In June 2012, after the tragic death at sea of people seeking asylum in Australia, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, convened a panel of ‘experts’ to produce a report that would provide advice on the future direction of asylum seeker policy in Australia.
One of the report’s terms of reference is given as “how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat” and this is a theme the panel returns to frequently.
In the report, however, this apparent concern for the sanctity of human life is subordinated to the broader and less humanitarian aim of ‘stopping the boats’.
Firstly it is important to emphasize that while the boat journey that asylum seekers take to Australia is dangerous it is accomplished most of the time without loss of life.
Of course that does not mean that the sea passage is an ideal means for seeking asylum in Australia but what is often ignored in the current debate is that people undertake this hazardous journey because the ‘official’ process of gaining sanctuary in a safe country is seriously broken.
There are more than 4000 refugees in Indonesia awaiting resettlement. There are, however, only two UNHCR staff in Indonesia to process all claims for refugee status. Australia has provided resettlement for just 56 refugees per year from Indonesia between 2001 and 2010 and only 24 were resettled in the first 5 months of 2012.
Asylum seekers waiting in Indonesia for ‘official’ recognition and resettlement can wait years for a positive outcome
It is for this reason that asylum seekers undertake the boat journey to Australia: because they see that they have no better option.
In the wake of ‘the recommendations’ the government moved with unseemly haste to introduce the ‘offshore processing’ element of the report. The government, with the support of the Liberal Party opposition, passed legislation that allows asylum seekers to be processed on Nauru and Manus Island.
Another aspect of the recommendations that has been embraced is a tough “no advantage” principle, which will ensure asylum seekers who arrive by boat will not be resettled any faster than those who go through regular channels.
This is a cruel political rendering of the ‘queue jumper’ myth. Prime Minister Gillard concedes that no calculation has been made as to how long people might wait in the ‘offshore camps’ for resettlement. The UNHCR is unable to give an estimate of how long an asylum seeker going though ‘regular channels’ might wait. The process is not an orderly one and each asylum seeker is treated on a case by case basis.
While the government and opposition moved rapidly to introduce ‘offshore processing’ they have not moved so quickly to implement ‘recommendation 2’ from the ‘panel of experts’; the increase of the Australia’s Humanitarian Program to 20 000 places.
Nor have has the government made particular mention of the report’s ‘capacity-building agenda’; the suggestion that there be a “substantial increase in additional places” allocated for asylum seekers currently languishing in Indonesia.
The government’s (and the opposition’s) reaction to the ‘expert panel’s’ recommendations demonstrates that the political imperative is not one of safeguarding human life or human rights. On the basis of a deeply flawed report and the Australian government has capitulated to xenophobia, ignorance and bigotry in a misbegotten attempt to court electoral popularity.
As the Australian parliament has failed to adequately and humanely address the issue of asylum seekers the refugee campaign is left with no alternative but to demonstrate its real opposition outside parliament, outside the detention centres; we will raise our voices anywhere we can.
We say clearly:
NO CRIME TO SEEK ASYLUM.
FREE THE REFUGEES.