Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had a short, private encounter with United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN summit. The two men talked about the crisis in Syria, climate change, and other matters. Then, according to the BBC which seldom reports Australian news other than bush fires and shark attacks, Mr Ban very directly asked Mr Turnbull to reconsider Australia’s policy towards so-called asylum seekers that arrive by boat.
That policy is to turn the boats back, if necessary by replacing any unseaworthy vessels being used with new, purpose-built lifeboats. Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s earlier policy to remove anyone who slipped through the net to purpose-built ‘processing centres’ on the remote Pacific island of Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea is still in place too. This has been highly effective in stopping a human trafficking trade run by well-organised people smugglers across south-east and south Asia. Those found to be genuine refugees are settled in PNG, or jurisdictions with whom Australia has an arrangement, but not in Australia itself. Those not given refugee status will ultimately be sent back to their home countries, though this is fraught with difficulty and many remain in detention.
There is no chance of the Turnbull government changing this strategy. Several European countries would like to emulate it, and have approached Canberra for guidance on its operation. However, the volume of refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Europe make it impractical to implement there; a few boats can be turned back, but not an armada. More to the point, there are no countries in Europe or Africa prepared to resettle even genuine asylum seekers. (In its neighbourhood Australia has found only three).
Like many, including some BBC commentators, Mr Ban seems to miss the point about Australia. It is because Australia takes a hard stand against illegal immigrants, that it is able to be the second most generous country on the planet in resettling genuine refugees. By head of population, Australia has the most generous policy of any country to deal with the Syrian crisis, offering to take 12,000 refugees nominated by the UNHCR directly from camps in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, with a strong focus on destitute families. The harsh side of Australia’s policy is its refusal to reward people smuggling gangs, at least some of which are known contributors to Islamic State.
This entirely logical approach to reinforcing border protection enjoys bipartisan public support. It provides generous assistance to those already identified as genuine refugees, enabling them to establish new lives. Neverthess, there is a vocal minority that believes boat people are not illegal migrants who should be allowed to land in Australia and have their claims processed here. A number of such refugee advocates are lawyers who stand to gain from a policy change, because once an asylum seeker has stepped ashore in Australia he or she can gain access to the legal process.
It is a process that it is seldom swift. With the exception of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, most boat people arrive via a third country, usually Indonesia or Malaysia. The package they buy, often at a cost of $10,000 or more (sometimes involving flights from South Asia or the Middle East to Indonesia) is not for asylum in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but onward shipment to Australia. Many of them carry no verifiable identification, many do not speak English, some have false documents or no documents at all. Checking out their stories, using immigration staff and consular officers in countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and much of the Middle East, can be difficult or impossible.
Where critics of government policy are on stronger ground is in condemning the treatment of asylum seekers in detention. Although the detention centres are on foreign soil, they are run by private contractors to the Australian government, with little transparency. There have been allegations of poor treatment of the asylum seekers, at least one child suicide, and violence.
One of the strongest critics of government policy, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has brought this problem to a head with amendments to Senate legislation on visa application rights. The proposed changes would force the release of all children from migration detention centres, mandatory public disclosure of all abuse and violence in these centres, and reverse a rule that currently makes it a crime for whistle blowers, or even medical staff, to reveal information in the public interest.
There are currently 112 children in immigration detention in Australia, about one twentieth of the peak figure of 1,992 in July 2013 when Labor was in power. In Nauru 95 children are in ‘protective detention’. The Turnbull government has pledged to end this as soon as their future can be decided, but is unlikely to pass the Hanson-Young amendments when the legislation comes before the House of Representatives, possibly this week.