It is to be hoped that the Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles’s recent thought bubble
suggesting that an ALP government would continue to tow back the boats
has been well and truly pricked. But his foolish comment shows how much
of a policy limbo Labor is in on asylum seekers.
On one hand we have the Abbott government policy of deterring
refugees by harsh treatment of those who try to come by boat. This
includes the tow-backs, the refusal to allow any asylum seekers that
come by boat to be settled in Australia, even if they are found to be
genuine refugees, terrible conditions in off-shore processing centres,
lengthy waits for the processing of claims, little or no access to legal
advice, increasingly bizarre locations for resettlement, like Cambodia,
a reduced refugee intake and restrictive visa conditions. All this with
repeated dog whistling language – calling refugees illegals, implying
that they are likely to be terrorists, or have Ebola and generally
ramping up the existing the xenophobic tendencies in the electorate.
This approach seems to be stopping the boats, but at the expense of a
good deal of cruelty, certainly disregard for Australia’s international
obligations, probably a degree of illegality, and likely a degree of
estrangement of our largest neighbour. Indonesia under President Jokowi
may be even less accommodating to tow-backs than it has been under
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. These policies may be stopping the
flow of refugees to Australia, but won’t stop the flow to the region.
And the refugee problem there is likely to escalate; the Western
alliance’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the chaos in Iraq and Syria
will see to that.
At the other extreme there is the ‘let them all come’ attitude. It
requires that all processing is done on–shore, with only health checks,
rather than compulsory detention, before release into the community.
This sounds nice, but there are a number of problems.
Unrestricted entry does nothing to restrict boat arrivals, and
therefore by implication encourages them. The Greens and their
supporters – the main protagonists of these views – want better
international efforts in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to
process refugees in the hope that this will stop people getting on
boats. But those who can will, particularly if they don’t yet have
refugee status, and significant numbers will die at sea. It is estimated
that around 900 refugees have died at sea on their way to Australia
Various suggestions have been made about improving the safety of the
boat journey, including not confiscating the boats and jailing their
crews, so that reusable boats and experienced crews can do the people
smuggling. This makes no sense if people smuggling is to remain illegal.
Allowing people smuggling advantages those able to pay – hardly a fair
The Greens’ policy is to allow an annual intake of 30,000. That
number could easily be taken up overwhelmingly with boat arrivals. Tough
luck all the other refugees around the world who aren’t in a position –
geographical or financial – to get on a boat. And what happens if there
are more than 30,000 boat arrivals?
But the main thing wrong with this policy is that no party espousing
it is likely to form government in the foreseeable future. Not much
point having a policy no one can implement. It is likely that by the
2016 election, the boats will have been stopped, the off-shore detention
centres will be empty and that the LNP will campaign hard on their
‘success’. Any other proposals will be labelled as letting the boats
So what should Labor do?
Labor policy on asylum seekers needs to meet the following criteria: it must
- Embody Labor’s value of fairness
- Meet Australia’s international obligations
- Be practicable
- Be electorally viable
There is a temptation to run a small-target me-too campaign on this
policy – as Marles has already hinted. Asylum seeker policy is probably
not going to be the main thing on voters’ minds in 2016 – it’s the
economy, stupid – but the LNP will certainly try and wedge Labor on it.
People whose vote is determined by hatred and fear of asylum seekers,
rather than by the punitive economic policies of the LNP, will probably
not vote Labor anyway, whatever Labor does. On the left, rusted-on
Greens voters won’t be satisfied by anything other than an open door
policy to refugees, so Labor is unlikely to please them either. There
are probably a number of voters who are concerned about refugees who
come by boat, but are more concerned about economic policies. Labor’s
asylum seeker policy is unlikely to be a game-changer for them –
whatever that policy.
I think small target temptation must be resisted, not only because
the current policy is inhumane and probably illegal, but also because if
Labor is to make a case for a supporting a fairer and more equal
society, this has to include a policy on asylum seekers that accepts
Australia’s international responsibilities, and treats asylum seekers as
people in dire need of our help, rather than trying to deter them from
This is not, however, a reason for committing electoral suicide.
There are other things at stake in the next election besides asylum
For me, the non-negotiable is speedy processing in humane processing
centres. I don’t think Labor has to commit itself to on-shore processing
of asylum seeker claims.
I have come to this view after listening to Brad Chilcott, of Welcome
to Australia. His work with refugees has convinced him that it is not
the location of the processing centre, but lack of information about
their future and their refugee status application that causes the anger,
the despair, the self-harm that characterise the refugee experience
under the LNP. He believes that refugee centres must have independent
oversight, and be accountable and transparent. It’s not the hardship of
Naru, he says. It’s the fear they could be there for ever.
Mandatory detention is acceptable if it is brief. Labor would need to
commit to much quicker processing of claims, where ever refugees were
sent. What about children? Again, it is the length of time in detention
that is crucial.
I’m not sure that the centres on Naru and Manus Island can ever be
suitable refugee locations – conditions there are described as ‘cruel,
inhuman, and unlawful’ – amounting to torture. But if faster processing
means refugees need only stay for a short time, then maybe, with the
proper oversight which is clearly lacking, these facilities could
continue to house refugees. And the asylum seekers would know that
settlement in Australia – rather than New Guinea – was a likely outcome
So what about people smuggling? Because of both the risk of death at
sea, and the privileging of refugees who can afford to pay people
smugglers, Labor policy must aim to deter people from getting on boats.
They are much less likely to do this if, like the Greens, Labor commits
to a larger intake of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine
refugees into Australia, and if there are much better regional
arrangements for processing in host countries like Indonesia and
Malaysia. Much greater funding for the UNHCR is essential.
Labor should treat all asylum seekers the same in terms of
eligibility for resettlement in Australia, whether they come by boat or
Should Labor ever ‘stop the boats’? Yes, but not by force. This
policy should aim to stop people undertaking the dangerous journey
because there are better ways of finding safety, ways that respect the
right of people to seek asylum, respect Australia’s international
obligations and reflect Labor’s aspiration for a just and equal society.