Yesterday the expert panel set up by the Government released its report on how to prevent deaths of asylum seekers on their way to Australia by boat. The Government is now rushing to pass the recommendations into law.
The report recognises that the only lasting solution is cooperation among nations in the region to ensure that all asylum seekers can reach a place of safety, have their claim assessed quickly and then be resettled in a country where they can have a safe future and construct a new life.
The problem is that there is no such cooperation. Worldwide there are 700,000-800,000 asylum applications each year but only 100,000 or so refugees are resettled. As long as this imbalance remains refugees will keep coming by boat, putting their lives at risk.
To counter this the expert panel recommends a ‘no advantage’ principle. Asylum seekers arriving in Australia will be taken to Narau or Manus Island and held in some form of detention. Their claims to asylum will be processed no faster than if they were anywhere else in the region and there will be no guarantee they will be resettled in Australia. The expert panel reasons that with this policy in place there will be no incentive for asylum seekers to try to enter Australia. Here they accept the highly contested argument that policy settings in Australia can create incentives and disincentives to asylum seekers.
In addition to this the panel recommend an increase of 7,000 places a year in the number of refugees accepted by Australia and a stronger focus on accepting refugees from our region. This will help reduce the time refugees have to wait for resettlement.
The conundrum is very real but like many refugee advocates I find myself troubled by the proposal to process refugees offshore and apply a no advantage test. This could see refugees languishing for years in conditions that in the past proved to be very psychologically traumatic for refugees. We seem to be punishing asylum seekers for doing something that is legal under international law.
I welcome the recommended increase in resettling refugees who seek asylum from offshore. But with the proposal to process asylum seekers offshore I wonder if we have not exchanged one evil for another. I wonder why we are not trying other approaches recommended by refugee experts that do not involve measures the Prime Minister describes as harsh.