Sinking feelings all round: Flawed debate on asylum-seeking

An answering essay to "That Sinking Feeling: Asylum-seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution". Few public policy issues in Australia have been so side-tracked by contextual errors, over-simplifications, partisan politicking and emotive stances as that of asylum-seeking.


A strength of Paul Toohey’s That Sinking Feeling: Asylum-seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution (Quarterly Essay, Issue 53, March 2014), is his understanding, all too rare, that asylum and refugee matters are first and foremost strategic policy issues with domestic ramifications, not vice versa.

Toohey grasps the context; they comprise just one part of Australia’s wider, complex and longer-term strategic relationships within our region and especially with Indonesia. 

Public argument, on the other hand, has long been skewed and often been led nowhere by the contextual error of treating asylum seeking as wholly a domestic matter, either politically, socially or morally.

This fixates on the symptoms (refugee flows) rather than their causes (such as conflict, globalisation, economic disparities and selective take-up of Refugee Convention responsibilities) and the solutions (such as conflict resolution and true Convention burden-sharing).

Argument is also generally fuelled by emotion and ideology, leading to simplistic analyses and reflexive moral condemnation, rather than engagement of opposing argument. 

The refreshing objectivity of Toohey’s essay stems from his detailed on-the-ground research in Indonesia and general knowledge of that country, his broader knowledge of how Australia’s distinctive geo-strategic and socio-economic settings remain so central to the issue and his, frankly unusual, willingness to test the simplistic slogans that infest all sides of public argument about asylum-seeking issues.

This enables him to dismantle many shibboleths regularly advanced in refugee advocacy and the equally simplistic nostrums common among those proposing hard-line solutions. 


The strategic setting

Geo-strategically, Australia is the only continent that is both an island and wholly the territory of one country. Australia is also the driest populated continent and is consequently both sparsely peopled and environmentally fragile.

Geo-politically, Australia is a stable, first-world, liberal-democracy with a widely accepted culture of mass immigration as a path to citizenship, but one located in near and wider regions where such standards of governance, living and openly acquired nationality are not the norm. 

For those seeking asylum, Australia can be reached only by crossing the sea, either by authorised or unauthorised means.

We are also effectively the only genuine signatory to the Refugee Convention in our immediate region, and one of only two such signatories among the 35 or so countries between the Arafura and Aegean Seas. 

The intrinsically uncontrollable nature of unauthorised arrival by boat — rather than the act of claiming asylum itself — is surely what underlies most sovereign and community concern about this type of arrival.

This is borne out by the markedly lesser concern about those asylum claimants arriving by authorised means, such as scheduled flight or ship, where much greater national control is possible. 


The socio-cultural setting

Opinion polls consistently show that around four in five Australians consider that controlling illegal immigration should be an important goal of our foreign (and not just domestic) policy, but that fewer than one in ten believe that race should be an immigration criterion.

Australia is also now a quite diverse society with extensive first-hand experience of immigration at family level.

Rather than supposed xenophobia or ignorance, the true bedrock of community attitudes about unauthorised arrivals remains reasoned appreciation of the potential risk for ever-growing numbers, if uncontrolled, to compromise Australia's national immigration policy, sovereignty and perhaps eventually — should numbers increase — our domestic economic, social and political stability. 

No matter whether community perceptions of ‘queue-jumping’ are valid or not — nor whether a UNHCR queue exists or not (however imperfectly) — some public claims about ‘boat people’ are undoubtedly due to misunderstandings.

A common one stems from confusion about why who is an asylum seeker, and who is an illegal immigrant, can only be determined ex post-facto and often long after their unauthorised but not necessarily illegal arrival. 

However, Australians generally seem to 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.

Much single-issue refugee advocacy, on the other hand, seems to assume that all or most asylum claimants are automatically genuine refugees needing protection.

This approach assumes that even though highly-desired permanent residence and eventually citizenship is usually the outcome, little or no immigration fraud should be suspected, deterred, countered or punished. 

Arguments in favour of accepting all or at least more asylum seekers almost invariably centre on the low numbers currently arriving.

This ignores legitimate concerns about Australia’s lack of control over the process. Even more illogically, it does nothing to assuage general appreciation about the risk of larger or even unsustainable numbers if policy remains so hostage to events. 

Concern about Australia, almost 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 does not result in a significant “demand-pull” effect. 


Flawed debate

Media coverage of asylum-seeking often ignores these geo-political and geo-strategic contexts. Instead, it features only simplistic quotes from a refugee advocate or two and the relevant Minister.

This has four unhelpful effects. 

