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Seeking a workable solution for asylum seekers

Robert Manne responds to Klaus Neumann

© Department of Immigration and Border Protection

I am grateful to Klaus Neumann for his willingness to respond to the arguments that Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, John Menadue and I have mounted over the past nine months. Apart from inviting me to participate in a public debate with a member of the Refugee Action Collective, those concerned about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees have so far failed to engage with our argument. I would not have been disturbed by hostility. I have always been willing, on this and other issues, to change my position if confronted by better arguments. I am, however, disappointed with this kind of evasion.

Before answering Klaus Neumann, it would probably be helpful to readers if I state as succinctly as possible the case that Brennan, Costello, Menadue and I have made.

We have argued that Australia has an undeniable and overwhelming moral responsibility to settle in Australia or another suitable country all those refugees who have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island refugees since 2012–13 and whose lives are being slowly and systematically destroyed because of the Australian government’s actions.

We have argued that it is inconceivable that in the next few years any Australian government – either Coalition or Labor – will be willing to return to the position the Rudd government took in 2008, which was to cease offshore processing of asylum claims and to abandon the policy of naval interception and turn-back to the point of departure. As a consequence of the Rudd policy, between 2009 and 2013, 50,000 asylum seekers reached Christmas Island on some 800 boats while more than 1000 drowned. In addition, for the past 15 years public opinion has strongly supported a harsh border control policy.

We have argued, further, that the idea accepted by both the Turnbull government and the Shorten Opposition – that Australia cannot settle any of the 2500 either marooned on Nauru and Manus Island or temporarily in Australia for reasons of health, because to do so would see a return of the people smuggling trade – is, according to both history and logic, demonstrably false. Between 2003 and 2007 more than half of the refugees whom the Howard government had sent to Nauru and Manus Island under the Pacific Solution were brought to Australia without any significant return of the boats. When Malcolm Turnbull announced his agreement last November with Barack Obama for some of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island to be settled in the United States, he called for a naval “ring of steel” between Java and Christmas Island. Since then, not one asylum-seeker boat appears to have set sail. Unsurprisingly, while the turn-back policy is retained, there seems to be no one willing to pay a people smuggler several thousand dollars for a dangerous sea journey whose overwhelming likely outcome is either death by drowning or return to the point of departure.

Finally, we have argued, if there is to be a policy shift that will see the marooned settled in Australia, compromise is necessary from both the supporters and the opponents of the present policy. Supporters of the policy will have to accept that they are complicit in the destruction of the lives of a large number of innocent people on the foundation of an argument that both historical experience and common sense show to be wrong. Opponents of the policy will have to accept that the only realistic position from the political point of view – that is to say, which might convince any Australian government in the next few years to settle in Australia those on Nauru and Manus Island whom the US did not accept under the Obama-Turnbull agreement – is one involving the retention of turn-back.

Although I cannot presume here to write on behalf of Brennan, Costello and Menadue, let me now turn to what I regard as some obvious misunderstandings of our position that appear in the Neumann piece.

Neumann believes that we have argued that the Australian supporters of asylum seekers and refugees are “largely to blame for the current impasse, because they are committed to ‘political point scoring’ and ‘purist disengagement’”. “Largely” overstates our case. What we have argued is that the supporters of the asylum seekers and refugees have contributed to the creation of the current impasse because of their political unrealism and unwillingness to compromise.

Neumann argues that we believe “the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is the main problem – or at least the only problem that is of immediate concern to ‘us’ as Australians” and that “significant systemic problems” like “forcible displacement … and the discriminatory treatment of non-citizen others in countries that are not committed to upholding international human rights and refugee law” are not on our “radar”.

These claims are quite false. In different ways, Brennan, Costello, Menadue and I have been concerned with questions of international refugee law and the treatment of refugees across the globe for most of our adult lives. None of us disagrees with Neumann when he argues that the Australian government and its people do have a responsibility to contribute with others in the search for solutions to the global refugee crisis. As I’m sure Neumann must know, Brennan, Costello, Menadue and I would all like to see substantial increases in Australia’s financial support for the UNHCR and other international refugee support agencies and in our annual refugee intake. Such issues are indeed on our “radar”.

The position we have taken is, however, that in the present circumstances, Australia bears a different kind of moral responsibility for those 2500 people we have sent to Nauru and Manus Island – more immediate, direct and inescapable – than it does for, say, the asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia or for the more than 60 million displaced people across the world, of which more than 20 million are refugees.

