During the week when a "Pacific Solution Mark II" was reached, and Julian Assange granted asylum in Ecuador, two interesting bits of mail were sent to me in the post: one, a request for an extra sum of money to be sent to my sponsor child for Christmas, and the other an email from one Ms. Ibunda Ngono.
According to the email, Ms. Ngono was at school in Ghana when her wealthy father was assassinated by a group of rebel vagabonds in Cote d'lvoire, which lies between Ghana and Liberia, thereby bequeathing his daughter control of US$2.4 million in funds, which she would like me to help her gain access to in order that she might complete her education in our country.
Now, while I might sympathise with the plight of Ms. Ngono, whose story is compelling, I didn't fall off the Christmas tree (and onto Christmas Island, as did 67 asylum seekers ostensibly headed for Singapore this week, picked up by the merchant vessel Parsifal).
My benevolence is more likely to be directed toward the respectable organisation administering services for my sponsor child, as apposed to the conman who constructed the fraudulent email on behalf of Ms. Ngono and intends to steal my bank account details.
It's likely most of you, who have a clue, would share this view. In this context, it is truly unfortunate that the activities of those unfortunate people smugglers participating in the detritus of a profession akin to slave trading muck up the very genuine right to political and economic asylum of many refugees seeking a haven on our rocky shores.
While a degree of accountability must also be assumed by those who deliberately flout international laws in pursuit of a new home country, specific and expedient arrangements must surely be made for the truly desperate while those who defraud them of their money and put their lives in peril are prosecuted for doing so?
At this point, matters get complicated. How does one exert diplomacy and compassion in light of the reality that others exploit arrangements to their advantage?
That is what the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers – former Defence Force chief Angus Houston, the former foreign affairs chief Michael L’Estrange, and the refugee advocate Paris Aristotle (aka 'The Houston Panel') – sought to address, delivering its assessment on August 13.
The Panel's findings were welcomed with open arms by the Australian Government and the Opposition, though not so much the Greens. Framed by the pressing need to seek a solution to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 (aka the Pacific Solution Mark II) was passed by the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday.
The key element is the authorised transfer of asylum seekers who arrive by boat to two remote Pacific islands (Nauru and Manus), where they will remain, initially in "tent cities", indefinitely while their refugee claims are processed, starting as early as September. It has also increased our national intake of refugees from 13,750 people per year to 20,000, including 12,000 refugee places, with the view to increasing the total to 27,000 within five years if all goes accordingly.
Julia Gillard said the solution would send "a very clear message to anyone who is contemplating paying a people smuggler and getting on a boat". More than 7,500 people have arrived in Australia by boat since the start of the year, which compares with about 4,500 people for the whole of 2011. In 2010 a total of about 6,879 people arrived on board boats (including crew), compared to just seven boat arrivals in 2008 with 179 people on board.
There is clearly an upswing in illegal boat arrivals, which also account for 604 deaths in just three years. To be sure, the unconscionable 'boat people trade' must take account for this state of affairs, but, arguably, Australia itself must too shoulder some of the blame. If you produce a problematic child, like Assange, you cannot then turn your back and say, "Not our problem!".
Did you know that Australia – one of 20 countries participating in the UNHCR's resettlement programs and accepting quotes of refugees annually – accounts for just 2.5 per cent of asylum applications internationally?
A report published by the Australian Parliament, Boat arrivals since 1976, authored by Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks, notes that in 2000, when approximately 3000 ‘boat people’ arrived in Australia, Iran and Pakistan each hosted over a million Afghan refugees. Further, the UNHCR estimates that of 10.4 million refugees, 75 to 90 per cent remain in their region of origin, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
"While the total number of asylum applications in Australia increased by about 29 per cent in 2009, compared to 2008, numbers still remained relatively low (6170 compared to, for example, 49 020 in the USA, 41 980 in France and 33 250 in Canada)," notes Phillips and Spinks. "The less prosperous countries of Cyprus and Malta received the second and third highest number of applications compared to their national populations in 2009 (following the tiny nation of Liechtenstein)."
