What should we do about boat people?
by Julian Burnside
What we know:
We know that boat people come here principally from Afghanistan, where the Hazaras are the target of Taliban genocide, and from Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are being persecuted in the wake of their failed liberation movement.
We know that Hazaras and Tamils are really desperate in their bid for freedom. You have to be, to take such risks.
We know that most boat people who arrive here alive end up being assessed as genuine refugees, entitled to our protection. About 90% of them.
We know that when they get on small boats and try to get to Christmas Island (part of Australia) some of the boats sink and some of the refugees drown. The number who have drowned is not clear, but it looks like about 2 – 3% of them.
We know that desperate people will take desperate measures. Experience of the Jews in the 1930s and the Vietnamese in the late 1970s tells us that.
We know that a person facing death or torture is not likely to be deterred by the prospect of being locked up in a detention centre, or even by the risk of drowning. Common sense and ordinary experience tells us that.
What are we to do, knowing what we do?
Our political leaders have expressed concern about refugees drowning, and have condemned the callousness of people smugglers. They are looking for a Solution.
The problem for which they want a solution is the problem of people drowning.
Fair enough: if refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are going to risk their lives on small boats, we have to decide what we are going to do about it.
We can let them drown – our politicians say they don’t want that to happen; most Australians would be shocked at that idea. It’s not an option.
We can use “offshore processing”. This has several distinct meanings and one big problem. As used by Abbott and Gillard, “offshore processing” means sending people to Nauru or Malaysia, and closing the door behind them. The ‘processing’ bit is hard to see, because as far as Abbott/Gillard are concerned, we don’t care what the result of the processing is: we have solved the problem by giving it to someone else. But the major parties don’t care about that: it’s their way of ‘stopping the boats’, by which they mean stopping the refugees.
The big problem with this is that it only kicks in after the refugees have got on a boat, thus running the very risk Abbott and Gillard say they want to save them from. It’s a strange thing that the Pacific Solution and the Malaysian Solution have this in common: they do not solve the problem they are designed to solve.
In short, neither the Pacific Solution nor the Malaysian Solution is a solution at all, unless the politicians come clean and say: “We don’t mind about people drowning, we just don’t want the ones who get here.” But they are not saying that.
The other meaning of ‘offshore processing’ is for Australia to process their asylum claim offshore (ie, in Indonesia, where they are before they get on a boat) and promise resettlement in a finite, specified time. By processing refugee claims in Indonesia, and increasing our refugee intake, we would be able to create a queue for orderly, safe resettlement.
There are a couple of necessary caveats: the processing has to be fair; the increase in refugee places has to be sufficient to keep their waiting time in Indonesia to just two or three years; we would have to warn them about the risk of getting on a smuggler’s boat; we would have to enlist Indonesia’s cooperation so the refugees could live without harassment while they waited for resettlement.
This is genuine offshore processing. I think it would work: it would certainly stop the boats and the deaths; it would not stop the arrival of refugees. I wonder if Labor or the Coalition will embrace it? And if not, let’s ask them why.