Over the weekend the Australian Labor Party made some welcome changes to its refugee policy. Numbers are to be increased under a Labor government to 27,000 and millions more invested in the UNHCR. There was however one unwelcome determination, and that was to not exclude turnbacks of boats of asylum seekers trying to reach our shores. Nor was there any movement on the closure of offshore detention centres.
The ALP will thus continue to seek a solution to one problem, asylum seekers drowning en route from Indonesia to Australia, by violating two of the most fundamental principles of refugee and human rights.
At the heart of the international protection system for refugees is the freedom of those fleeing persecution to show up in any country in the world seeking protection. By closing our borders to those who come by boat Australia has declared itself no longer bound by this principle. Should other countries in the world follow our lead, the international protection system would collapse. We seem to believe that we should be free to ignore this principle of protection while expecting other countries to maintain it.
The second fundamental principle that the policy violates is that of detaining people who have committed no crime. This is a horrific example of the ends justifying the means and is the sort of behaviour one would expect from a totalitarian regime, not from a liberal democracy.
Does this mean we should allow people to drown at sea? No it does not. What it means is that we must find other avenues for preventing people getting on boats that are dangerous. And these avenues are available. The primary reason people take to boats once they reach Indonesia is the incredibly long time it takes for their application for refugee status and resettlement to be processed, during which they have to live in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. If Australia was to invest in partnership with Indonesia to speed up processing times, improve the conditions in which asylum seekers move while they’re waiting for the application to be processed, agreed to receive a large portion of those who arrive in Indonesia and then after their applications were processed flew them to Australia, the incentive to board boats would be largely removed. The tyranny of distance means that the numbers arriving would, short of some major outbreak of conflict in our own region, be comfortably accommodated by us.