Neumann “suspects” that the real reason we have given priority to the marooned of Nauru and Manus Island is that we “are concerned about the reputational damage these policies do to Australia and Australians. Australians, they would like to believe, are essentially decent people … Might the proposal ultimately be driven by the perceived damage done to Australians, more so than the harm done to refugees and asylum seekers?”

Neumann here is both tone deaf to our writing and, perhaps unintentionally, insulting. Not a day passes when I do not think of the torment of life without hope that the marooned of Nauru and Manus Island are suffering. On the basis of our private correspondence, and indeed on the basis of my knowledge of the humanitarian causes to which all have devoted their lives, I’m certain the same is true for Frank Brennan, Tim Costello and John Menadue. It is true that I am pained to be a citizen of a country that is acting with such cruelty. But I can assure Neumann it is the damage that is being done to the marooned of Nauru and Manus Island, and not the reputational damage that is being done to Australia, that lies at the heart of my concern.

Neumann argues, “Rather than blaming refugee advocates for being principled, Brennan, Costello, Manne and Menadue may want to try convincing Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten that they and their parliamentary colleagues ought to stop pandering to irrational fears.” Although Neumann had no way of knowing this, because we made a decision at the time to keep it private, on 11 October last year Frank Brennan hand-delivered letters to Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten on our behalf, outlining in some detail our policy proposal and pleading with them for the same kind of humane bipartisanship the parties had been able to show over the issue of the Indigenous constitutional referendum.

Neumann believes we are blaming refugee advocates for being “principled”. Rather comprehensively, but also rather revealingly, this misses the point. We are not blaming the supporters of the asylum seekers and refugees for being principled. If we are blaming them for anything, it is for their refusal to confront the political situation in contemporary Australia realistically, to accept the inevitability of a compromise of ideals and principles if the lives of the people on Nauru and Manus Island not chosen for settlement in the US are to be saved, and to mount a plausible alternative policy proposal.

The compromise we have suggested involves the retention of turn-back, which we have argued must be lawful, transparent and conducted in such a way that the asylum seekers’ lives are not put in peril.

On the question of the legality of the policy, for decades all US administrations, including Obama’s, have been intercepting Cuban asylum seekers at sea without condemnation from the international community or mainstream international lawyers. As the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island have travelled to Indonesia from other countries, Australia has no legal responsibility to assess their asylum claims.

As Neumann rightly points out, from the legal point of view, the question of the relatively small number of those fleeing to Australia directly from Sri Lanka, and also I would add from Vietnam, is different. Because of the principle at the heart of the refugee convention – non-refoulement – Australia is obliged to assess their claims. We have argued that this should not be done in a perfunctory manner, as it has been in recent cases.

It is my personal view that Australia should settle those fleeing directly from Sri Lanka and Vietnam who are found to be refugees. I was, however, somewhat comforted by a briefing from a very senior government official on the question of the Vietnamese returnees, who informed me that a representative of the Australian government was given assurances, in person and in Hanoi, that they would not be treated harshly. I hope something similar has happened with regard to the Sri Lankans.

It is true that for the past 15 years all Australian governments have been far too secretive about what they have called on-water matters. We have argued for transparency. Nonetheless, so far as we can tell, in recent years those asylum seekers intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy have been returned to Indonesia in safety. Moreover, if the policy of turn-back remains in force, the experience of the Howard government between 2002 and 2007 suggests that almost no boats will set out from Indonesia to Australia and thus there will be no drownings.

What is not generally recognised is that although in public Jakarta might criticise the turn-back policy on national sovereignty grounds, in private it most likely understands that turn-back serves the self-interest of Indonesia. While the route from Java to Christmas Island remains open, many asylum seekers will travel to Indonesia from around the globe. The Indonesians were badly burned by the international criticism they received during the period they housed thousands of Vietnamese refugees on Galang Island. They have no interest in becoming once again what one Indonesian vice-presidential adviser described as a “honey pot” for asylum seekers from the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

In part at least, Neumann concedes that the policy of turn-back is lawful. While he is right to argue that a lawful policy is not necessarily “just”, he is altogether wrong when he charges us with indifference to the question of justice. According to Neumann, in arguing that Australian policy must be “decent, fair, transparent, safe and legal”, it is very telling that we “do not mention the one attribute that I would have thought should guide Australia’s response more than any other, namely just”.

The implicit ad hominem ingredient of this argument – that our group is unconcerned with questions of justice – seems to me rather extraordinary. Tim Costello has recently stepped down after several years as CEO of World Vision Australia. Frank Brennan is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. John Menadue was secretary of the immigration department during the period of the abandonment of the White Australia Policy. As a writer and so-called public intellectual, virtually every word I have written over the past 40 years has centred on questions of justice.

