Treating the symptoms of a political headache
The decision to suspend asylum seeker applications for six months represents a superficial attempt to appear both hard-line and compassionate on people smuggling, and just in time for the Federal election.
It has been less than a month since with dry-cleaned suits, a full stomach and make-up for the cameras, three senior federal ministers announced a suspension of asylum seeker claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan for three and six months respectively.
Ever since then though, the policy has continued its descent into a shambles with over a thousand asylum seekers in a detention centre designed for just four-hundred on Christmas Island – in tents and demountables – and the reopening of Curtin Detention Centre.
In none of the announcements however, was any mention given to the underlying conditions in refugee camps, which are within the government’s reach to improve through greater UNHCR funding. These legal channels need to be made more efficient.
Refugee camps are overcrowded, disease-ridden, and poverty-stricken; often nothing more than mere tents on the border of conflict zones for those lucky enough to even get shelter. Rape, hunger and crimes plague the camps, which are often filled to the brim with hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees. Security is non-existent, and at night, the only protection is prayer.
Faced with these conditions, those without wealth are stuck in limbo, waiting to be processed and hoping to survive throughout the night. For those with wealth, a few skip the queue in these camps by soliciting the help of people smugglers to risk the dangerous journey to Australia.
And yet the Rudd Government’s policy does not address this. By Stephen Smith’s own admission, “we are not asserting or suggesting that this will stop the flow of boats in the short term.” Chris Evans was also quick to make that clear, “we still expect boat arrivals”, but “over-time” boat arrivals will decrease.
These statements represent the perfect election benchmark, an election fix of the most hypocritical kind. Do not expect results anytime before the election is the message these ministers are keen to get out.
And by any measure, this policy is far less humane than anything John Howard was ever criticised for introducing. Remember that Kevin Rudd was the first to vehemently condemn the Howard government for supposedly breaching human rights with indefinite, prolonged detention.
However under the scheme announced this month, those arriving from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, regardless of whether they are legitimate refugees (and of course, we will not find out until the suspension is over) must wait in detention centres.
In three or six months, the Rudd government will review the suspension to determine whether it should be lifted, whether these asylum seekers should be processed, or whether they should continue to wait. How’s that for indefinite detention?
But the suspension’s major problem is that far from alleviating pressure on the Rudd government from increased boat arrivals, this policy is destined to increase pressure from two sides.
As boats arrive, not only will the result be increased anxiety amongst Australians, but spiraling fiscal constraints on the government.
Where in the past, processed asylum seekers have been determined to be either refugees or illegal immigrants and dealt with accordingly, thereby alleviating costs on the system, under the Rudd government’s new policy all arrivals will simply wait in detention centres.
The Rudd government would be wise to remember, that detention centres cost money. And this is a cost which accumulates as more arrivals come, a running cost, which will put even more pressure on the government to abolish the policy.
Instead of a turnover, every new asylum seeker from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan will wait in our detention centres - on overcrowded Christmas Island and the Mainland – each day the bill will increase, and each day the underlying problem of refugee camps will continue to serve as push-factors for asylum seekers.
Because the unfortunate reality is that this policy was never meant to send a genuine message to people smugglers. It was tailored to the Australian people, to anyone with voting rights.
And just in time for polling day.
Alex Dore is the Policy Director the NSW United Nations Youth Association, and Vice-President Policy of the Sydney University Liberal Club.
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