November 2015


Slow death

By Robert Manne
Deterrents and resettlement may be the only way to break the asylum-seeker gridlock

For many years Australia’s asylum-seeker debate, or, more exactly, the debate over those asylum seekers who reach our shores by boat, has been in gridlock. The besetting sin of the opponents of these asylum seekers is a willingness to inflict unnecessary cruelty; the besetting sin of their supporters political unrealism. Unless somehow this gridlock can be broken, the principal victims will be the 1500 people who have been marooned for two years or more on Nauru and Manus Island.

As I write, the politics of the gridlock is being played out on the national stage. Under pressure, the Turnbull government agreed to allow a traumatised 23-year-old Somali woman, who was allegedly raped on Nauru, to come to Australia for an abortion. After five days she was flown back. Some of her supporters claimed that she had not been allowed to see a doctor or offered an interpreter. The minister for immigration, Peter Dutton, offered convincing evidence to the contrary and argued that the woman had refused an abortion, that claims of her supporters were “patently incorrect, if not fabricated”, and that what those supporters truly wanted was a “migration outcome”. The incident undoubtedly deepened the mutual loathing felt by the opponents and supporters of the asylum seekers.

To understand why hundreds of people were transported to Nauru and Manus Island in 2012 and 2013, why they are now stuck there apparently indefinitely, and, most importantly, how the government might be convinced to resettle them in Australia before their spirits are entirely broken, a brief history of asylum-seeker policy over the past quarter century is needed.

Between 1989 and 1992 a few hundred asylum seekers, mainly from Cambodia, reached Australia. In response, the Keating government introduced a deterrent system of mandatory detention. It did not work. In 1999 larger numbers of asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, began reaching Australia. Additional deterrents were tried for those found to be refugees, most importantly temporary protection visas. These also did not work.

Boats of asylum seekers continued to arrive until August 2001. To help pull off an unlikely election win, the Howard government dispatched paratroopers to prevent a Norwegian cargo vessel with more than 400 Afghan refugees on board from landing in Australia and immediately introduced two new deterrents – offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island and naval tow-backs to Indonesia where possible. These did work. Between 2002 and 2007 virtually no asylum seekers set out for Australia by boat.

The asylum seekers’ supporters claimed that the boats had stopped coming because the global refugee situation had eased. This was an exaggeration at best. They also claimed that moral leadership would make the majority of Australians sympathetic to boat arrivals. When Kevin Rudd became prime minister, both these ideas were tested. Rudd closed down the now virtually empty offshore detention centres and abandoned the threat of forcible tow-back to Indonesia. Gradually the boats returned. The rising popular anger over the asylum-seeker issue was one of the reasons Rudd lost the prime ministership in June 2010.

Under Julia Gillard, the numbers of boat arrivals increased. To complicate the moral picture, there were also many hundreds of drownings. Given the accelerating rate of arrivals, the strength of public opinion and the number of deaths at sea, it was inevitable that the Gillard government would try to stem the flow of boats. Its most important initiative came in August 2012 with the reintroduction of offshore processing for a small percentage of the boat arrivals. More a malign lottery than a deterrent, this proved completely ineffective. Between January and July 2013, more than 17,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat, almost 4000 more than during the entire 11 years of John Howard. Without some new policy response, there would most likely have been 40,000 or perhaps even more arrivals by boat in the coming year.

When Rudd returned to the prime ministership in 2013, one of his first acts was to sign new agreements with the governments of Papua New Guinea and then Nauru. They had two main elements. One was to transport every asylum seeker to detention camps for offshore processing. The other was the promise that henceforth no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would ever be settled in Australia. The first promise restored a Howard policy. The second was even harsher. Because of this second Rudd decision, which was of course embraced by Tony Abbott following his election a few months later, the life prospects of the asylum seekers, whose misfortune was to have reached Australia after 19 July 2013, were effectively ended. Rudd’s announcements slowed the number of asylum-seeker boat arrivals, eventually to a trickle. Abbott’s addition – naval turn-backs to Indonesia or elsewhere – “stopped the boats”, as he never tired of telling Australians.

Without the close attention that many thousands of dedicated asylum-seeker supporters have paid over the past two years, the suffering being experienced by the 1500 people on Nauru and Manus Island would most likely have been ignored in Australia. For this, the highest praise is due. Pressure is mounting daily in the campaign to bring the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia. So far, however, their supporters have seemed incapable of arguing the kind of case that has any chance of convincing the politicians or the military and intelligence officials in Canberra to revoke the Rudd–Abbott decision never to settle these refugees in Australia. While Abbott was prime minister this case would have had zero chance of success. Under Malcolm Turnbull there is some prospect of its eventually being considered. A plausible case, resting on more than compassion, is now needed.

Such a case should, I believe, begin with the recognition that Australians are not, in general, redneck racists hostile to refugees. What historical experience and evidence of the opinion polls have shown is that Australians’ hostility is not to refugees but to asylum seekers who arrive spontaneously by boat. This is not a recent phenomenon. Under Malcolm Fraser, it was politically easier for the government to settle 70,000 Indochinese refugees selected by Australian officials from the camps of South-East Asia than it was for it to accept the 2000 Vietnamese who arrived in Darwin by sea. Professor Andrew Markus has conducted important empirical research for the Scanlon Foundation that consistently shows Australians are, on balance, favourably disposed to refugees but hostile to asylum-seeker boat arrivals.

