By Kate Gauthier, The Punch. From

The grace period for not politicising human tragedy is less than 24 hours. Both major parties are in full swing – misinforming the public, drumming up fear and spinning themselves out of any actual policy action.

Cartoon: Warren Brown

Cartoon: Warren Brown

The fact remains that Australia does not have an ‘asylum problem’ but we do have a problem with our policy response. Receiving less than 1 per cent of the world’s asylum claims in a year is not a problem. People dying at sea is most definitely a problem, unfortunately not one unique to Australia or to Indonesia.

The public debate around Labor vs. Coalition policy proposals can be likened to the saying: “When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.”

The two major parties both propose harsh deterrence as a way of stopping the boats. Public debate is then focusing on evaluating only on those narrow options put forward by Bowen and Morrison.

Even worse, it is suggested that if you do not agree with deterrence, you have asylum seeker blood on your hands. This is simplistic to the point of stupidity, because there are more policy options than those being offered by our politicians.

Try this for an analogy: There is a hospital with life-saving treatment, but sick patients are being killed trying to cross the busy road to get there. In order to ‘save their lives’ there is a proposal to build a fence around the highway. Sounds both heartless and pointless, since in a matter of life and death people will just climb the fence to cross the road.

There are other policy choices than just building bigger fences.

All credible policy experts advise that deterrence doesn’t really work, since it would have to be worse than the persecution, terrorism and extra-judicial killings that asylum seekers are fleeing from.

Experts in the field – who also want to stop people dying at sea – say that the only way to reduce boat numbers is to provide people with a possibility – not even a guarantee – that they will get resettlement if they wait in transit countries. If families thought they had a chance of getting a visa if they waited, then why would anyone take to the seas?

For the past few days all we have heard about from Minister Bowen and opposition spokesman Scott Morrison is the option of offshore processing, with some petty bickering about where it should occur.

Let’s be frank: offshore processing is just detention in another place. The outcome under the ALP’s desired version is that people are detained somewhere else and those found to be refugees are then sent to any other country, not ours.

The version previously used by the Coalition saw people, including children, detained for long periods in the Pacific and then resettled here in Australia. Offshore processing is not a solution and it does not stop people dying at sea.

TPVs are also being revived by the Coalition. TPVs have been cited by researchers as having increased boat numbers, because they disallowed family reunion. In 2001, 353 people, mainly women and children drowned en route to Australia.

The majority on the SIEV X were making a desperate attempt to be with their husbands and fathers, refugees in Australia on TPVs who could not apply for their children and wives to come here.

Suicides and mental illness of TPV holders have also been well documented. In fact, the former Howard Government, with Tony Abbott in cabinet, wound back the practice of imposing TPVs in 2005. They kept the visa on the law books, but stopped actually implementing it as a policy.

The experts are unanimous: Australia needs to increase its humanitarian intake. Taking it from 14,750 per year to 20,000 people per year would not be a big stretch.

Australia needs to genuinely engage the region, this does not mean sending a whole bunch of money to a developing island nation to host a detention centre. Regional engagement with regional protection requires more signatories to the Refugee Convention and protections for asylum seekers in transit.

Australia has expertise in this, and could work more cooperatively to develop regional capacity.

Issues of protection are complex and no Christmas Day meeting is going to resolve these issues. However, bipartisanship and a focus on truly attempting to save lives could result in more people being protected.

Kate Gauthier is a fellow with the Centre for Policy Development and the chair of ChilOut – Children out of Immigration Detention. She wrote this piece with Sophie Peer, the campaign manager of ChilOut.



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