I have spent the past five and a half years working in the refugee and humanitarian division of what was until recently the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
From inside the department, everything connected to asylum-seeker policy looks different. The combination of understanding the thinking behind asylum-seeker policy and daily exposure to the human impact of that policy gives a unique perspective that, for obvious reasons, rarely makes it to the public sphere. However, given the increasingly critical situation on Nauru, I believe it is important that this perspective is more widely understood. I left the department this week in order to speak out.
I believe that both sides of the national debate about asylum seekers have lost touch with reality. I also believe that our current system is wrong, destroying the lives of the men, women and children on Nauru and Manus Island for no reason. I do not support the idea of unrestricted migration, but I think the policy as it stands goes far beyond what is necessary to prevent it from occurring.
July 19 this year was the five-year anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s announcement that no asylum seeker who arrived via boat would be resettled in Australia. It marked half a decade of what is arguably the toughest asylum-seeker policy modern Australia has ever seen. Naively I believed this was a moment when the nation would pause, reflect and consider the wisdom of the path we have taken. I was convinced that there would be intense media interest in the anniversary, with several of the major newspapers dedicating multiple pages to the issue. In reality, the moment came and went with next to no one even noticing.
On reflection, it’s all quite unsurprising. Being out of kilter with the public debate is part of working in the refugee space. It’s a strange sensation, spending your life absolutely soaked in something and watching as a fierce debate rages about an issue that seems barely recognisable when compared with your daily experience. At times it feels hard to imagine another subject that has been talked about as much yet fully engaged with so rarely. But if you take a step back you see that this is just a standard 21st-century debate. Strident views, over-simplification, misinformation and a punishing hatred of nuance. The only difference is that when we get this wrong, which is always the result of such debates, people die.
This article is an attempt to help kick the debate back on track. For far too long the Australian people have been offered a false binary choice: between the suffering of those on Manus and Nauru, and thousands of deaths at sea. The answer should be obvious: we should accept neither. The debate needs to move on from entrenched positions to whatever is necessary to achieve an enduring solution.
The first claim that must be rejected is that any concern about deaths at sea is nothing more than a political smokescreen used to justify present policy. It is not. Of the past 50,000 asylum seekers who made it to Australia’s shores, more than 1100 lost their lives in the attempt, a mortality rate of roughly 2.15 per cent. The highest estimation of casualties from the Syrian civil war is about 2.27 per cent of the pre-war population. This makes the mortality rate of direct asylum-seeking to Australia roughly equivalent to seven years of the bloodiest civil war this century.
The meaning of this is straightforward. The cost in human life of the asylum-seeking route from Indonesia to Christmas Island is extraordinarily high and almost certainly higher than the risk of death asylum seekers face in their home country. This was not a system that saved people; it was one that killed them.
There’s a reason I feel comfortable saying this so definitively: I was a protection visa case officer. My role in the department was to interview asylum seekers, objectively assess the threat they faced and decide if they qualified for refugee status. In my time I’ve interviewed people from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Vietnam and, yes, even a few who made it from Syria. Long ago I lost count of how many decisions I’ve made, but it’s most likely somewhere around 300. Of those I believe that perhaps half a dozen, certainly no more, genuinely faced more mortal danger in their home country than they did on that treacherous stretch of water.
I don’t say this to criticise people for their choices, or to attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the asylum claims of the many who made it to our shores. I say it because it genuinely disturbs me. There are a variety of reasons for wanting to leave a country, and expecting individuals to perform a complicated calculus of the unknowable threats they face before choosing to come is patently absurd.
The process of assessing whether an asylum seeker receives Australia’s protection isn’t faceless and bureaucratic in the way you might imagine. It’s intense and bordering on intimate. You spend perhaps a day finding out everything you possibly can about a person, then you spend anywhere from two to five hours in a room with them, discussing everything about their life. If it’s likely to be a negative decision they will almost always realise this in the interview. You see the familiar flash of realisation before their face simply falls. We crush people’s hopes for a better life while looking them in the eye.
