Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Time for clarity on irregular arrivals and refugees

Australia has a tiny problem in relation to "irregular arrivals" in its territory. The combination of having no land borders, the vast sea distances and very effective border processing at official points means we do not have the same kind of issue as many other countries.

The few boat arrivals we have tend to be on our far flung territories like Christmas Island which are closer to other countries than they are to our mainland. In fact the countries from which they come to get here have a bigger problem than us (especially Indonesia), and hence a general reluctance to stop the boats at source.

People "migrate" (to describe the whole act generically) for four primary reasons. The first are to voluntarily seek better economic prospects, and the second to achieve a better culture (which can include family reunion). Otherwise people emigrate in response to two factors beyond their control, cultural factors or terror.

"Cultural factors" encompasses all the issues of religious persecution and ethnic/language group rivalries. Terror can accompany these, or it can simply be political terror or it can be environmental terror (drought and famine).

People in the last two categories don't wait where they are till someone offers to settle them, they flee. The primary issue then is usually large collections of people in neighbouring countries...like the million plus Afghans in Pakistan, or the people rolling out of Somalia to Kenya.

These people are all refugees without necessarily being "asylum seekers". It can be the migratory equivalent of "respite care". The UN Convention relating to the status of refugees primarily addresses the treatment of these people.

Many of these refugees will continue their migration trying to find a new home. Relocating anywhere from a large refugee camp can be an improvement.

Only a subset of these refugees become asylum seekers, which is a person who is seeking to be permanently housed in a new country - to obtain a new nationality.

Australia's irregular arrivals by boat are not necessarily all refugees, they can be people seeking a "back door entry" to obtain the economic advantage of living here. These are the only ones of the irregular arrivals who can truly be said to be queue jumpers.

Not all the refugees are even necessarily asylum seekers. Indeed there can possibly be a case made for a "voluntary temporary protection visa" category, which would be a person who is a refugee but expects to be able to return and simply seeks somewhere to live in the meantime. (The coalition version I understand is a compulsory version that we apply in cases where we decide the reason for flight is temporary).

The Department of Immigration annual report explains;

Australia's Humanitarian Program comprises two components: offshore resettlement for people overseas, who have been determined to be refugees, and onshore protection for those people already in Australia who claim Australia's protection, and are found to be refugees. ...

In 2009–10, the department met the increase in the number of places in the Humanitarian Program from 13 500 to 13 750, with 13 770 visas granted during the program year (inclusive of onshore places). This comprised 9236 (67.1 per cent) under the offshore component and 4534 (32.9 per cent) under the onshore component.

It is often forgotten that part of the regional focus of the "Malaysian solution" involved increasing by 5000 the targeted offshore places.

The coalition has three policies;
1. Turn back the boats - no matter how risky that is and no matter where the boat subsequently lands.
2. Offshore processing in Nauru.
3. Temporary protection visas rather than permanent resettlement for irregular arrivals.

The first is not a real deterrent - if the boat sinks the people turning them back have to save them. Sound familiar?
The second is claimed to have been effective at stopping more boat arrivals, but now that 84% have been settled in Australia or New Zealand it looks as good to a boat arrival as onshore processing.
Temporary protection visas as a standard create an unnecessary state of uncertainty.

The fact that many of the irregular arrivals come from predominantly muslim countries has allowed a fear of terrorism and social disharmony to be added to the debate. But it is really little more than Australians on going fear of the "hordes" to our North wanting to descend here.

The Greens advocate onshore processing. But they have taken over the mantle once owned by the ALP as the party most opposed to higher immigration levels overall. The Grrens case though is made on environmental grounds, the ALP case used to be protecting workers terms and conditions from "cheap" labour.

The long term solution to the global issue of refugees is the twin goal of achieving economic advancement for all and achieving secular democratic governance. That is easy to say, but hard to do. But the Government is guilty of not even saying it, and the coalition is unlikely to.

The discussion of the global refugee issue and Australia's role in dealing with it needs to be conducted at a higher level than a narrow focus on boats. To do so requires real leadership - not the kind handed out by factional chiefs.

There are members of the FPLP capable of providing that. It is not just a question of onshore versus offshore. It is not a Left versus Right question.

It is, however, also one we have a global responsibility for having added to the global pool of refugees through our involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

PS I'm also really confused about the coalition and its sudden focus on the need for offshore processing to be in countries that are signatories to the UN convention. The list of signatories at April 2011 did not list Nauru - and I recall it has only recently signed. They clearly weren't a signatory when used by the Howard Government.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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