Integrating asylum and refugee policy with broader strategic policy

Asylum and refugee issues are first and foremost a matter of strategic policy because they are just one part of our broader and longer-term strategic relationships with neighbouring countries. But instead of acknowledging this, the vast bulk of public (and party-political) argument on asylum and refugee matters has long tended to revolve around the recurrent symptoms of Australia’s dilemma, rather than seriously examine and fix its actual strategic, legal and moral causes. This narrow and mistaken focus on the symptoms, not the causes or the cure, is both ineffective and immoral.

Asylum and refugee policy: Statistical tables


Table 1: Numbers of unauthorised arrivals by boat in 2011

January 2011


July 2011


February 2011


August 2011


March 2011


September 2011


April 2011


October 2011


May 2011


November 2011


June 2011


December 2011



Table 2: Numbers of unauthorised arrivals by boat in 2012

January 2012


July 2012


February 2012


August 2012


March 2012


September 2012


April 2012


October 2012


May 2012


November 2012


June 2011


December 2012



Table 3: Annual number of unauthorised boats and arrivals (by financial year)


Number of boats

Numbers Aboard







































































108 (by 15 October 2012)

6797 (by 15 October 2012)


Table 4: Countries of claimed nationality by boat arrivals in 2011









Sri Lanka
















Asylum and refugee policy: Addressing community concern and scepticism with facts

Coupled with the deep-seated concept of “fair play” in Australian culture, all the above specific causes of concern, scepticism and other perceptions contribute to the strongly held community belief (measured in numerous quality opinion polls) that perceived unfair “queue jumping” should, in both principle and practice, be prevented not rewarded.

Even in the case of genuine asylum seekers.

But what is often forgotten or deliberately ignored is that underlying all these public concerns and causes of scepticism about current policy, or the current situation, are conscious and unconscious community apprehensions about potentially large numbers of arrivals in future if the problem remains out of Australia's apparent control as they see it.

So where arguments commonly mounted in favour of accepting more asylum seekers merely emphasise the low numbers arriving currently or cite the Refugee Convention selectively — as many refugee lobbyists and some politicians are wont to do reflexively — this does not assuage the apparent significant underlying community concern about potentially larger numbers if policy remains so hostage to events.

Especially where unauthorised arrivals are suspected, validly or invalidly in individual cases, of not being genuine asylum seekers.

This is one reason why there is so little community concern in contrast about both genuine and bogus asylum seekers who enter Australia in an ostensibly authorised manner before claiming asylum, for example, aboard airliners when holding tourist or student visas.

Concern about Australia, probably alone in the region, having to face the risk of much higher numbers of arrivals also seems to be why so many Australians are sceptical when it is argued that onshore processing of asylum claims in Australia will not result in a significant demand-pull effect.

The Indonesian experience of the UNHCR centre at Galang Island in the 1975-1996 period provides some clear lessons in this regard.

It also underscores at least part of Indonesia's concerns that another major demand-pull effect would have resulted from Australia's previous unilateral negotiations with East Timor about establishing an offshore processing centre there.

In the continued absence of a real and effective protection mechanism for refugees across the region, and whatever the size of the current or potential demand-pull effect, most Australians seem to consider that onshore processing ? particularly if coupled with the apparent open-door policy advocated by some (more narrowly-focused) refugee activists ? will significantly increase the numbers of unauthorised arrivals to Australia.

There is also naturally community concern that onshore processing of asylum seekers in Australia alone is likely to complicate the screening of genuine asylum seeking from illegal immigration ? and will certainly complicate being unable to deport those who are found not to be genuine refugees.


Tackling community disagreements objectively, not emotively

Opinion polls show most Australians are compassionate about refugees. Public debate more generally indicates that the vast majority of Australians, even where they disagree about aspects of asylum and refugee policy, seem to agree overwhelmingly that our national compassion must be focused using two principles:

  • it is impossible for Australia to shelter or resettle all the world’s refugees so some focusing of our compassion using prioritisation and equity must be applied in practice; and
  • our refugee intake, including any increases, should largely not occur (or occur at all) by means outside reasonable Australian control.

Informed public debate on refugee policy is therefore generally more over the matter of priorities, equity and control as necessary principles, not over the responsibility to provide refuge or even the numbers of refugees to be given sanctuary in practice.

Although some refugee activists do not appear to realise this, or at least concede it in public, much public debate on asylum and refugee policy is therefore really about how the current or any increased refugee intake should be organised.

Especially concerning the priority to be afforded to those asylum seekers who can self-select Australia and travel here to lodge an asylum claim, often at the price of worsening and/or lengthening the situation of the much larger numbers of genuine refugees (such as those registered with the UNHCR) who cannot.

Moreover, and more often than not, public disagreement about asylum and refugee policy is not the result of a lack of compassion. Nor indeed due to a supposed surfeit of public indifference, ignorance, xenophobia or racism.

Most disagreement seems to stem instead from misunderstandings or where practicality clashes or requires compromises with idealism or ideology.

A good way of explaining the effect on debate of basic attitudinal differences in practice is to note the core assumptions often underlying opposing perceptions.

While compassionate, most Australians seem to still feel that asylum claimants need to prove the validity of their claim in case they are fraudulently seeking an immigration outcome (and taking the place of a genuine refugee).

Most refugee activists, on the other hand, seem to assume that all or most asylum claimants are automatically genuine refugees needing protection, and that even though highly-desired permanent residence is usually the outcome little or no immigration fraud could possibly be involved.

It often seems that such disagreements are just another recurrence of the common differences in perspective between those motivated by practicality or idealism. Or between those preferring long-term and consistent solutions, rather than short-term or temporarily convenient "stop-gap" approaches.

But particularly strong and counter-productive reactions are also generated when fellow Australians are, generally incorrectly and tactlessly, regarded by some refugee activists as lacking in compassion just because they disagree with such activists about where their compassion for asylum seekers and refugees should be focused and how it is best exercised.

Other legitimate disagreements about humanitarian priorities stem from the commonplace belief that the best way to be compassionate about reducing the numbers of unauthorised arrivals in immigration detention, and the duration of such detention, is by reducing the numbers arriving in Australia in the first place and improving the process of providing humanitarian visa to genuine refugees in overseas camps ? including through better regional protection mechanisms across our region and the world.

