Many Australians have been disturbed by the apparent intention of the Government to return refugees, including babies born in Australia, to detention on Nauru. They are, quite rightly I believe, asking for the Government to let them stay.
But this is only half the ask we need to make. Offshore detention without the possibility of settling in Australia is a central plank of an effort to deter people from taking a dangerous maritime journey from Indonesia to Australia. The International Office of Migration estimate that between 2000 and 2014 almost 1500 asylum seekers lost their lives en route from Indonesia to Australia. Combined with the policy of turning boats around, the Government has been extraordinarily successful at stopping the flow of boats to Australia. The goal of preventing deaths is however unlikely to have been achieved. The policy cuts off access to Australia, but it does nothing to address the reasons people get on boats. It is then almost certain that we have pushed the deaths somewhere else.
Nonetheless the aspiration of preventing deaths at sea is a good one, and no matter how loudly we call for the refugees who are in Australia to stay and for the government to close the centres of despair on Manus and Nauru, in the absence of a better way of preventing deaths at sea the government will not back down and will consider us not only soft in heart but soft in the head.
At the same time we call for this group of refugees to stay we need to make the case for a workable approach to asylum seekers. The answer would seem to be a regional agreement in which key nations, including Australia, made commitments on the processing and settlement of refugees. This occurred after the Indo China crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Large numbers of Vietnamese refugees made their way by boat to Malaysia, prompting the Malaysian government to start turning boats back out to sea. This changed when Australia and the US reached an agreement to resettle large numbers of those arriving in Malaysia. The Vietnamese government even agreed to act cooperatively!
It’s this type of cooperation we need again. Geography and culture mean that for the foreseeable future most refugees to our region will come through Malaysia or Indonesia. A cooperative agreement would see these two nations agreeing to rapid processing and decent treatment of asylum seekers, and middle and high income nations together agreeing to settle those asylum seekers deemed to be refugees. This would make durable solutions available to all refugees in our region, remove incentives for asylum seekers to undertake boat journeys to Australia, and provide us with people who will be outstanding citizens.