Work as a case officer also provides an understanding of just how dark things can get in this world. The worst interview I ever conducted was in my first year on the job. The man I interviewed presented like someone from whom all happiness had been bleached out. He revealed to me the existence of people who dedicate their lives to perfecting the art of hurting other human beings. It goes far beyond hatred. Some torture seems to be a concerted effort to strip the last vestiges of humanity from another person. A methodical attempt not just to treat the victim as if they are less than human, but to make them believe it. That was the kind of torture this man had been through. I told him that I accepted his story and there was no reason to go through the trauma of reliving it all. He wasn’t listening. As if in a trance he stared into the middle distance and listed all the things that had made him the way he was. The things that had happened to him. The things he had seen happen to others.
That interview affected me like no other. A horrible knot of anger welled up in my chest and sat there for weeks. Not just righteous indignation, but a terrifying, consuming rage. For two weeks I was in a fury broken only by intermittent sickening imaginings of what had been described to me. I began to think that this was my new normal. Thankfully, eventually, the rage subsided.
The job undeniably has a dark side, but it also instils an appreciation of the lives of people who seek asylum, and of the world they left behind. You gain an understanding of their often complicated and ambivalent relationships to their home countries and their sense of loss over those they left behind. As they become fully fleshed out people, so in one’s imagination do those who did not survive the trip to Australia. The tragedy of 1100 people losing their lives becomes 1100 individual tragedies. More than the numbers by themselves, this is the reason I will never support irregular migration to Australia.
By the time of Rudd’s July 2013 announcement I’d been in the department for four months. I’d taken the job out of a morbid curiosity and a desire to understand from the inside one of the most contentious political issues in our country’s history. Besides, 90 per cent of them end up being refugees anyway, right? I thought to myself when applying. After four months of working on a seemingly endless stream of unmeritorious Sri Lankan cases, I was painfully aware of just how naive I had been. Everything I thought I knew about the issue had been completely upended. I had no idea what to think or really what I believed.
I remember the Rudd announcement quite distinctly. A few colleagues had gathered in the breakroom to watch. The immediate reaction was muted. No one said much of anything. My guess is that we’d all come to the realisation that the situation was out of control and that the government would eventually be forced to do something drastic. The only question in our minds was what, and now we had the answer. Personally, my only thought was Makes sense, but they need to start working on a more durable long-term solution immediately, before quietly heading back to my desk. At that point I genuinely believed the response was necessary to stop a continuing humanitarian catastrophe.
Five years later I no longer believe the ongoing refusal to resettle those on Nauru and Manus in Australia serves any purpose. My doubts began to form during my trip to Nauru several years ago. At the time it was common for department officials to travel to the islands. I was only deployed for a short period, but it made a significant impression on me. A lot has been written about the island already, and I don’t believe any Australian genuinely believes that life there is easy or desirable. For that reason I won’t go into a long description of my time there. I will, however, make two observations.
The first is that it’s hard to overstate how incredibly claustrophobic Nauru feels. Often I found myself staring out at where the waves start to break, just 10 metres from the shore, and being painfully aware of how far from the nearest landmass we were. It felt like the world ended where those waves broke and that nothing else existed, or could exist. It was a deeply uncomfortable feeling, and I was more than ready to leave when my time was over.
The second observation is that even these shores were off limits for all but Nauruans. This isn’t a law, just a practical outcome of Nauru’s ageing sewerage system. In a briefing we were told that the E. coli concentration in the water is simply too high for anyone to swim at the beaches without getting sick – other than Nauruans, who develop a resistance while growing up. Foreigners are confined to swimming in the harbour, a small concrete enclosure in Anibare Bay on the east side of the island.
I am well aware that these observations are trivial compared to the well-documented issues on the island. I’m just seeking to underline the strange sense of being completely out of place. You are constantly aware that you do not belong. Nauru may be home for Nauruans, but it never could be or will be for the majority of asylum seekers and refugees interned there. It’s not hard to see why so many end up struggling with mental-health problems.
On Nauru I met a man who started to shake my faith in the system. He was essentially the same as the man I had interviewed in my first year working with the department. His eyes were constantly unfocused; he was only ever partially present. I saw pictures of him in his life before Nauru. They showed a happy man almost unrecognisable compared with the gaunt, haunted apparition now in front of me. Nothing I knew about his past could explain his transformation. He hadn’t been tortured, he hadn’t suffered sexual assault, he didn’t claim to have suffered anything particularly traumatic in his home country. The conclusion was inescapable. We had done this to him. We had so effectively destroyed a man that he wasn’t just indistinguishable from a torture victim. He was indistinguishable from the most damaged torture victim I have ever encountered. And I’ve interviewed many.