The factually distorted nature of much public debate on asylum and refugee policy, commonplace myths and misconceptions complicating such debate and facts and moral dilemmas often missed from debate, are discussed below.

Also discussed below are some important national security aspects and ramifications that tend to be missed in much public argument.


Tackling the racism bogey

Even worse it is both wrong (in both senses) and highly counter-productive when refugee activists reflexively, simplistically and usually inaccurately accuse those who disagree with them as "racist" and dismiss their legitimate beliefs and concerns.

Recently some refugee activists have even resorted to dog-whistling slurs against those who disagree with them by alleging "base motivations" or "base instincts" to wrongly imply general or individual racism.

Such allegations of open or covert racism are clearly much more often than not factually incorrect and morally wrong.

Particularly when used as a ploy to avoid debating the many complexities of the issue or that many Australians apparently believe that the best way to help genuine refugees is to prevent or resolve the conflicts causing refugee flows in the first place.


Australia’s geo-political setting must be the basis for informed debate

But on top of the domestic introversion and community misunderstandings involved, the biggest single obstacle to informed public debate is that most participants — on all sides — tend to disregard the necessary geo-political background to any effective and long-term Australian policy-making about asylum and refugee issues.

This includes Australia's geo-political setting, the push and pull factors actually applying to refugee flows into Australia, and the strategic and moral intentions behind the relevant international law.

The primary and essential geo-political fact underlying the formulation of Australian asylum and refugee policy is that only 7 of the 35 or so countries between the Aegean and Arafura Seas are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Turkey rejected its extension outside Europe in the 1967 Protocol.

With the partial exception of Israel, and perhaps Iran at times, the other four or five (Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, East Timor and Cambodia) are effectively pseudo-signatories with major records of causing or facilitating refugee flows rather than providing sanctuary.

Few other countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region are signatories. Of our closer neighbours, only New Zealand and to an extent Papua New Guinea take their responsibilities seriously in action.

The clear and enduring facts are that the following six geographic and strategic factors place Australia permanently in our region’s frontline for extra-regional asylum claims from West Asia, South Asia and the Middle East in particular:

  • the marked reluctance by neighbouring countries to sign or otherwise respect the Refugee Convention;
  • Australia’s geographic position in relation to the Eurasian continent and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region;
  • our economic, social and political-stability status as a first-world country;
  • our political sovereignty situation of being the only continent wholly occupied by one country;
  • our geographic and demographic situations as a large, but sparsely populated, island continent; and
  • international perceptions that we seem to be an “under-populated” and “lush” country and continent respectively (rather than Australia’s environmental fragility as the driest populated continent and one with a particularly low population-carrying capacity being adequately understood).

All public debate on asylum and refugee policy therefore always needs to start from the fundamental basis that any effective discussion of such matters in Australia must acknowledge our geo-political setting and develop national policy accordingly.

We need to look and act outwards, not just muse inwardly and focus discussion and policy domestically.

What unfortunately tends to happen instead, however, is that Australia’s broader geo-political, legal and moral settings are either ignored or obfuscated in much public debate on asylum and refugee policy.

Or, conversely, the relative importance and moral implications of domestic aspects, generally the immediately identifiable local humanitarian ramifications, dominate to the exclusion of the broader, larger and more important geo-political considerations.


The real “push” factors

Discussion of the "push" and "pull" factors behind refugee flows are similarly often circumscribed by being discussed only in domestic party-political contexts or in terms based only on ideological convictions.

The most important “push” factor complicating Australia’s strategic position and moral dilemmas concerning asylum seeking is surely that most countries in our near and even wider regions have not acceded to the Refugee Convention.

This is partly due to Australia's longstanding accession.

It is also because we are one of the very few countries that permanently resettles large numbers of refugees (discussed below) rather than just providing the temporary sanctuary the Convention requires.

Both these factors effectively let our neighbouring non-signatories off the hook of having to appropriately face their responsibilities for asylum and refugees.

In a nutshell, in our near and wider regions there are no real and equitable regional or universal protection mechanisms for asylum seekers and refugees and there should be.

This particular push factor is frequently ignored in public debate and even denied by many ideological or single-issue polemicists.

The incidence of war or civil strife in the world generally is not a “push factor” per se. Such incidence is often claimed as being a major push factor but by mere assertion alone.

The incidence of conflict is instead mainly another recurrent symptom of the Convention not being truly universal.

Especially over much of the world where the conflicts that ceaselessly cause most refugees occur without being stopped by regional or wider international action.

Some further moral dilemmas posed by this situation are discussed below.

In terms of the effect of marketing as a push factor, the cost of being smuggled into Australia has largely continued to decline since the mid 1990s. The decline has accelerated since 2007.

In the mid 1990s the cost of being smuggled into Australia from, say, Iraq (including airfares to Malaysia or Indonesia from Jordan) was around $US10,000. It is now down to around $US4,000 per head across the Middle East, West Asia (especially Iran and Pakistan) and Sri Lanka.

Mainly because market forces directly reflect fewer obstacles in satisfying potential and actual customers.

In effect, the people smugglers have moved into this field of criminal exploitation — as organised crime often does — because the lack of Refugee Convention signatories in the countries and regions producing the refugees has meant the UNHCR is unable to function properly as the international community's lawful means of resolving the problem.

It is the lack of Convention signatories between the Aegean and Arafura Seas, not the numbers of displaced persons and refugees per se, that lies at the heart of the problem.

The reduction in the cost of being smuggled into Australia also reflects increased knowledge of options among potential customers, the broadening of the market to more customers through globalised communications and ease of travel, and the ease in associated marketing across the world of the product — permanent residence and then citizenship in Australia as a first-world country.

Other underlying push factors are the sheer size and modern mobility of the world’s population.

The UN Population Fund’s State of the World Population report estimates global population reached seven billion in late 2011 and will reach ten billion by 2100. Some 5.2 billion (60 per cent) of the current population live in the Asia-Pacific region but the regional share of global population is expected to decline from 2052.


