Asylum and refugee policy: Why this is primarily a strategic policy issue

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Asylum and refugee policy falls within the Australia Defence Association’s independent, non-partisan, public-interest watchdog role for strategic security, defence and wider national security issues for four principal reasons:


We need to stop talking endlessly about the recurrent symptoms of the problem and focus instead on the causes and the cures

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 focus on the symptoms, not the causes or the cure, is both ineffective and immoral.

Public and political arguments advanced are also generally dependent on oversimplifications about the nature and scope of the problem.

Or they concentrate on one particular aspect of it (such as natural compassion for refugees, border security, immigration screening, etc) in isolation from all the factors necessarily concerned and indeed needed for informed public debate.

Day-to-day public discussion of asylum and refugee policy is particularly hampered by the common but incorrect assumption that the matter is a domestic policy issue alone and only involves Australia.

This in turn leads to debate being primarily dominated by narrowly-focused and Australia-centric perspectives centred only in domestic party politics, Australian law or human rights matters only as they apply within Australia.

Such approaches do not enable the making of good public policy. Indeed they have the opposite effect.


Asylum and refugee policy must not be considered in isolation from strategic policy

Asylum seeker flows into Australia necessarily involve our broader strategic relationship with other countries.

The strategic implications of Australia's complex geo-political setting are discussed in detail below but key geo-political factors affecting Australian asylum and refugee policy-making include:

Discussion of asylum and refugee policy is necessarily incomplete if it ignores or downplays these factors — as it often does in Australian public discourse.

It is also incomplete if it ignores the consequence that there needs to be a genuine Asia-Pacific solution involving burden-sharing by all countries in our near and wider regions. And indeed globally.

Including significant pressure on all the burden-shedding non-signatories to the Refugee Convention to become full signatories and implement it in practice — as Australia does. Not just push asylum seekers on to Australia.

Effective consideration of Australian asylum and refugee policy can also only occur if we acknowledge that such policy — and our associated expectations of other countries — are but two of many aspects in our overall strategic relationship with our regional neighbours.

Asylum and refugee matters must also not be allowed to become a defining or persistent problem in such complex strategic relationships.

In terms of broader strategic policy, we must also avoid the potential for regional neighbours to pressure us strategically through threatening or facilitating extra-regional refugee flows into Australia or not.

Or indeed by us effectively having to bribe some of them to meet their asylum responsibilities under customary international law (even where they are not Convention signatories).

What passes instead for public debate mostly revolves around Australia-centric generalities.

"Offshore" versus "onshore" processing, for example, is generally discussed only in narrow terms of proposed solutions dependent on unilateral agreements with neighbouring countries about different types of offshore processing before genuine asylum seekers can eventually enter Australia (and be processed as refugees).

This tendency to discuss offshore processing as an Australian matter alone ignores that any truly effective regional protection mechanism would necessarily involve most or all processing being undertaken outside Australia.

Moreover, the so-called Bali Process and variations of it are not such a proper regional solution. These are Australian initiatives about "orderly arrival" to Australia and are primarily driven by shorter-term, party-political, considerations domestically.

Consequently they simply encourage lip service by our regional neighbours to their responsibilities (and often just further buck-passing to Australia).

Rather than encourage genuine commitments to protecting asylum seekers and refugees or otherwise resolving the regional problem of asylum seeker flows.

Such Australia-centric initiatives also discourage regional countries from acceding to the Refugee Convention or otherwise seriously meeting their responsibilities for refugees.


Strategic basis of general community concerns

The commonplace focus on the recurrent symptoms, rather than the strategic causes and their ramifications, also leads to much public argument on refugee matters ignoring, mis-attributing or even denying the strategic-level basis of deeper community concerns.

Every day we see, hear and read these circular and subjective arguments about the symptoms on television, the radio, newspapers and the Web. Particularly when the same narrow group of activist spokespersons and politicians are interviewed continually, and frequently not objectively.

One key problem, for example, is where asylum and refugee policy is discussed in isolation from broader strategic, immigration and population policy and their effects on wider domestic policy.

And also, consequently, Australia’s strategic security is mentioned only from the narrow perspective of its domestic components. This inadequate approach is discussed further below.

Or, even if or where some mention, say, of immigration or population policy is included in public argument about asylum seeking, five key factors underlying community diversity and community attitudes are not factored in sufficiently or at all:

Some community concerns about “boat people” are undoubtedly due to misunderstandings and even at times irrational fears.

