How we can win the debate on refugees

I listened last night to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkle, respond to the waves of irregular migration to Europe by reaffirming her country’s commitment to provide protection to those found to be refugees and Germany’s readiness to take 800,000 asylum seekers. The contrast with Australia couldn’t be greater. We accept no asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Not a single one. We ship them off to detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru where they are subject to psychological breakdown and we will never permit them to enter Australia.

So how do we regain our humanity on this issue? I think we need to do two things. First, we need to grow the number of people who think Australia should do better. Our politicians will only have space to create policy change if there are substantial numbers demanding it. Through schools, churches, radio, TV, social media, and any other forums we have, we need concerned people to spread the news.

Second, we need to make smart asks of our politicians. The political reality in Australia today is that no party that proposes policies that see a resumption of boat arrivals will be elected to government. So asking the major parties to shut down offshore detention and end turnbacks is futile. We would do better to ask them to rapidly implement the policies that will make offshore detention and turnbacks redundant. This would mean working as a priority toward a regional agreement which would see the nations of our region cooperating to process asylum seekers in a timely way, ensuring asylum seekers were treated decently while their application is being processed, and providing a timetabled pathway for their settlement.

We should start by seeking such an agreement with Indonesia. Once such an agreement was operational it would kill demand for people smuggling not through the punitive measures we currently employ but because refugees would have a clear and reasonable timeframe for finding a durable solution. And once this has occurred there will be no boats to turn back and no need to operate offshore detention as a deterrent.

Offshore detention and turnbacks are offensive. I want to see them end and end immediately. But the realistic pathway to that is not by demanding they be abolished but by imploring our leaders to enact the positive solution that renders them redundant.

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