Our eyes are often so focused on the inconvenient economic and social burden that unexpected arrivals place on our resources that we forget to see the bigger picture.
For a nation born of a convict settlement, its original migrants of some disrepute, which pitched itself a tent atop its original Aboriginal inhabitants and has built itself upon the notion of being lucky and friendly to all, we have turned morally contradictory by outward appearances. People like the McKennas of The First Home Project are contrary to popular opinion (by the way, their goal of $600,000 for a community home for refugees has been reached!).
The conditions, we have seen, in detention centres, is far from dreamy: they are uncomfortable, isolated, miserable, Limbo Land. Unlike the Big Brother house, there is no hope for diplomatic immunity for those who do not play by the rules or win a golden ticket. The reality of living in our land of milk and honey is not all it's cracked up to be if you are but a lowly refugee.
Too bad if you have seen the tourism adds or Baz Luhrmann's Australia (chances are you haven't, if you were busy sheltering your family from mortars): those pictures are for wealthy travellers, not for you. We want your money and skills (thought about the mines?), not your problems or your family (well, that's the policies speaking, not you and me).
The review panel has made provisions for "reducing the demand for family reunion through irregular and dangerous voyages to Australia", achieved through the removal of reunion concessions for proposers who arrive themselves through such voyages. They are, instead, to go through the Migration Program process. Those who arrive by boat will not be able to sponsor family under the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) but through the Migration Program.
And, yet, we are a country built on the back of migrants. Today, one in four of Australia's 22 million people were born outside Australia. The number of settlers arriving in Australia between July 2010 and June 2011 totalled 127,460. They came from more than 200 countries. Most were born in one of the following four countries: New Zealand (20.1 per cent), China (11.5 per cent), the UK (8.6 per cent) and India (8.3 per cent). My ancestors are Irish, English and American. What about yours?
Those of us who live in Australia may be from free-settler stock, but in terms of time, we have not been here very long. More than 660,000 refugees have been resettled in Australia in the past 60 years.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship says, "Globalisation has resulted in a major flow of people who often do not intend to stay in Australia permanently, therefore, migration has become increasingly circular and temporary in nature".
And so too has the flow of asylum seekers and refugees, and national policy in response, which since 1970 have included "individual determination of status procedures" (Fraser), voluntary repatriation and social integration (Hawke), mandatory immigration detention for unauthorised boat arrivals (Keating) and Temporary Protection Visas (Howard).
Positive, less reactive measures, have included the Community Refugee Support Scheme (CRSS) of the late 1980s/early '90s, which involved high levels of community involvement in refugee settlement. Community sponsorship of refugees has been floated as a possible way of increasing our intake, which has been welcomed by the Refugee Council of Australia. But first, those seeking residency, support and asylum must get in through an open door.
It is not the first time that Australia has necessitated a review of its asylum seeker arrangements. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war and up to 1981, many Vietnamese arrived by boat. By the late 80s, we were experiencing a second wave of refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China. From 1999, we witnessed the arrival of more Middle Eastern people by boat, thus the third wave and the implementation of the Pacific Solution Mark I by the Howard Government.
Heated global conditions create greater need for expedient and humanitarian asylum seeker policies, such as we saw after Vietnam and the War on Terror; they also create greater unrest on the home front if the appropriate information is not communicated (hence, the Tampa affair, and the current necessity of the review panel and the dissemination of its contents to the public). Described as "hard-headed but not hard-hearted", the panel recommended a "no-advantage" principle "whereby irregular migrants gain no benefit by choosing to circumvent regular migration mechanisms".
Proposing a regional solution, the Houston Panel also recommended building on the problem-laden Malaysian solution proposed by the Gillard Government and struck down by the High Court last year after it was deemed unlawful, citing Malaysia's lack of recognition for the status of refugees in domestic law, nor is it a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. The panel insists on the need for 'a written agreement between Malaysia and UNHCR' and effective monitoring of human rights in Malaysia.