My time on Nauru left me rattled, but at that point I still supported current government policy. I could not, in good conscience, support a change to policy that would restart an industry that profits from the senseless and needless loss of human life. I never will. What it did show me, though, was that there is no way to engage with the issue of asylum seekers in any serious or meaningful way without being deeply morally compromised. All of the time.
Properly constituted, the global asylum-seeking problem is simple and awful. People have an absolute right to seek protection. However, the unfettered expression of this right in first-world economies leads to higher rates of speculative asylum-seeking, fraud and, ultimately, avoidable deaths. That’s before you even get to the secondary issues, like the breakdown of faith in immigration more broadly or the resurgence of the slave trade in northern Africa.
Most people in Australia focus on one half or the other of the asylum-seeker equation, which is understandable. To accept that all the considerations matter and none can be disregarded is to deprive yourself of the comfort that moral certainty provides, and for this to be replaced with gnawing doubt and a certain heaviness. When you start carrying that weight, you find you can never really look away or reach a satisfying conclusion. You keep staring at the issue from different angles, trying to find some kind of resolution that sits comfortably within you. Finally, however, if you pay that level of attention to the issue for long enough, it becomes apparent that refusing Australian resettlement to those on the islands is unnecessary.
Essentially the system as it stands relies completely on boat turn-backs. According to figures on the Parliament of Australia website, there have been 33 turn-backs of boats carrying 810 people since the policy began in December 2013. If those people had had to be accommodated on Nauru and Manus, the offshore detention solution would have collapsed under its own weight.
From a brutal efficiency perspective, the current turn-back regime has been a wild success in both preventing arrivals and deterring attempts. Since the start of the policy no boat has managed to avoid interception in the Indian Ocean, where the majority of people-smuggling activities have taken place. Personally I believe it is also the most successful solution we’ve come to from the humanitarian point of view. I am not suggesting that it is pleasant, nor that a better solution cannot eventually be found, simply that out of all the solutions we have tried this is the one that causes the least damage.
It raises a serious question. If turn-backs are so effective, why do the more damaging aspects of the deterrence regime persist? Why don’t we have the confidence to rely on the turn-back regime and resettle those on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia? Having worked in the area for so long, I have come to believe it’s due to two myths deeply held in the department that are rarely challenged and, for most, difficult to see beyond.
The first myth in which we are trapped maintains that any kindness, any whatsoever, will restart the industry. The second is that people smugglers are capable of sending large numbers of boats to Australia at short notice, enough to overwhelm any possible solution. Although from an organisational point of view the latter may be true, it grossly overestimates the ability of people smugglers to convince people to attempt the trip. They are both myths born of the experiences of 2012 and 2013, when the people-smuggling business was running red-hot.
The single largest policy misstep underpinning these myths was the decision in late 2011 to release asylum seekers into the community before determining their refugee status. This led to a significant spike in what are disparagingly described as “economic migrants”. I will not go into the merits or otherwise of that label here. Suffice to say that a large number of people with weaker-than-usual protection claims, who previously would not have made the attempt, took this opportunity to enter Australia. This is what swelled the numbers so much that the system became untenable.
With so many asylum seekers making the trip, people smugglers engaged in what the department calls “surge tactics”. Facing a new attempt to stem the flow of asylum seekers, smugglers used a variety of means to convince large numbers to travel to Australia immediately. This is why the original reopening of Manus and Nauru ended up being ineffectual. The islands filled quickly, and it became apparent that any new arrivals would not be forced to endure offshore processing.
After Rudd’s July 2013 announcement, people smugglers attempted the same tactics. This time they didn’t quite succeed, but came very close. Inside the department it was now believed that any loosening of Australia’s regime would result in a similar surge, with several thousand asylum seekers making the trip.
But just how likely is this? The last surge, after Rudd’s July 2013 announcement, was relatively limited and finished mid September. By that stage just over 3750 people had made the journey. As the number of arrivals per month was already around 3500 at the time, that 3750 over two months was fewer than expected. The smugglers weren’t so much convincing people to take the risk as they were convincing people who had already committed to a course of action, and often had already paid a percentage of their fee, to see it through.