But claims by some refugee activists and others that all community concerns stem from so-called xenophobic fears are simplistic and grossly exaggerated. Such claims hark back to 1950s attitudes not current community understandings.

Such allegations are also often a deliberate diversion to avoid addressing, or even to deny, the nature and validity of widespread strategic and more specific community concerns. This is discussed in some detail below.

The reluctance of the Department of Immigration to publish up-to-date statistics on asylum claims from authorised and unauthorised arrivals further complicates public debate. Not least because both extremes of the argument tend to use statistics selectively without fear of objective refutation by facts.

Much of the informed concern throughout the Australian community is appropriately grounded in strategic-level, national-interest considerations about our society and protecting our democratic way of life.

Especially regarding the nature and perceived controllability of managing claims for asylum appropriately but compassionately.

Most informed Australians understand there is a potential risk for ever-growing numbers of unauthorised arrivals, if uncontrolled, to compromise Australia's national immigration policy, sovereignty and perhaps eventually — should numbers increase — our domestic economic, social and political stability.

The exact nature, depth or longer-term perspective of such community concerns may not always be clearly expressed by many Australians but this does not invalidate them.

The sometimes inchoate expression of community concerns has, however, led to them being misunderstood, not respected or treated dismissively, rather than addressed appropriately, in much public debate. Especially by single-issue refugee activists and by ideologues and populist politicians of all descriptions.


Strategic basis of specific community concerns

By definition, the problem of unauthorised arrivals is relatively unpredictable, often difficult to control, and one where the initiative often seems held by those arriving — and those foreign groups and governments facilitating their arrival — rather than by Australian governments.

The intervention of Australian courts and appeal tribunals to over-ride government decision-making (however justified at times) adds to community perceptions of uncertainty, unpredictability and that Australia as a whole may be losing control over the issue.

Excluding discussions below about alleged national xenophobia or whether community perceptions of "queue-jumping" are valid or not — or whether the UNHCR queue exists or not (however imperfectly) — strategic-level community concerns about asylum policy and practice seem largely and legitimately grounded in six particular broad aspects of the problem:

The profession of community concern is also too often diverted into irrelevancies at times where some do not realise, or understand at first, that the act of unauthorised arrival is not necessarily illegal for genuine asylum seekers (discussed further below), or appreciate why this is so.

But even allowing for this understandable confusion, the frequent involvement of people smugglers and other criminals — and the widely accepted fact that not all unauthorised arrivals do qualify as genuine refugees — naturally exacerbates community concerns that Australian immigration policy, and Australia's longstanding international reputation for toleration and compassion, are being improperly exploited.

The inevitable mix of illegal immigration and asylum seeking among unauthorised arrivals further clouds the issue. As does the growing incidence of conspiracy to perpetrate immigration fraud or faciliate people smuggling among parts of the Australian community.

Public unease about unauthorised arrivals also undoubtedly stems from background concerns about widespread abuses of immigration law even among those arriving by authorised means.

Particularly the longstanding use and misuse of tertiary or vocational study visas as a back-door means of obtaining permanent residence in Australia.

Large and increasing numbers of authorised arrivals (largely tourists and former students) are also illegally staying in Australia after their tourist or student visas have expired (8300 “students” in 2010-11, up from 6800 in 2009-10 and 1800 in 2008-09).

The well-publicised corruption and rorting in the overseas student education industry generally, and exploitation of these students, by many of the commercial “training institutions” involved adds to background community concerns.

In terms of wider population policy and its strategic implications, over the last decade or so net overseas migration has contributed just under half of the increase in Australia’s population (currently 21.7 million).

The most conservative Australian Bureau of Statistics projections indicate that, even with nil net migration (which is highly unlikely), and even with the total fertility rate dropping from its current below-replacement figure of 1.89 to 1.8, Australia’s total population would still continue to grow until 2038 to around 35 million before starting to decrease gently.

Controversy over the optimum population size for Australia, chiefly over perceived economic, social and environmental implications, is also a background contributor to national argument about both authorised and unauthorised arrivals seeking permanent residence.


Specific causes of continued community concern and scepticism

Based on these fundamental community concerns about difficulties with managing authorised and unauthorised arrivals to Australia, broader community scepticism about asylum and refugee policy seems further sustained by the way the practical and moral complexities of the issue are so often either glossed over, not discussed or even denied in much public debate.

Particularly where squabbling politicians, ideological polemicists and the more narrowly-focused refugee and ethnic community activists address the issue selectively, rather than holistically as a strategic policy issue.

Key aspects of this complexity, and both the community concern and scepticism it engenders, include:

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