"The chances of Malaysia agreeing to this interference with its sovereignty would not be great," notes Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan for Eureka Street. "So it will be some time before Malaysia will be a goer. Meanwhile, the panel urges a return to the 2001–7 Pacific Solution, removing asylum seekers from boats to Nauru and Manus Island."
Life on Nauru (which is a Refugee Convention signatory) and Manu will be long and uncomfortable for many asylum seekers, who will be forced into mandatory detention in these locales, which is part of the deterrent factor of the Pacific Solution Mark II. This is not to deride Naru nor Manu, which will be depicted as God-forsaken places in order to deter asylum seekers and the boat crews.
The Pacific Solution Mark II harks back to the punitive measures of our early penal colony, though the refugees harboured in these places are not necessarily criminal – they might try to scrape past the laws (for who but the truly angelic has not, once in their life, flouted a law undetected or otherwise?) in order to escape political or religious persecution, the harsh realities of war, a safer place in which to bring up their families.
It's expected that the Houston recommendations will cost $1.4 billion in extra places in the Humanitarian Program, $1.2-$1.4 billion to re-establish offshore processing on Nauru for up to 1,500 people, $0.9 billion to establish an offshore processing centre on Manus Island or elsewhere in PNG, and $70 million toward funding better regional cooperation on refugees.
The Migration Act and the Refugee Convention, both of which oblige Australia to accept genuine refugees, no matter how they happen to arrive on our shores. In light of the fact that we receive so little intake of refugees, relatively speaking, and are in a boom economy looking to expand the health and community services sector to stave off a possible mining boom collapse, one might ask whether we are spending this money wisely.
Why aren't these resources being allocated toward Australian community-based facilities, services and jobs for the harbouring, processing and social integration of the current influx of refugees, for the creation of the world's most well-regarded refugee processing sanctuary, built on the acknowledgement of our heritage, and the implementation of secure, safe and fast mechanisms for the incentivising of lawful refugee application and migration?
Because it is not politically expedient to do so. Yes, we need short-term solutions, but Band-Aids do not stick for long. There comes a time where they must be ripped off, or else fall away. The very least we can do for now, in order to avoid accusations of being completely inhumane, is to address the situation and condition of asylum seekers in a timely and efficient manner that causes the least trauma and respects individual dignity.
"The Prime Minister has raised questions about the cost of additional refugee places but cost did not seem to be a factor at all in establishing offshore processing in Nauru and PNG," said the Refugee Council of Australia's Paul Power in response to the new legislation.
"Our concern is that an all-too-familiar double standard may be applied – that positive measures are dismissed as unaffordable while there is no limit to the funds available for deterrence and detention.
It's a long road ahead, but one worth forging properly for future generations – all who will at times feel exiled in this world of ours and will want to come and go as they travel its various parts. We might then maintain a modicum of international integrity. Why not be a bastion of hospitality, and turn around the notion that we are out of bounds, our nation girt by sea, deep suspicion and a not altogether attractive nationalism.
Our past tresspasses on foreign land forgiven but not forgotten by its first inhabitants, surely those of others must be also by us? We are all citizens of the world, all weary travellers with common hopes and common needs, for shelter, food, security and dignity; it is man who creates its borders, who chooses to shut one man out and not another. "We are one, but we are many," as the national fanfare goes.
One question remains: if Assange were lost at sea, would we send in the navy?
Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976 - Parliament of Australia
Houston report's high cost of deterrence, Eureka Street, August 13, 2012
Australia takes the low road on asylum seekers, Frank Brennan, Eureka Street, August 16, 2012
Islands of the damned, Deborah Snow, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 18, 2012
Collapse of a resolve is to blame, Greg Sheridan, The Australian, August 18, 2012
Australia: 'Pacific Solution' Redux, Human Rights Watch, August 17, 2012
Is the new 'Pacific Solution' ethical?, Radio National, August 15, 2012
That's it for the Malaysian solution, Ben Eltham, New Matilda, August 31, 2011
Girl With a Satchel