The real “pull” factors

When discussing the "pull" factors behind asylum seeker and refugee flows, the notions advocated on either extreme of the refugee policy argument — that all asylum claims are either automatically genuine or invariably bogus — are illogical and not borne out by the long-term evidence.

Policy for handling asylum claims therefore always needs to strike a balance between offering protection for genuine claimants while still deterring and identifying bogus ones.

Unless such a balance is achieved and constantly maintained the intention of the Refugee Convention, the integrity of Australia's asylum, refugee and immigration policies, preserving adequate control over our sovereignty as a country, and retaining the public confidence needed to support and sustain all these aspects, cannot be guaranteed or secured.

Where organised crime exploits both genuine and bogus asylum claimants, and assists the bogus ones with fabricating false claims, this also needs to be deterred and eradicated as a moral objective, as a law enforcement measure and as a strategic-security aim.

Despite mistaken and, occasionally, specious claims to the contrary, the most relevant “pull” factor is surely that Australia is a much nicer place to live than most other countries, particularly in our near and wider region.

Otherwise asylum seekers would readily seek sanctuary with other nearby Convention signatories such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

This is also why legal migration to Australia has long been so popular for economic, social and political stability reasons generally.

The next most relevant “pull” factor is that Australia remains one of the only four first-world countries (Australia, Canada, NZ and the US) with a mass immigration program.

In 2010-11, for example, Australia took in nearly 170,000 immigrants (including some 13,750 refugees). In 2011-12 this is projected to rise to 185,000 (around the record figure for our annual immigration intake of 185,099 in 1969-70).

Australia has taken in 6.8 million immigrants and refugees since World War II at a rate of approximately one million each decade for the six decades since 1950.

These high absolute and per capita levels of mass immigration have long been, and largely remain, widely accepted politically and culturally across Australian society.

Indeed they are less controversial now than at any time in our past. It is, however, very important that this level of public support for planned, controlled and environmentally sustainable immigration should be encouraged and maintained.

There is an obvious and probably increasing problem with unauthorised arrivals being relatively uncontrolled, and with a risk that the numbers or the means of arrival might even become uncontrollable at times, that the required levels of public confidence in our immigration programs cannot be sustained.

Even with comparatively low numbers of unauthorised arrivals this could lead to serious repercussions.

Especially for peaceful political discourse, social harmony and the basic national unity consensus needed for effective national security.

A further highly relevant “pull factor” is that Australia also has a particularly long and impressive history of permanently resettling refugees in large per capita and absolute numbers.

Even using the latter measure, only the USA and Canada have resettled more genuine refugees each year from UNHCR camps (the perceived queue) than Australia.

This has been the situation for many decades, going back to the mid 1940s.

Around 700,000, or over ten per cent of the 6.8 million immigrants taken in by Australia since World War II, have been refugees of different categories.

Some countries in our and other regions (South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan, Thailand, etc) have good records for temporarily sheltering asylum seekers and refugees, often in much larger numbers at times.

But this is not directly comparable to the Australian record (and its ramifications) of offering permanent resettlement not just temporary refuge.

This distinction is often ignored or obfuscated by activists basing their argument only on domestically-focused considerations and implications. Or who seek to increase our refugee intake unilaterally through regarding it as just an Australian problem.

On the other side of public argument, the large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees temporarily hosted by other countries are often similarly ignored, or the burden involved is misrepresented, by those Australians opposed to the entry or resettlement of current or larger numbers of refugees to Australia.

Another minor “pull factor” is the interplay between Australia’s size, diverse society and the absence of a compulsory national identity card for citizens and residents.

A disproportionate number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants entering the European Union, for example, end up in the UK and Ireland primarily because they are the only EU countries without a national identity card system. This is despite the EU's 2003 Dublin Regulation requiring all asylum claims to be lodged in the first EU country entered.

Similarly, the ability to disappear into Australia's diverse society without a visa, or after over-staying or disobeying other conditions of a visa, can be a very attractive situation for both authorised and unauthorised arrivals seeking an immigration outcome illegally.


Refugee Convention requires the provision of refuge not necessarily permanent resettlement

These “pull factors” in particular markedly affect the culture, politics and emotion of Australian public debate, often detrimentally or irrelevantly.

This also often occurs unconsciously to many Australians because our mass immigration programs are so well accepted as part and parcel of Australian life.

This broad acceptance of mass immigration does, however, often lead to the mistaken or wilfully evasive assumption by many protagonists that providing asylum must always involve permanent protection by granting residence and then citizenship — the standard immigration outcome.

Rather than just providing refuge for as long as it might be needed or applicable — the necessary protection responsibility.

Temporary refuge, not permanent resettlement, has always been the clear intention of the Refugee Convention. This is discussed further below.

The idea that permanent resettlement must be provided indeed undermines international acceptance of the Convention by deterring most countries from ever becoming signatories or otherwise offering sanctuary to asylum seekers and refugees.

This is the main reason why the Convention has not been updated or become universal.

In public debate within Australia, this intention of the Refugee Convention is often ignored or misrepresented by many activists concerned about asylum and refugee policy.

This occurs both deliberately in pursuit of a particular cause, or mistakenly through argument being based on flawed assumptions and misunderstandings of the applicable international law and its underlying strategic intentions.

The permanent resettlement fallacy also tends to encourage scepticism, rather than compassion, domestically in Australia about various groups of asylum claimants.

Many and probably most Australians — however validly or invalidly in cases of individual arrivals — tend to regard many asylum claimants collectively as merely self-selecting economic immigrants.

They regard them as voluntarily seeking entry to Australia to obtain permanent residence, rather than consider them as genuine refugees needing, and qualifying for, temporary sanctuary in Australia.

This is why, for example, our previous system of allowing genuine refugees entry to Australia on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) was entirely consistent with the principles, intentions and moral integrity of the Refugee Convention.

TPVs had some negative but preventable outcomes due to flawed implementation. Such as risky voyages on people smuggler vessels caused by family members seeking to rejoin refugees already granted protection in Australia.

If implemented more effectively and humanely, however — such as allowing some reunion for immediate family members and greater access to employment and public healthcare — there are no moral, practical or legal obstacles under the Refugee Convention or otherwise preventing the reintroduction and effectiveness of TPVs.

