Big ideas: a sensible policy solution on asylum seekers
This is the third in a series of essays adapted from the Centre for Policy Development book, More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. The Labor Government has set itself up for failure by upholding the view that asylum seeking is a national security threat, writes Kate Gauthier.
It is said that any civilised society can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable people. Asylum seekers, vilified by the media and feared by the public, make an excellent target for unscrupulous public figures who seek to gain power or position through a culture of fear.
In order to appear tough on asylum seekers – tough on the victims of human rights abuses – successive governments and political parties have enacted or proposed policies that severely curtail the rights of people fleeing war, persecution and torture.
The argument in favour of taking a punitive approach is that it discourages onshore asylum seeking. This is shown to be false by two issues.
The first is that the majority of asylum seekers arrive by plane, not boat, yet policies to discourage asylum seeking are focused on boat arrivals, not plane arrivals. If onshore asylum seeking itself was such a problem, the first cohort to tackle would be the plane arrivals.
The second reason it is a false argument, is that even a cursory glance at the statistics, both domestic and global, will show that deterrent policies have at best only a marginal impact on boat arrival numbers.
After the introduction of mandatory detention, boat arrivals increased. After the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) boat arrivals actually increased.
It is not that these policies necessarily increased asylum seeking themselves (although a good argument can be mounted regarding TPVs). Rather, Australian asylum trends closely follow those of other rich nations, experiencing largely the same ebbs and flows. Australian and global asylum numbers increased in the time period after those policies were put in place.
Then they both decreased in tandem. We are now once again seeing an increase in Australia, an increase that is happening globally as well.
Unfortunately, asylum seeker policy has become a highly politicised issue, where good policy gives way to good politics. The issue of children in immigration detention centres is a good example.
The Government recently announced it would release several hundred children from immigration detention centres. This was mostly met with approval from commentators and policy advocates. But few realised that it was the current ALP Government who had put those children back into detention in the first place.
The recent election, in which the Opposition campaigned stridently on asylum seeker policy, only added to the Government’s fear of appearing “soft” on border security.
In the November 2010 announcement about children in detention, Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated that the Government “intends to progressively move several hundred children and families into community-based accommodation - with the assistance of community organisations - by June 2011.”
This alone shows the political sensitivities of the issue. Why should it take eight months to process only a few hundred cases? There are nearly a thousand children in immigration detention, so why release some and not all? At a recent briefing, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship was unable to explain whether this was a capacity issue and others would be released later, or whether the Government intends to keep older children in detention as a matter of policy.
Ironically, a more measured policy has already been tried – by the Howard Government, lauded by some for its hardline approach. In 2005, it introduced the Community Care Pilot (CCP) program. This was a program that provided intensive casework, psycho-social support and where necessary housing and income support to vulnerable people in the immigration regime. Participants in this program came from both the community and from detention centres.
The results were startling: CCP worked. The evidence from the pilot found that immigration cases were resolved faster, more cheaply, and resulted in people with fewer ongoing support needs. Those rejected for visas were more likely to return home voluntarily, rather than appeal the rejection or require forced deportation.
Given the enormous success of the CCP, it is a shame that the Coalition in opposition does not loudly stake a claim to it. Of course, it would be hard to reconcile the implications of the rights and welfare based approach of the CCP with the Coalition’s current policies of restricting the rights of those seeking refuge in Australian by boat, in order to deter future asylum seekers.
But as the debate remains politicised, sensible policy solutions continue to be sidelined. As part of the process to change how Australia approaches this issue, we need to recognize that asylum seeking is not an immigration issue. It is a human rights and international law issue. Asylum seekers are not seeking to migrate to Australia, they are seeking to leave a place of danger and find safety.
John Howard once famously said: “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.” And he was right.
By signing the Refugee Convention, which allows for refugees to enter Australia without a visa in order to seek asylum, Australia said yes to refugees. We said yes to asylum seekers. Let’s also say yes to some sensible policy options that stops wasting our taxpayer dollars on harming vulnerable people.
Kate Gauthier is a contributing author to the Centre for Policy Development’s recent publication More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. Kate is the Chair of the recently reformed ChilOut (Children Out of Detention).
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