More importantly, what is explicit in Neumann’s concluding remark is the suggestion that in this case something called justice must trump all other considerations and that what justice requires us to argue with regard to the asylum seekers and refugees setting out for Australia by boat can be determined relatively simply.

Raimond Gaita has argued that there are three dimensions of the ethical sphere – the moral, the legal and the political – and that these dimensions often conflict with each other. The case of our nation’s policy regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat is an excellent example. Moral, legal and political questions are involved. They are frequently in tension with each other. What is legal might not be moral. What morality demands might not be politically possible. And so on.

This takes me to the core of my disagreement with Neumann and indeed with virtually all other Australian supporters of asylum seekers and refugees. In my view, the choices confronting those fighting for justice for refugees – in general with regard to Australian asylum-seeker policy, and in particular with regard to the future of those marooned on Nauru and Manus Island – are extremely, indeed painfully, difficult. These difficulties cannot be resolved by Neumann’s concluding rhetorical flourish about his understanding and our ignorance of what the requirement of justice demands.

Let me be concrete. There are two aspects of asylum-seeker policy and its relation to the fate of those on Nauru and Manus Island that make it different from all other critical contemporary political issues of interest to those people who are part of what can still be called “the left”. I will try to demonstrate what I mean by a comparison with another contemporary issue in Australia of central concern to those fighting for justice, in this case on behalf of future generations and other species: climate change and the question of the coal industry.

The first difference between the asylum-seeker issue and the climate-change issue is the urgency of time. As in most political situations, activists fighting to end the coal industry in Australia can afford to think in terms of several years or even longer. With activists concerned about the fate of the people now on Nauru and Manus Island this is not the case. If the marooned are not to be destroyed both in body and in spirit, a delay of one or two years or more will, at least for most of these people, prove fatal.

The second difference is the conflict between the immediate campaign and the ultimate goal. For those involved in the climate-change question, the principal immediate campaign – against the Adani coalmine proposal in Queensland – is entirely consistent with the ultimate goal – the end of the Australian coal industry. For those concerned with justice for refugees and asylum seekers there is, however, a contradiction between the immediate campaign – captured in the slogans “let them stay” and “bring them here” – and the ultimate goal of a world in which those fleeing from persecution or war are free to seek asylum in the country of their choice.

The conflict between the immediate campaign ambition and the ultimate ideal can be explained in the following way. Given the experience of 2009 to 2013 – the 50,000 boat arrivals and the 1000 drownings – that traumatised policy makers and politicians in Canberra, and given the 15-year stability of public opinion on the asylum-seeker question, it is as certain as anything in politics can ever be that no government that has a chance of being elected in Australia in the next few years will return to the position adopted by the first Rudd government, where offshore processing and turn-back were both abandoned. Unless therefore the immediate goal of bringing to Australia the people from Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US is decoupled from the ultimate ideal of an Australia that welcomes the arrival of asylum-seeker boats on our shores, the case mounted by the supporters of the asylum seekers – for settling the people now marooned on Nauru and Manus Island in Australia – is certain to fail.

That is why Brennan, Costello, Menadue and I have been arguing for the end of offshore processing but the retention of the policy of turn-back. And that is why in our view the supporters of asylum seekers must make a choice: either to continue with demands that are certain to be rejected or to mount and maintain a policy proposal that has at least a chance of succeeding.

Because Malcolm Turnbull is under siege from forces to his right – from the Abbott supporters and One Nation – in my view it is presently inconceivable that the government he leads might accept something like our proposal. His government might be, however, one defection or one by-election away from collapse. If Bill Shorten becomes Australia’s next prime minister in the near future, a proposal like the one we have mounted might be taken seriously.

Neumann has been offered the right to reply to my rejoinder. Here is the question that in my opinion he (and indeed all supporters of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia) must answer. We have proposed a policy that has at least a chance of convincing a Labor government formed in the next few years. I assume that he, like us, believes that it is morally imperative that the hundreds of proven refugees now on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted for settlement in the US under the Obama–Turnbull deal should be brought to Australia. Because we have argued for the retention of the policy of turn-back, he has condemned our policy proposal as unprincipled and as indifferent to questions of justice. What then is the alternative policy – with a realistic prospect of being adopted – that he proposes?

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book is The Mind of the Islamic State, Redback, Black Inc.      

 
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