In a sea of political rhetoric, phrases like “stop the boats, “refugee rights” and “queue jumping” seem to constantly get splashed around. Problems, causes, symptoms and solutions get swirled together, often making it difficult to grasp the complexities of the asylum seeker issue.
Rudd’s PNG Solution gave fresh lungs to voices across the political spectrum. Over a month later, the Coalition has finally made its move.
Early on, the left voiced outrage at Labor’s PNG solution with Greens leader, Christine Milne, accusing Rudd of lurching so far right that he leapfrogged Tony Abbott in cruelty.
In a political standoff, the right found itself facing a Labor policy that looked uncannily like its own – ‘offshore processing’ and ‘stopping the boats’ seemed to be the phrases of the day. Abbott’s initial response seemed baffled and ambiguous. “I welcome it, but it won’t work under Kevin Rudd, ” he said. Later, at the federal debate 11 August, in almost schoolyard “you copied me” style, Abbott said: “let’s face it, we invented off-shore processing.”
But on Friday 16 August, Tony Abbott came out with bigger guns and a more coherent response in an attempt to distinguish Liberal from Labor and secure the conservative votes. Firstly, Liberal will deny asylum seekers the right to appeal to the courts for refugee status. Secondly, any legitimate refugee found among the 30, 000 asylum seekers who have already arrived will only be granted temporary rather than permanent visas.
There are many stages in an asylum seeker’s journey to Australia. Every stage remains controversial. This is the story Australians tend to hear: a person is manipulated by a conniving boat smuggler into hopping onto a rickety boat without a visa, placing their lives at the mercy of the turbulent high seas. If they survive, the asylum seeker is taken into mandatory detention where their claim for refugee status is processed. If the claim succeeds, questions remain over where they will be settled and what rights they will be given.
Should the boats be stopped?
Both Labor and Liberal have echoed a resounding “yes”. Australians are no stranger to stories of disastrous boat journeys and deaths at sea. Like most politicians, when Rudd announced his hardline deterrence policy, he framed it as a compassionately motivated attempt to end an exploitative system of boat smuggling. “There is nothing compassionate about criminal operations which see children and families drowning at sea, ” he said.
However, many refugee advocates denied these moral claims, arguing that such deterrence methods merely punish the most vulnerable.
Daniel Webb from Human Rights Law Centre told Fairfax Media that deterrence was the wrong policy. He said deterring boats only addresses the symptom of the problem. The problem, he said, is that there are people in our region who desperately need protection and who lack a safe, viable, alternative pathway to access it. “Now you can shut Australia’s doors but that doesn’t resolve their underlying desperation and their underlying need to obtain protection”, Mr Webb said.
Like Rudd, Abbott seems determined to stop the boats, expressing sentiments of effective border protection. ”The essential point is, this is our country and we determine who comes here, ” Mr Abbott said.
Detention and Processing Claims
With both major parties now supporting offshore detention, the Liberal party has hardened their stance on the processing stage. Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, expressed a desire to end Labor’s “tick and flick” approach by removing asylum seekers’ right to appeal. In the March quarter, Labor’s court appeal system saw an increase of approved refugee statuses from 65.3 to over 90 per cent. According to Mr Morrison, this appeal process was being “promoted by the people smugglers to put people on boats”.
There are currently 30, 000 asylum seekers “that Kevin Rudd’s already let in”, said Mr Morrison. From these, any legitimate refugee will be denied permanent residency under the Coalition.
In the words of Mr Morrison: “You don’t get the right to stay in Australia forever, you don’t get the right to apply for citizenship, you don’t get the right to bring your family here, you don’t get the right to come and go from the country as you please.”
Refugees on welfare will be signed up to the ‘Work for the Dole’ program where work experience must be completed in order to receive continuing income support from the government. This is because “you shouldn’t get something for nothing if you’re coming to this country, ” said Mr Morrison. According to the government website, this program aims to “give eligible job seekers the opportunity to learn new skills, get work experience and improve their chance of finding a job.”
When a temporary visa expires, refugee status will be reassessed according to whether a person’s home country has improved enough for them to return home.
The questions are complex and the answers in Australia remain divided…
Should the boats be stopped and if so, how?
Will policies of deterrence support the greater good in dismantling a boat smuggling system of exploitation or does it merely punish vulnerable individuals?
Is this a matter of border security, humanitarian obligations or both?
Is ‘queue-jumping’ a myth used to demonise desperate boat people?
Is a system of (potentially indefinite) detention humane and economically viable?
Should asylum seekers be processed on the mainland or offshore?
Should refugees be granted permanent or temporary visas?
Whether you want to learn more, or you want to have your say on these issues, join the #AUSylum Twitter conversation. To tackle these complex questions with you, Vibewire will be hosting these panellists:
- Joe Hildebrand, journalist from The Daily Telegraph
- Graeme McGregor, National Refugee Campaign Coordinator of Amnesty International
- Sara Saleh from Amnesty International
- Gemma Amy-Lee from I am a Boat Person
Follow the twitter feed and add your piece to the puzzle as we explore these complex issues in 140 or less characters.
Published in Vibewire, 21 August 2013.