  • First, such superficial coverage reduces the issue to a party-political contest or a morality-based blood sport, which hampers resolution of the practical and moral dilemmas involved. 
  • Second, it fails to challenge the intellectual gaps or moral contradictions in much single-issue refugee advocacy. 
    • Or to challenge even the most self-interested, blatantly untrue or other spurious claim by any Indonesian official or commentator. 
    • These failures appear to rest on respective assumptions that the professed nobility of the cause, or polite international diplomacy, somehow exempt them from the normal rules of informed public debate. 
  • Third, key problems complicating implementation of the now outmoded Refugee Convention are ignored or obfuscated. 
    • Argument is particularly marred by confusion between our legal and moral responsibility to provide temporary refuge (asylum) to those genuinely needing it and our sovereign choice to target for permanent resettlement and eventual citizenship those genuine refugees who most need it.
    • There are strong community reactions to the fact even asylum seekers who do not qualify as refugees often now cannot be deported. Non-signatory or pseudo-signatory transit or source countries deny any responsibility to accept or protect them.
    • By 2013 such deportations from Australia had fallen to less than two per cent overall and to zero with some nationalities of asylum seeker (such as Iranians).
    • Similar problems arise with the ever-increasing number of asylum seekers who claim to be stateless, genuinely or otherwise, or who constitute a continuing national security or criminal threat despite the Convention permitting their deportation in the former case. 
  • Fourth, much media coverage and ensuing public argument rarely places the claims of politicians or single-issue activists in their proper context. 
    • This context particularly includes Australia’s geo-strategic setting, the effects of our first-world socio-economic status, and the real “push” and “pull” factors consequently applying.
    • But it also includes the way our community familiarity with mass immigration subconsciously over-rides recognition that our responsibility to refugees is only to provide temporary sanctuary while needed. 

In much refugee advocacy, the key difference between displaced persons and actual refugees is frequently obfuscated by lumping them in together to inflate numbers.

Apples-and-oranges comparisons abound between the records of different countries in sheltering large numbers of refugees temporarily and those, such as Australia, that actually provide permanent resettlement in high per-capita and absolute numbers.

That even Convention signatories have only limited obligations to those not ‘coming directly’ from a territory where they are threatened with persecution is a point rarely conceded.

As is that no ‘right of entry’ to Australia is triggered where asylum-seekers have lived in, or travelled through, countries where there was no good reason why they should not have sought and obtained refuge there.

Rarely mentioned is the long-term and perhaps greater moral dilemma of effectively abandoning the majority of genuine refugees to perpetual danger and misery by continually siphoning off those refugees often most equipped and needed to lead the rebuilding of their own civil societies.

Other common ploys include subjective interpretations of international law and its historical background, undue reliance on the “low-numbers-currently-arriving” fallacy as a supposedly perpetual fact, and often a complete failure to consider the behaviour of neighbouring countries, particularly Indonesia. 

Finally, the principle that regional solutions need to be genuinely regional in their burden-sharing — not just offer ‘offshore processing’, ‘orderly arrival’ and transit arrangements for eventual resettlement in Australia (or New Zealand) alone — is frequently ignored.

As is the relevant and troubled 1976-1996 record of the large UNHCR processing centre on Indonesia’s Galang Island. This has reinforced the Indonesian belief that another major demand-pull effect would have resulted from Australia's negotiations with East Timor about establishing an offshore processing centre there (or elsewhere in the region).

Moreover, while not helping genuine refugees much directly, pseudo-regional solutions counter-productively undermine the Refugee Convention and hurt the vast majority of refugees across the world. They further discourage accession and encourage further regional buck-passing and lip-service approaches to caring for refugees. 


Breaking the media mold?

In incisive but sympathetic language, Toohey’s essay avoids these pitfalls.

A notable example is his analysis of Indonesia’s complicity in people-smuggling through sovereign negligence, diplomatic hypocrisy, strategic apathy, official corruption, political self-interest, community empathy and severely limited policing resources.

Also refreshing is his discussion of the prevalent immigration fraud and sense of entitlement among many Iranian asylum claimants in particular, and why they now form such a large proportion of claimants and rejected claims.

His use of an even-handed “Ockam’s Razor” approach to recent events such as the burnt-hand incident and the Manus Island riots is admirable. 


The way ahead

As opinion polls and our history consistently show, most Australians focus their compassion for refugees using three principles: 

  • It is impossible for Australia to shelter and particularly resettle all the world’s refugees — and even all those in our region — so prioritisation and equity must be applied in practice. 
  • Our refugee intake, including any increases, should not occur by means outside reasonable Australian control. 
  • Refugees who lack the means to get to Australia and claim asylum should not be disadvantaged by those who can, especially where the former are more deserving of temporary sanctuary or permanent resettlement.

Legitimate disagreements about humanitarian priorities also arise when considering the best way to increase our capacity to offer humanitarian visas to those refugees most needing them.

As do linked ‘ends versus means’ debates, such as whether the best way to reduce in-transit drownings, or the duration and conditions of immigration detention, is to reduce unauthorised arrivals in the first place. 

Effective compassion is tempered by recognition that Australia needs to exercise some degree of control over ever-increasing numbers.

This is reinforced by appreciation of the risk that the numbers could suddenly and perhaps unsustainably escalate over an unpredictable future. 

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

Rather than one that continues to depend almost entirely on low numbers of unauthorised arrivals for its purported legitimacy, practical effectiveness, degree of community support, international acceptability and long-term operation.


Neil James has been executive director of the Australia Defence Association, the independent and non-partisan national public-interest watchdog for strategic security issues since early 2003. His previous 31 years of military service included working at UNHQ in New York, with multinational peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in the field, and as head of the joint intelligence branch at Headquarters Northern Command in Darwin. This latter responsibility included the extensive defence force support to civil agencies dealing with offshore resource protection, smuggling, border protection, illegal immigration and asylum seeking issues. Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates”(Oxford University Press, Melbourne, June 2014) includes a chapter-length debate on Australia’s asylum-seeking dilemmas between Neil and Professor Bill Maley from ANU.


Quarterly Essay
Issue 54, June 2014, pp.84-88 

Back to 2014-15