Moreover, instead of TPVs being discussed objectively and in context, they are generally criticised reflexively and often polemically.

Indeed the heat of the criticism is generally proportional to the critic's reluctance to consider asylum seeking as an international humanitarian and strategic security problem rather than just a domestic one.

A paper discussing the ten advantages of TPVs can be found here.

If more Australians bothered to research the actual intentions and responsibilities of the 1951 Refugee Convention then informed public debate on asylum and refugee policy could not be so frequently hijacked detrimentally by polemics from some single-issue activists and the day-to-day posturing and general argy-bargy of party politics.


Permanent solutions are needed, not just more attempts at interim fixes

Even more importantly, and usually absent from public debate, is a key aspect of the Refugee Convention and Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

The Convention was specifically designed to supplement the UN Charter by encouraging permanent solutions to conflicts on a regional basis.

Neighbouring countries in an affected region are meant to solve the causes of refugee crises in the first place because they are generally best placed to do so.

Early regional intervention is encouraged so refugees can quickly, safely and easily return to their homes to rebuild broken societies and polities.

Rather than, as now generally occurs, such afflicted societies and countries having many and often most of their best nation-rebuilders perpetually bled off to developed countries while the rest of the refugees remain marooned in permanent or semi-permanent refugee camps.

That the best nation-rebuilders are advantageously extracted to fix staffing shortages in first-world hospitals, engineering firms and skilled-trades occupations, etc, adds a considerable long-term and growing moral dilemma to the overall problem involved. The deeper moral quandary caused should not be ignored.

Having to cope with refugees from a neighbouring country was seen by the Refugee Convention's authors as another spur for neighbouring states to resolve conflicts on a regional basis as Chapter VIII of the UN Charter intends.

But the information available and expectations encouraged by globalisation, and increased access to international travel even in previously remote regions, now mean at least some of this "spur factor" can be avoided.

It is now easier for neighbouring countries to resort to pushing their refugee problem out of the region, including on to states located long distances away, as deliberate policy.

This development was not envisaged by the framers of the Refugee Convention and, as noted above, now discourages states from acceding to it or the Convention itself being reformed.

The rejection of the Convention by so many countries has been particularly destructive and for far too long.

It has meant constant wars, not eventual peace and stability, resulting in never-ending destruction of civil society in afflicted countries and regions.

More widely it has resulted in the misery of permanent refugee camps in many regions across the world and often endemic strategic instability in the affected regions.

On a broader international basis it has meant the misery and moral hypocrisy of near-permanent, extra-regional, asylum seeker and refugee flows, especially by the minority of asylum seekers and refugees who are able to finance and organise their escape.

While some escape, most remain condemned to misery, danger or death because the cause of them needing refuge is not solved, and too often is never resolved.

Their society and polity is not rebuilt on a sustainable basis as the Refugee Convention and the UN Charter intend.

The detrimental strategic and moral consequences of this failure to solve the causes of conflict, and help the majority of genuine refugees, should not be ignored either.

Asylum and refugee policy: Addressing all the dilemmas involved

 Effective public debate on asylum and refugee policy means confronting all the potentially competing strategic and humanitarian dilemmas involved. Not selectively mentioning only those ones that suit a particular policy position.


Distorted public debate

Australian public debate on asylum and refugee policy is so ineffective because it largely ignores Australia's geo-political setting, the noble intention of the Refugee Convention (and Chapter VIII of the UN Charter), and the real “push” and “pull” factors applying to asylum seeker flows.

Debate also largely ignores that the Refugee Convention now needs updating or better still replacement to cope with the current international situation.

Not least because the Convention has been rejected by so many countries and so few of those who have acceded to it genuinely abide by it's provisions and responsibilities.

In practice the genuine signatories tend to be established democracies and largely located in Europe, Australasia and North and South America.

Many other signatories brazenly pay only lip service to the responsibilities involved in practice.

Or they sign because their geo-strategic situation or economic status means they are unlikely to have to protect or resettle refugees in meaningful numbers because few will ever seek asylum with them.

Their accession is really just another form of lip-service diplomacy rather than a genuine humanitarian commitment.

Most countries, especially ones in strife-torn regions, who should sign the Convention do not.

Largely because they deliberately decide against accepting a meaningful responsibility to protect and especially resettle refugees.

In many cases they also deliberately decide it is easier to displace the refugee problems they have to other regions, rather than really help resolve the conflicts in their region causing the refugees in the first place.

As noted above, most countries in Australia's near and wider regions are not signatories.

Moreover, the very few in these regions that have acceded to the Convention tend to be pseudo-signatories in one way or another.

Day-to-day public debate in Australia also tends to ignore the wider moral dilemmas involved.

This is chiefly due to a short-term focus on saving the few asylum seekers who get to Australia and other developed countries because they can, while condemning the many left behind who cannot to even worse misery in perpetuity.

Other consequent and associated moral dilemmas are discussed below.

Widespread confusion about the relevant international law and migration practices also contributes to inadequate public debate.

The distinctions between displaced persons, asylum seekers and refugees in particular are not well understood.

Statistics cited for refugees worldwide also often wrongly include displaced persons, thus inaccurately inflating the totals.

Under international law and practice people legitimately fearing persecution are expected to move at first to another and safer area of their own country, as displaced persons, until the cause of their persecution is resolved by their own government, other national authorities or international action.

They only become asylum seekers or refugees (and subject to the Convention) when their fear of persecution is "well-founded" (logical and reasonable in the circumstances) and they are forced (rather than choose) to escape across an international border to another country only because there is no viable alternative refuge in their own.

They only become refugees in law when assessed as such by the UNHCR or a Convention signatory.

In practice, the legal distinction between asylum seekers and refugees often has little or no meaning at source because conflict is inherently chaotic.

Globalisation generally, and much easier international travel specifically, now lead many displaced persons to seek refuge internationally by choice when it is not necessarily needed, applicable or the best long-term option for the society, country or region concerned.

As noted above, this has created significant legal and illegal markets where genuine asylum seekers and refugees — and economic migrants posing as refugees — are able to “forum shop” internationally for the developed country they wish to live in permanently. Rather than them evacuate to the nearest country offering temporary or longer protection as the Refugee Convention intends.


