The truth about asylum seekers
A compromise plan may work, but an honest asylum-seeker policy would look very different

Robert Manne’s argument is (not surprisingly) impeccable in its reasoning. And I agree with most of his facts and assumptions. In particular, I think his political calculations are right. In essence, he says:

  • “Australians are, on balance, favourably disposed to refugees but hostile to asylum-seeker boat arrivals. If anything, over time that opinion has hardened.”
  • “What the politicians and officials now fear is that if Canberra blinks … the people smugglers will once again have a product to sell to desperate asylum seekers and that the boats will return.”
  • “… the threat of a lengthy stay in one of the offshore processing camps and … the threat of tow-back to Indonesia were sufficient to kill the [people smugglers’] market”.
  • “Refugee supporters have seemed incapable of arguing the kind of case that has any chance of convincing the politicians or … officials in Canberra to revoke the Rudd–Abbott decision never to settle these refugees in Australia”.

All these propositions reflect accurately the politics that have created and perpetuated a hard-line approach to boat people.

Manne’s reasoning leads him to conclude that it is unnecessary to continue holding people in offshore detention. He says “we can decide to save their lives by resettling them in Australia” and that doing so would involve only a “negligible risk” of boat arrivals resuming.

I agree.

Like Manne, I have a good opinion of the average Australian’s sense of decency. The key elements of Manne’s political logic need to be understood against a background in which most Australians have been misled into thinking boat people are “illegal” and that keeping them out is a matter of “border protection”.

The “illegal” tag began with Tampa. Judgment in the Tampa case was handed down by Justice North at 2.15 pm (Melbourne time) on 11 September, 2001. Just hours later, the attack on America happened and the world looked very different. Suddenly there were no terrorists, just Muslim terrorists. Suddenly, there were no boat people, just Muslim boat people. Suddenly, they weren’t frightened people fleeing the Taliban: they were “illegals”. John Howard exploited this position with great skill.

When Abbott was prime minister, and Scott Morrison was immigration minister, the rhetoric of “illegals” became increasingly strident and Morrison started talking about “border protection”.

It is not surprising that the public at large, who generally have other things to worry about, accepted the cumulative effect of 14 years of dishonest language and (I think) accepted that harsh measures were reasonable – even necessary – if they protected us from criminals. It is a rational position if the premise is true. It has become deeply rooted in the Australian psyche, because Liberal politicians have, for so long, lied to the public about the issue. And in case this is understood as pitched in support of Labor, it is worth noting that Labor has never used its position to contradict the LNP’s dishonest rhetoric.

I have enough faith in Australians to think that they would not willingly approve deliberate cruelty to innocent human beings. This is why children in detention are such a weak point for government: it is difficult to see images of children behind the wire in Nauru and think of them as dangerous criminals. And it is probably why sending a rape victim back to Nauru without giving her a proper opportunity to have counselling and (if she chooses) an abortion did not work well for the government. The fact is that most Australians do not like to see vulnerable people being wilfully mistreated. The oppressive secrecy surrounding the detention system suggests that the government understands this.

Before I would yield completely to Robert Manne’s logic, I would first test the unstated premise.

Let me engage in a brief fantasy: Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten go on national television and, together, acknowledge that boat people do not commit any offence by coming here the way they do; that over the past 15 years more than 95% of them have been assessed, by us, as refugees legally entitled to protection; that they are (almost all of them) fleeing horrors we can scarcely imagine; that we do not need to be protected from them.

Imagine then that Turnbull and Shorten say, jointly, that boat people are not a threat to us, but an opportunity for us to show what Australia can do.

There are better ways of responding to asylum seekers. If I could redesign the system, I would choose a radically different model. Boat arrivals would be detained initially, but for a maximum of one month, to allow preliminary health and security checks. That detention would be subject to extension, but only if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer.

After that period of initial detention, boat arrivals would be released into the community on an interim visa with a number of conditions that would apply until the person’s refugee status was decided:

  • they would be required to stay in contact with the Department, to make sure they remained available for the balance of the process;
  • they would be allowed to work;
  • they would be entitled to full Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
  • until their refugee status was finally decided they would be required to live in a specified regional town or city.

A system like this would have a number of benefits. First, it would avoid the harm presently inflicted on refugees held in detention. Prolonged detention with an unknown release date is highly toxic: experience over the past 15 years provides plenty of evidence of this.

Second, any government benefits paid to refugees would be spent on accommodation, food and clothing in regional towns. There are plenty of towns in country areas that would welcome an increase in their population and a boost to their local economy. According to the National Farmers Federation, there are more than 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas. It is likely that adult male asylum seekers would look for work, and would find it.

However, even if the peak arrival rate of 2012 became the new normal, and even if every boat person stayed on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it took to decide their refugee status, it would cost the Government only about $500 million a year, all of which would go into the economy of country towns. By contrast, the current system costs between $4 billion and $5 billion a year.

My confidence in most Australians is such that I think they would support this system as an alternative to intentional cruelty. But first they need to be told the truth. Is this likely? Probably not. Immigration Minister Dutton is sending Syrian boat people in detention back to their deaths in Syria and at the same time he is puffing himself up for the cameras while he hand-picks Syrian refugees to come to Australia.

So long as we have politicians like him, we will probably keep on our well-worn path of dishonesty in support of cruelty.

Robert Manne, I think, wants refugee advocates to compromise. Refugee advocates want something far more difficult: honest politicians.


This is a response to Robert Manne’s proposal to resettle refugees detained offshore in Australia. Read a response from Sarah Hanson-Young and another from Frank Brennan.

Julian Burnside
Julian Burnside is a barrister based in Melbourne. @JulianBurnside

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