should be congratulated for something even Scott Morrison didn’t think of.  (Full details of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) can be found here).

Refugee Convention

The policy flies in the face of the spirit of the Refugee Convention.  The Convention was established in 1951 as a global response to the persecution and mass displacement of people after World War II. The basis for the Convention was a shared responsibility to a global crisis.   Fast forward to today.  There are currently over 893,000 asylum seekers and 15.4 million refugeesglobally – the highest in 18 years.  23,000 people are forced to flee their home daily.

Yet, Australia is responding to a global issue without a single policy announcement of what we, as a signatory, will do. There was a vague sniff of gradually increasing our refugee intake wrapped up in Friday’s announcement but nothing concrete or committal.

By sending asylum seekers who arrive by boat to a third country, Australia is breaching key principles of the convention.  Article 34 of the Convention states that contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees – not resettle them somewhere else.  Article 31 states that people should not be discriminated against based on their mode of arrival.  Regardless of any possible legal challenge, Australia is outsourcing its responsibilities as a contracting state and this is a clear case of burden shifting rather than burden sharing. This is not regional processing.  To use the Prime Minister’s own words – we are playing parcel the parcel with people’s lives.

Further to this, while PNG is a signatory to the Convention, it has many reservations to the Convention.  While point 7 of the RRA states that PNG will ‘take steps to withdraw its reservations to the Convention’ this is no guarantee or commitment.

PNG capacity

There are currently over 140 asylum seekers who are currently in PNG, sent from Australia waiting for their claims to be ‘processed’.  Just two weeks ago, Immigration Minister Tony Burke removedall remaining women and children from the facility due to inadequate conditions.  Yet now, all asylum seekers who arrive by boat will be sent there.  The capacity of the processing centre on Manus Island is currently 600 and this will be expanded to 3,000.  When this will occur, has not yet been announced.    In the last week alone, over 800 people arrived by boat.

Surely, even to the most hard lined, this defies reason.   There are currently 22,000 people who have arrived by boat since August last year waiting for their claim to be processed.  It is unclear what will happen to them.  By any mathematics, the expansion of the current facility will not be adequate.

80% of refugees and asylum seekers are hosted by developing countries.  We are adding to this by sending asylum seekers who arrive by boat to PNG.  37% of people in PNG live below the poverty line.  Life expectancy is 62.  GDP per capita is $1200. This compares to Australia where our life expectancy is 82.  Our GDP per capita is $62,000.

The UNHCR report from their visit last month highlighted that the current arrangements do not meet international protection standards and that the present living conditions for asylum seekers are‘harsh’.  The most recent UN periodic review found that PNG’s domestic legislation does not have the adequate framework to deal with asylum seekers and refugees.  The UNHCR has not been involved in the current agreement.

Yet, despite the lack of capacity, inadequate facilities and absolving of our responsibilities under the Refugee Convention, Kevin Rudd proudly announced his new policy.

The boats

Some will see any opposition to the RRA as do gooders thinking the boats should keep coming – if you don’t support the RRA then you support babies and children dying at sea.  These arguments are simplistic and do not take into account the humane and practical alternatives to offshore processing.

No one wants to see people continue to take risky boat journeys seeking protection.  The only way to prevent people getting on boats is to provide humane, safer pathways to protection – such as the Fraser government did in the past.  Other solutions were outlined in the majority of submissions put forward to the expert panel. A book has even been published highlighting some of these alternatives – such as increasing Australia’s annual refugee intake, resettling more refugees from Indonesia (where there are currently over 2,000 refugees assessed by the UNHCR as refugees – last year Australia only resettled a few hundred) and Malaysia, establishing a true regional solution.

The greatest tragedy of the announcement and the RRA is that amongst the spin of people smugglers, border protection, rock and rolling and zipping – the fact that this is people’s lives we are talking about was all but ignored.  Australia should and could offer protection to people fleeing persecution, torture and threat of death.  Instead we actively choose to load them on planes and pat ourselves on the back for attempting to ‘stop the boats’.  In 2001 John Howard won an election by using and de humanising asylum seekers.  In 2013, Kevin Rudd is trying to do the same.

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