Invalid public debate

Due to inadequate understandings, party politics, short-term perspectives or narrowly-focused compassion, community argument in Australia often degenerates into either beating or puffing ourselves up morally and emotively over our national willingness, or not, to accept some or all asylum seekers and refugees.

The overall geo-political, strategic and legal contexts are generally missing from such discourse.

Public argument also frequently descends into the advocacy of simplistic and draconian pseudo-solutions.

Such as trying to deter or punish every unauthorised immigrant or asylum seeker who might try to come to Australia. Or, alternatively, professing an ostensible willingness to accept everyone and anyone on an unlimited basis.

Both types of behaviour are essentially arguing about the recurrent symptoms rather than the problem itself, usually emotively and illogically.

They do little or nothing to fix the causes of why people become asylum seekers or refugees in the first place.

Arguing about the symptoms also does little or nothing to help the vast majority of genuine asylum seekers and refugees not able to escape their predicament by travelling to Australia or other developed countries.

Ignoring or denying this wider moral dilemma does not somehow make it go away.


Myths, misconceptions and moral dilemmas often left unaddressed in public debate

Arguments on asylum and refugee policy tend to be so inwards-focused, ideological and/or emotive that they exclude difficult contexts, challenging facts and moral dilemmas inconvenient to the particular proponent concerned.

Especially where these might confront or contradict firmly held beliefs. Or where longer-term ramifications are involved.

Or where the refugees and conflict-affected societies concerned are, or seem to be, far away from Australia.

Mandatory detention during the processing of unauthorised arrivals, for example, is often misunderstood or described polemically.

Introduced originally by the Keating Government in 1992, it has been maintained by all successive Coalition and Labor governments.

Such detention is often criticised in a simplistic fashion but even many refugee activists acknowledge its necessity.

Their main objection is the duration of the detention in many cases, not the need for initial detention itself while identification, security and health checks are conducted and requests for asylum (if made) are lodged.

Similar concerns are held by most Australians about families with children being held in detention centres with other adults but this has not occurred since 2005.

This does not stop some continuing to claim, wrongly, that "children are being held behind razor wire", rather than acknowledge they are actually detained in houses, hostels or motels, in the community, under the care of their primary accompanying parent.

The arguments over detention mainly concern the need for continuing detention while asylum claims are processed, the effectiveness of such detention in deterring immigration fraud, the health effects on some detainees because of detention, and whether or how any of these could or should be avoided.

The up-front economic cost of detention compared to the unmeasured costs of alternatives is also controversial.

For decades genuine asylum seekers and refugees also took care to treasure and preserve what identity documents they possessed.

Largely due to self-respect and pride in being able to help prove they were who they claimed to be and why they qualified for protection by Australia as refugees.

Now documents are often deliberately destroyed to frustrate Australian authorities being able to check the veracity of asylum claims.

Especially when false documents have been provided by people smugglers and/or the asylum claimants are really illegal immigrants posing as refugees.

In 2010/11 nearly 80 per cent of unauthorised arrivals arrived without documents. The vast majority with no valid reason for not having documents.

Such behaviour, and the ignoring of it by some refugee activists, exacerbates community concern that immigration fraud rather than a genuine need for protection is involved in many asylum claims.

As to the principles really involved, and as noted above, the most important moral dilemma often left unaddressed in Australian public debate is that the causes of conflict and refugees are not tackled at source and permanently.

Argument instead focuses on the recurrent symptoms of the problem only as they appear to Australians at present (and as a domestic issue).

This narrow and short-sighted approach tends to ignore the size of the global refugee problem.

It also simply perpetuates long-term misery for the vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees unable to return home or otherwise escape their refugee predicament.

Much argument also overly focuses on Australia in isolation from wider regional involvement.

Argument is either unaware, or deliberately ignores or misrepresents, the explicit and implicit policies and attitudes underlying the criminal or immoral involvement of governments, communities and individuals in neighbouring countries.

The vast majority of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants arriving in Australia by boat in an unauthorised manner depart from Indonesia only after flying in to Malaysia or Indonesia on scheduled airline services.

It is widely known in both countries that they are in transit to seeking asylum in, or illegal migration to, Australia.

Moreover, they often enter Malaysia and Indonesia illegally by using travel arrangements and forged travel documents provided by people smugglers.

Their transit through Malaysia and Indonesia is only possible for one or a combination of five reasons:

  • corruption and/or other criminal or unethical behaviour by Indonesian and Malaysian officials;
  • incompetence by these officials;
  • buck-passing indifference by such officials and their governments (and perhaps jealousy or contempt for Australia as a friendly neighbour) based on the hypocritical excuse that neither country is a signatory to the Refugee Convention;
  • racist contempt for Australia and Australians by such officials; or
  • misguided religious or other ethical beliefs by those sanctioning people smuggling in contravention of their duties and the legal and strategic responsibilities of their country.

Much of the problem, especially the Australian and international perception of unfair “queue jumping” by some asylum seekers and refugees — or suspicions that some are not genuine refugees — could be simply and swiftly fixed by Malaysian and Indonesian authorities.

Particularly by limiting "tourist" and "transit" entry visas from countries targeted by people smugglers, and by directing the airlines concerned to return those with forged documents to their airport of embarkation (where this is not the confirmed source of actual persecution).

But Indonesia is now doing the opposite in seemingly open contempt for its relations with Australia. Visas for "tourists" and business purposes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are being eased, not tightened to genuine cases, in a major boost to people smuggling.

Both countries could also actually shoulder their international responsibilities, of course, by signing the Refugee Convention.

But in Australian public debate, discussion concerning departures from Indonesia generally occurs in a conceptual vacuum that wrongly assumes that Indonesia in particular is somehow not involved or has no responsibilities.

Public argument in Australia about the morality, legality or effectiveness of intercepting the Indonesian vessels smuggling people into Australia also generally assumes that holding Indonesia responsible is either wrong or impossible to achieve. Neither assumption is correct.

Indeed the difficult but not impossible option of returning people-smuggler vessels to Indonesian territorial waters remains an essential part of encouraging Indonesia to meet its legal and moral responsibilities in general, and its reciprocal strategic and moral responsibilities to Australia as a friendly neighbour in particular.

