Asylum and refugee policy: Addressing all the dilemmas involvedback to Asylum and refugee policy
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.
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.back to Asylum and refugee policy