If anything, over time that opinion has hardened. On this question, public opinion and the policies of both the Coalition and Labor are now settled. No government in Australia will do what the supporters of the asylum seekers want: to once more open Australia’s borders to boats. Many supporters believe that the enthusiasm shown for the Abbott government’s decision to accept 12,000 Syrians shows that the tide of opinion has turned on the refugee question. This represents a category mistake, a failure to understand the difference between opinion on spontaneous asylum-seeker boat arrivals and orderly refugee programs under government control.

It is not only inconceivable that either a Coalition or a Labor government will in the foreseeable future run the kind of risk that Rudd accepted in 2008. What those concerned about the situation of the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island must also now accept is that the politicians and the military-intelligence officials were genuinely spooked by what happened between January 2012 and July 2013, when more than 30,000 asylum seekers reached our shores. What the politicians and officials now fear is that if Canberra blinks, with a weakening of any aspect of the deterrent system erected over the past quarter century, the people smugglers will once again have a product to sell to desperate asylum seekers and that the boats will return.

Recently, 400 staff members from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne protested about the damage being done to children not on Nauru but in Australia’s detention centres. Minister Dutton responded, “I understand the concern … but the Defence and Border Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to return.” In other words, to prevent boats leaving Indonesia, children must be locked up in Australia. This thought shows how far orthodox thinking in Canberra has lost touch with reality. If the supporters of the asylum seekers are to have any prospect of saving the lives of the 1500 presently on Nauru or Manus Island, what they will have to do is to overcome this entrenched mindset with argument, and convince the politicians and officials that these refugees can be settled in Australia without any reasonable likelihood of a significant number of new boat arrivals.

Here evidence drawn from history offers the best hope and the most reliable guide. Under Howard, more than 1600 asylum seekers were transported to Nauru and Manus Island. Of these, one died, 483 returned to their homelands “voluntarily”, 448 were settled in Western countries (principally New Zealand) and 705 settled in Australia. Despite the fact that there were more than two million Afghan refugees, despite the fact that as a consequence of the post-invasion chaos the numbers of Iraqi refugees exploded, despite the fact that the political situation in Iran had not improved, between 2002 and 2007, as resettlement from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia slowly took place, virtually no boats of asylum seekers from the Middle East or elsewhere set out for Australia. Clearly, the threat of a lengthy stay in one of the offshore processing camps and, probably even more importantly, the threat of tow-back to Indonesia were sufficient to kill the market for the passage from Indonesia to Australia. There was no need to promise to prevent any asylum seeker presently in the offshore centres ever settling in Australia.

Allowing those who are now on Nauru and Manus Island to come to Australia does not require any change in the policy of naval interception or even closing the offshore processing centres once they are empty. Just as under the Howard government the eventual resettlement in Australia of a large number of those transported to Nauru and Manus Island did not undo the deterrent effect of offshore processing and possible return to Indonesia, so is it unlikely to do so now. Who, after all, will be willing to spend several thousands of dollars when the overwhelmingly most likely prospect is interception by the Australian Navy and return to the point of departure or, in the unlikely event of that failing, an indefinite period of detention in an offshore processing camp?

Many Australians recognise that we have a responsibility to people who arrive on our shores seeking our help, which is different from the kind of responsibility we owe to the 50 million or more refugees worldwide – even if it is not always easy to determine what actions that responsibility entails, as was revealed in the debate about whether we should try to discourage boats from coming to Australia to prevent predictable mass drownings in the future. If what I call an ethic of proximity does indeed exist, clearly the 1500 people Australia transported to Nauru and Manus Island fall within it. Given what has occurred, we cannot now say that what happens to these people is none of our concern.

Unless the High Court unexpectedly finds offshore detention unlawful or the majority of the refugees are willing to go to another bribed neighbouring country, like the Philippines, with marginally less frightening resettlement prospects than Cambodia, the choice we will face is straightforward. We can choose to allow those presently on Nauru and Manus Island to languish for several more years, watching indifferently as their spirits and bodies are gradually broken, or, at what seems to me a negligible risk of a return of significant numbers of asylum-seeker boats, we can decide to save their lives by resettling them in Australia.

The case I am making is based on what I think to be a realistic assessment of the political situation in Australia today. Many supporters of the asylum seekers will be angered by it and reject it on legal and moral grounds. Nonetheless, whatever the legal and moral compromises involved, which are real and undeniable, I believe the proposal offered here is considerably better than the alternative: pursuing a strategy that has no prospect of success for the resettlement of those presently marooned on Nauru and Manus Island, a strategy that fails both to recognise the causes of the bureaucratic roadblock in Canberra and to provide a reasoned answer to its politicians’ and intelligence officials’ wildly exaggerated fears.

22 October 2015


Read responses from Sarah Hanson-Young, Julian Burnside and Frank Brennan.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.


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