That those being smuggled often now try to sabotage and sink their boats to prevent lawful return to Indonesia (see below) is a practical problem but not one that negates the principles involved.

Furthermore, Indonesian co-operation in eradicating people smuggling is an advantage but it must not be allowed to become the be all, or the end all, of all policy considerations to the extent it allows Indonesia to apply strategic blackmail by not co-operating.

Nor to the extent it ignores confronting the mix of corruption, criminal conspiracies, racist sentiments or misguided religious beliefs underlying the involvement of many Indonesians in facilitating or tacitly supporting the smuggling.

Indonesians also need to be reminded of how Australia and other countries greatly assisted Indonesia in the 1979-1996 period by implementing a regional solution that resettled the Vietnamese refugees then entering Indonesia in large numbers.

Even ignoring that it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Indonesia is still a signatory to the November 2000 Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air of the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime.

Indonesia also has extensive moral and legal responsibilities under international law and customary practice in its internationally designated zone of maritime search and rescue responsibility.

Yet Indonesia is rarely criticised or appropriately held responsible in Australian public debate for its frequent failure to prevent unsafe, often overloaded, ill-equipped Indonesian vessels organised by people smugglers, often with the corrupt connivance of Indonesian officials, putting to sea from Indonesian territory illegally and thereby endangering the lives of asylum claimants being transported to Australia.

In much public debate, Australia alone is inaccurately and unfairly criticised or held responsible when such overloaded boats sink with loss of life.

The most tragic example is the 350 or so who died on the Indonesian people-smuggler boat known as SIEV-X in October 2001.

Some refugee activists refuse to acknowledge that this primarily occurred because this grossly overloaded and unsafe people-smuggler boat illegally left an Indonesian port (with the probable complicity of corrupt Indonesian authorities), and later sank in a storm in Javanese waters well within Indonesia’s internationally designated zone of search and rescue responsibility.

It is particularly noteworthy that some activists deliberately ignore the international search and rescue responsibilities actually applying and try to attribute blame to Australian authorities alone.

Even to the extent of only describing the location of the sinking of SIEV-X in false or inaccurate terms such as “inside the Australian aerial border protection surveillance zone”.

Such misleading or incorrect terminology deliberately omits to mention that such “surveillance zones” have no legal or other standing whatsoever in terms of changing actual international responsibilities for search and rescue. Or indeed anything else that is legally or operationally relevant.

They are only planning boundaries used by Australia to designate a temporary area on a chart for the co-ordination of ships and aircraft operating inside an area of international or Australian waters at a particular time.

Such dishonest descriptions also tend to ignore that Australian naval and customs vessels have invariably carried out their responsibilities for safety-of-life-at-sea (SOLAS) whenever aware of or otherwise encountering a maritime emergency in international or Australian waters.

Sometimes at considerable risk to Australian rescuers.

Similarly, pertinent facts about the August 2001 incident concerning the Norwegian freighter Tampa are often selectively omitted in arguments about asylum policy.

The Tampa rescued the asylum seekers from their sinking Indonesian people smuggler vessel in Indonesian waters, just off Java, well within Indonesia’s designated zone of international search and rescue responsibilities.

The Tampa then diverted to the nearest Indonesian port, Cilacap, further along the Javanese coastline and under 200km away, in accordance with longstanding international law and customary practice.

It was only after threats of violence to himself and his much outnumbered crew by some of the asylum seekers that the vessel’s captain turned around and headed instead for the Australian external territory of Christmas Island.

This tiny island was not the closest landfall to the sinking and does not have a port capable of handling vessels of the Tampa’s size anyway. In fact it has no sheltered harbour at all. As the recent tragic wreckings on the island's dangerous coast of both people-smuggler and commercial vessels have again highlighted.

Christmas Island is also some 1960 kilometres from the nearest point on the Australian mainland.

The nearest Australian ports capable of berthing the Tampa were Perth at 2600 kilometres, or Darwin at 2750 kilometres, away.

Such actions by the asylum seekers were improper at best but have been omitted from many narratives and most polemical accounts.

The diversion forced by the asylum seekers was actually an act of piracy but criminal prosecutions were not pursued for humanitarian and practical reasons.

The key point remains, however, that accusations of Australian fault alone, before or after the Tampa arrived off Christmas Island and demanded entry, cannot be adequately and fairly debated if all the facts, longstanding precedents and international law applying are not included.


National security issues usually left unaddressed in public debate

Issues involving the interplay of national sovereignty, border protection, immigration and citizenship responsibilities necessarily involve extensive national security considerations.

Moreover, this involvement concerns strategic-level matters with ramifications for both Australia’s external and domestic security.

Border and sovereignty protection duties undertaken at sea by naval and Customs personnel involve enforcing a range of Australian laws in conjunction with other agencies.

These predominantly include anti-poaching (fisheries), anti-smuggling, immigration control, quarantine and bio-security prohibitions, environmental protection and search and rescue (SAR) duties.

All except the environmental protection tasks have now involved physical attacks on our personnel. The SAR role can also involve considerable risks when rescuing seafarers from sunken or foundering boats.

Several practical problems and moral dilemmas stem from asylum seekers having become increasingly strident in their demands and unco-operative with Australian officials.

Some are now even becoming violent, when the boats they are travelling on are lawfully intercepted by Australian naval or customs vessels.

Whereas it used to be notable internationally that boats carrying asylum seekers or illegal immigrants were not met by a single Australian official, from any agency, who needed to carry a weapon or be equipped protectively with anti-stab vests, etc., sadly this is no longer the case.

Boats are also now sabotaged to incur rescue at sea, regardless of the hazards caused to all on board and to those who have to then rescue them.

The situation has now deteriorated to the extent that Australian personnel boarding vessels when enforcing Australian law must invariably guard against harm from physical attack, explosion, fire or sudden deliberate sinking through hull-integrity sabotage.

Border protection duties can be psychologically stressful as well as physically dangerous.

Political controversy, uninformed public debate and unfounded criticism adds to this stress. Malicious, defamatory or sensationalist criticism of our naval and Customs personnel is especially never justified.

