The Federal government has achieved what it set out to do. It has stopped the flow to Australia of boats filled with asylum seekers. To achieve this goal the government has turned boats around, put people into high-tech life rafts and sent them back to Indonesia, and those it has been unable to send back it has incarcerated in the most degrading of conditions on Nauru and Christmas Island. The recently departed head of International Health and Medical Services, the organisation the government appointed to oversee health care in detention facilities, this week described the treatment of detainees on Manus and Nauru as “torture”. The aim? To send a very clear message to would-be asylum seekers that Australia is not a place they should seek to go.
This is all justified by the claim that it is necessary to prevent deaths at sea. In a kind of Orwellian logic we recognise it is cruel but argue it is the kindest thing we can do, that it is better to implement harsh measures of deterrence than it is to tolerate children drowning at sea.
The problem is, the claim is hollow. Stopping the boats coming to Australia will not stop people drowning at sea. The journey of a refugee is hazardous from the outset. For example, Hazara’s coming from South Asia, where their lives are under threat, typically fly to Malaysia, and from there take their a boat or a plane to Indonesia, then set out from Indonesia in a boat to Australia. In both Indonesia and Malaysia life is difficult. Without work rights, welfare, access to the health system, and the ever present threat of incarceration, they subsist in poverty and danger. So what will they do now the route to Australia is shut? They will still flee persecution in Afghanistan & Pakistan, but now they will be forced to journey somewhere else. That journey will inevitably involve being smuggled into countries, perhaps in a sealed compartment in a truck, perhaps via a leaky boat to somewhere else. But one thing is certain, people who are facing extreme persecution in their home country will still flee, and as long as the international community doesn’t provide a viable solution they will still be at the mercy of people smugglers, many of whom are unscrupulous.
So stopping the flow of boats to Australia won’t stop deaths of asylum seekers, it will just export them somewhere else.
The only way to stop the deaths is to address the immediate problem, which is the need to provide safety for people fleeing persecution. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees each year has a list of around eight hundred thousand refugees who need to be resettled in a safe country. Yet the twenty-seven nations with resettlement programs, of which Australia is one, take only eighty thousand per year. Nine out of ten will not receive a resettlement offer, and may face years, even decades waiting for a place. Those for whom there is no safety cannot wait that long, and so they board leaky boats and stuffy trucks. And this is the situation once they have been assessed to be refugees. Many wait years even to have their claim to be a refugee assessed.
So there is an answer. Affluent nations need to resettle more refugees. Between them, the thirty most developed nations in the world could quite comfortably take eight hundred thousand refugees per year. If this was apportioned on the basis of population size, it would mean each of these nations adding to their population size by 0.07% per year. For Australia that would mean taking an additional ten thousand refugees a year. If we did this no one would board a leaky boat or a stuffy truck.
While we work towards such a global solution, we could implement it on a regional basis. This would see us work with the governments of Indonesia and possibly Malaysia to establish speedy processing of asylum claims of those who arrived in those countries, and then guaranteeing to take those found to be refugees. For the same amount that we currently spent on offshore and onshore detention, back of the envelope calculations suggest we could take 50,000 to 60,000 refugees a year and still come out with change in our pocket
So please, no more of the rhetoric that we have to be cruel to be kind, that stopping boats is the only way to stop the deaths. It might ease our conscience over the fact that, in the words of the psychiatrist who was head of medical service provision for the detention centres, we are torturing people, but it will not stem the flow of dangerous journeys and the deaths that inevitably accompany them. Please, no more wrapping the violation of human rights in a coat of compassion. Stopping the boats coming to Australia is simply a way of exporting the deaths to other parts of the world. If we really want to stop deaths at sea we need a serious solution, not the inhumane and cruel system we currently employ.