This is very different to convincing large numbers of people to part with around US$6000 to take a risk that will almost certainly end with them finding themselves back where they started, only US$6000 poorer. Yet the experience of 2013 still underpins what officials believe will happen if there is any change in policy. We are equating a business that is now in a state of torpor and managing to attract around 50 clients a year with what it was at its height, under very different policy settings. It is not a rational comparison.
A much more reasonable comparison is with what happened after February 8, 2008 when the Rudd government announced the closure of Nauru. Despite the absence of offshore processing, over the next 11 months only seven boats carrying 161 people arrived on Australian shores. What’s truly remarkable is that this is only two more boats and 13 more people than in 2007, when the Howard government’s Pacific Solution was in full effect.
It took a full 12 months for the people-smuggling business to properly re-establish itself and five years to get to the sort of numbers that it had in 2013. Nevertheless, members of my department and the government are convinced that, this time, even the smallest concession will somehow immediately lead to thousands coming every month. It’s truly weird. People smugglers are not so singularly charismatic that they can convince thousands of people to part with large sums of money to take a risk, particularly without evidence that they can deliver what is promised. They need successful journeys to rebuild the confidence that’s required to restart the industry. This is the one thing that we have demonstrated that we can deny them. With close to 100 per cent effectiveness.
Since the July 2013 announcement the government has made a few gestures of kindness. They have had very little impact on the smuggling trade. The most important of these happened in December 2014. Because the islands were at capacity, a little over a thousand people remained in detention while nominally being liable to be transferred to either Nauru or Manus. As part of the Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload (RALC) Bill, these people, provided they had arrived before January 1, 2014 were slowly allowed into the Australian mainland community to apply for, and receive, protection visas.
This point is critical. This one act was an admission of defeat. It showed that the July 2013 announcement was not practicable or actionable. As we are so often told, there is no way that people smugglers missed this shift in policy. There is no way that they weren’t using it to attempt to convince asylum seekers to take the journey. According to conventional wisdom, there should have been a spike in the number of asylum seekers attempting the journey in the next year. There was not. In 2015 there were half as many asylum seekers trying to reach Australia as there were in 2014.
Asylum seekers make their choices on what they credibly believe will happen to them. The decisions in 2008 to close the islands and in 2011 to release people into the community before assessment mattered because it changed the treatment of new arrivals. The December 2014 decision did not, because it only changed outcomes for those who had already made the trip. Similarly, the announcement in 2016 of a deal whereby the US would resettle some existing detainees might have been expected to cause a spike in boat arrivals, but it did not. What matters to asylum seekers is not what eventually happened to people who got on a boat five years ago.
What matters is what happened to the last boat that made the attempt. And for the past five years that has been a prompt return. Recent work by Kieren Kresevic Salazar has demonstrated that asylum seekers in Indonesia are focused on turn-backs. Those he interviewed claimed that few people considered Manus and Nauru when deciding whether to make an attempt to get to Australia, because the border is seen as “closed”. The statistics on turn-backs would suggest that they are not lying.
In recent weeks the question of New Zealand resettlement for small numbers of those detained offshore has been raised again. That the prime minister is openly canvassing this option is further evidence that resettling those on Nauru and Manus in developed economies, as is their wish, poses no genuine threat to the deterrence system. Such an approach will not resolve this issue anytime soon, however, and will almost certainly lead to further damage and more deaths among those remaining. It is also unnecessary. Resettlement in Australia today will not restart the people-smuggling industry.
If you accept that the capacity of people smugglers has been seriously overestimated and that only concessions made to prospective arrivals change people’s decision-making, the answer to this vexing issue, at least in the short term, becomes obvious. Keep the architecture, remove the people. Give parity to all those who arrived before January 1, 2014 by allowing those found to be refugees to reside in the Australian community. And, where possible, use the US deal to resettle the small number who were successful after. Then, keep the door closed to irregular boat arrivals by maintaining the current settings for future arrivals. The worst-case scenario of such an approach is that one or two boats manage to elude the naval cordon before being transferred to Nauru and we end up with significantly fewer people on the islands. The best case is we end up with none.
If we want to, we can end this nightmare today.
– October 18, 2018
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