Nor is any Australian ever thinking the worse of our personnel based on media reports of a border protection task or situation without first learning the actual facts involved, or putting yourself in the shoes conceptually of the Australian personnel on the spot.

Instead, inexcusably, the most despicable calumnies about the supposed actions or inaction of defence force or Customs personnel are frequently and deliberately or recklessly aired.

Often they are then thoughtlessly published or broadcast by the media reflexively every time an unauthorised boat transiting to Australia founders with injuries or loss of life.

The operationally difficult and consequently stressful option of turning people smuggler vessels and other boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia needs to be maintained, both as a principle and as a general deterrent to crime.

But the safety and security considerations necessarily involved mean that the operational decision to do so or not must be made only by the on-scene commander of the intercepting Australian vessel.

It cannot be effectively decided by politicians or departmental officials, no matter whether they are at the scene or back in Australia.

Furthermore, such on-scene operational decisions by vessel commanders must be fully supported throughout ministerial, naval and departmental chains of authority or command.

Domestically, the attempts by some members from ethnic communities in Australia to circumvent Australian immigration law pose serious moral dilemmas and concerns for social harmony and community security.

Legitimate dissent about such laws is not a problem.

Neither is understandable sympathy for the plight of family members or ethnic compatriots.

But it is a problem where such dissent and sympathy crosses over into criminal conspiracies to circumvent the law, rather than try to amend its interpretation or aspects of its implementation through lawful political participation.

The complexity of this problem stems from the word "compatriot" and what it signifies.

Australians of all ethnicities, religions and political beliefs have reciprocal citizenship responsibilities to each other.

We all necessarily owe our first loyalty to Australia and its national interests and laws — in other words our Australian compatriots.

Where some Australians choose instead to place a greater loyalty to ethnic compatriots overseas than to their fellow Australians — and then actively do so by intentional or even reckless criminal disobedience to Australian law — this causes a serious threat to Australian community harmony and the necessary widespread support for our non-discriminatory and inclusive immigration laws.

Again, ignoring or denying this problem does not somehow make it go away. Indeed it clearly worsens the problem and the effects of its underlying moral dilemmas.

There is also surely a wider moral issue involved where the deterrent value or operational effectiveness of border security or sovereignty protection measures are deliberately undermined by Australians pursuing political or personal agendas to the extent they are willing to sacrifice legitimate national interests, or the need for a national democratic consensus on asylum and refugee policy, in the pursuit of them.

A similar effect occurs when the moral vanity of some refugee activists leads them to believe that the end they seek, and the opinions they hold, justify any means.

An example is where the deterrent effect of measures to deter immigration fraud are actively undermined by exaggerated or specious announcements about the desirability or prospect of official policy changes.

Another example is publicising statistics that exacerbate the demand-pull effect involved by demonstrating Australia's overall compassion out of context. Or only in terms of the desire for a professed "open door" policy with no thought to the consequences.

A further example is where the undoubted involvement of people smugglers and an illegal migration market are ignored or even denied in blind pursuit of ideological aims or other fixated personal beliefs.

There is always a delicate balance at times between the right to lawful dissent from government policy and an arrogant or careless disregard for the wishes of the majority of Australians where they disagree with the arguments of the dissenters.

Or where a minority of Australians are so swept up in their beliefs that they intentionally or recklessly pursue a similar disregard for the safety, morale and professional reputation of fellow Australians implementing the difficult and nuanced task of enforcing our border security laws on behalf of all Australians (see below).

The related need for informed debate to preserve free speech is also vital. But this does not excuse the frequent media failure to examine biased or even wild claims about asylum policy objectively and the consequent uninformed argument that occurs.

Politicians and refugee activists are interviewed and set off against each other reflexively. Their claims are rarely challenged objectively, independently or in a strategic-policy context.

Nor does the pursuit of free speech excuse other unprofessional excesses by careerist journalists, such as biased reporting, sloppy editing of letters-to-the-editor or regurgitating the claims of polemical bloggers.

Sensationally reporting or otherwise publishing untrue, unsupported and unsupportable allegations, for example, that our navy, federal police or intelligence services have been somehow involved in engineering the deliberate death of asylum seekers as a covert act of policy are well beyond the pale of legitimate participation in informed public debate.

So are reckless acts such as journalists tossing mobile telephones aboard people smuggler vessels detained in Indonesia merely to obtain a "scoop" — but at the irrefutable cost of hindering or sabotaging effective law enforcement or international negotiations by allowing those aboard to re-establish communications with fellow conspirators in Australia and overseas.

In the broader foreign and defence policy arena there is also occasionally a quite contradictory argument advanced by some refugee activists.

They claim that because Australia has contributed to UN-endorsed international military forces deployed to restore peace in the source countries of many of those now seeking asylum in Australia, this somehow incurs an additional responsibility on Australia to accept their asylum claims.

This simplistic claim actually turns legal and moral responsibilities, and their effective execution in international practice, on their heads.

Adoption of this notion would punish countries seeking to do the right thing and reward those who do not.

It irresponsibly excuses further strategic and moral buck-passing by those UN members not making any or serious efforts to contribute to such peace consolidation and nation-rebuilding efforts (as the UN Charter intends and genuine membership of the UN often requires).

It also irresponsibly excuses those countries who have not acceded to the Refugee Convention continuing to pass the buck for such responsibilities to Australia and other truly responsible UN members.

Even more disreputably the idea implies, incorrectly, that Australia has somehow caused or unethically worsened the conflicts involved, rather than being a responsible international citizen in helping international efforts to ameliorate or end them — and to rebuild the broken civil societies and polities concerned so refugees from these conflicts can return home.

Finally, in the sensitive interplay of citizenship, national unity and national security considerations, there is a significant and growing moral and practical problem.

It involves issues of contrasting moralities, attitudes and even equity of humanitarian effort and responsibility.

This is an issue with significant and long-term implications for Australian society — and for all those seeking permanent residence or citizenship as Australians.

In the source countries of some asylum seekers, young Australians serving as members of the Australian Defence Force at the lawful direction of the Australian government, are risking their lives fighting with UN-endorsed forces.

They are trying to resolve conflicts, rebuild civil society in those countries and help the citizens of such countries generally.

At the same time, however, some citizens of those countries are claiming permanent asylum and residence in Australia, generally after already obtaining effective if informal protection in neighbouring countries of their own region as the Refugee Convention intends.

Many of these asylum seekers are capable of military service, or other capacity for nation-rebuilding, in their own countries.

They are often also well or even best qualified to do so among their countrymen and women.

Where this applies they surely retain significant moral and citizenship responsibilities to make such an effort — rather than flee to Australia instead to be defended by Australians still fighting in the country they came from.

Furthermore, such responsibilities by those claiming asylum also surely do not somehow disappear after obtaining refuge, permanent residence or citizenship in Australia.

There are surely significant moral, strategic, citizenship and national unity dilemmas arising from such behaviour and they need to be addressed in public debate.

Especially where asylum claimants are able to self-select not just refuge but permanent residence in Australia while seeming to abandon the majority of their countrymen and women left behind to chaos, misery and danger in perpetuity.

Where asylum claims are facilitated by organised crime such as people smuggling, considerable individual subterfuge by asylum claimants, or criminal conspiracy within Australia by others to circumvent Australian law, the moral and practical validity of their right to claim asylum in Australia is surely further weakened.

Denying these dilemmas and their consequences does not somehow make them go away.


Refugee flows are a strategic problem as well as a humanitarian matter

The nub of the problem is that Australians need to consider asylum and refugee policy holistically and as a strategic issue as well as a legal or humanitarian matter.

In particular, in strategic as well as moral terms, the Refugee Convention needs to become universally accepted, at least in our immediate region.

Even if this does not occur, a true regional protection mechanism, rather than temporary, superficial and bilateral arrangements between Australia and individual countries, is still needed.

A useful example is provided by the Vietnamese refugees processed in Indonesia and Malaysia in the latter 1970s and throughout the 1980s, although some of the longer-term demand-pull effect pitfalls of the UNHCR's then centre on Galang Island in Indonesia would need to be avoided .

Such a mechanism would necessarily involve "offshore" processing in the Australian sense, probably by the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Universal accession to the Convention across the region and more broadly, of course, would greatly diminish valid concerns expressed by such countries (and Australia) about the demand-pull risk of regional processing centres.

If the Refugee Convention does not become more widely accepted, and if extra-regional asylum and refugee flows into Australia become entrenched and/or significantly larger, the risk increases that one day Australia might be forced to take much stronger measures either multilaterally or unilaterally.

As an example of both, we might eventually have to suspend our adherence to the Convention after one year's notice (under Article 44(2) of the Convention).

At least until all our regional neighbours become genuine signatories or the Convention is much more successfully renegotiated and accepted globally.

Whatever the moral dilemmas posed, and however temporary and tactical such a suspension might be, we need to recognise that such a measure could become essential strategically (and perhaps at relatively short notice).

Particularly, where by commission or omission, neighbouring countries deliberately facilitate asylum seeker and refugee flows into Australia in such numbers that they seriously affect regional strategic stability and our national security.

While unlikely at least for now, being one day forced to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees would seriously threaten our sovereignty and strategic freedom of action as a country.

Greater and escalating numbers, especially over short periods, would seriously increase such strategic security risks.

It would also risk Australia’s environmental sustainability, economy, standard of living, accepted democratic system and our whole way of life.

Current numbers of genuine asylum seekers and refugees entering Australia appear manageable.

But determining the legitimacy of asylum claims is becoming harder as organised crime or individual subterfuge now dominates much of the activity.

Australian asylum and refugee policy is also inconsistent, continually changing and often controversial due to party politics and high levels of public misinformation and misunderstanding.

It also changes frequently as the people smugglers exploit new loopholes created by politically-driven policy changes or court rulings.

Moreover, the simplistic over-emphasis generally placed on the relatively low number of current asylum arrivals means public debate tends to dwell on proposed solutions that ignore the strategic risks involved, and the need for the international community to tackle the conflicts causing the asylum seeker and refugee flows in the first place.

Over the medium to long term there will also be no effective solution, and increasing strategic risks, for Australia until more countries sign and respect the Refugee Convention.

Within our wider and nearer regions, for example, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia would be a good start both morally and strategically.

No opportunity should be lost in pointing out this apparent hypocrisy, and their strategic and moral buck-passing, to any Indian, Singaporean, Malaysian or Indonesian you meet.

Start next on any Australian or foreign apologists advancing red herrings about it somehow “being all too hard” for regional and other countries to become Convention signatories.

Or those falsely claiming that declared universal responsibilities in asylum and refugee matters only apply to Australia and other first-world countries in practice, despite a good take-up of the Convention among developing countries in other regions such as South America, the Caribbean and much of Africa and Central Asia.


Consistent policy needed

Australia needs a consistent and strategically viable asylum and refugee policy.

Rather than one that, as at present, depends almost entirely on the current low numbers of arrivals for its purported legitimacy and effectiveness, degree of popular support needed to work, international acceptability or supposed long-term viability.

Australia’s enduring problem strategically (and morally) is that the manageability of our asylum and refugee policy — and the potential instability of our strategic situation and perhaps domestic unity — are directly proportional and increasingly hostage to:

  • future numbers of unauthorised arrivals seeking asylum (or other migration outcome);
  • any lessening time period involved in the rate of arrival; and
  • any degree of increased foreign strategic pressure on this and wider grounds.

These vulnerabilities are an unacceptable risk strategically to Australia.

They also poses constant and difficult moral dilemmas that could be avoided or mitigated by Australia adopting more consistent, objective and strategically-focused policy.

We also need to encourage and if need be, force, our regional neighbours to shoulder their strategic and moral responsibilities for asylum and refugees rather than continue to avoid them at our expense.

The best time to reform policy is before a crisis develops. Otherwise subjective influences, partisan politics and the contracting time periods involved just mean bad policy is made on the run.

In such circumstances the resulting bad policy is especially likely to be much harder to explain and justify internationally.

Not least because it will not be or appear morally, strategically or legally consistent and effective whether asylum seeker or refugee numbers are in the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands or even larger.

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