It is time all sides work together to halt needless asylum seeker drownings

June 12, 2013
Paris Aristotle

I was profoundly dismayed at hearing the news of yet another boat laden with asylum seekers capsizing north of Christmas Island. Aerial surveillance confirmed there were at least 55 men, women and children on board, including at least two babies. [emphasis added]

This latest tragedy raises important questions for everyone. How many more asylum seekers must die on their way to Australia before our Parliament puts partisan politics aside and unites to prevent more tragedies? Will this Parliament really end without an agreed approach that can prevent more deaths while safely protecting thousands more refugees each year?

Our collective failures have emboldened smugglers to exploit more asylum seekers regardless of how many perish.

It is time we all climbed out of our respective trenches and abandoned the atrophied debate that has characterised this issue for too long. Everyone needs to compromise.

Our collective failures have emboldened smugglers to exploit more asylum seekers regardless of how many perish. While political posturing takes precedence over saving lives and advancing the national interest gives way to advancing electoral interests, the implementation of a viable humane strategy will remain elusive.

For every month we delay, we add multiple months to the task of managing this better, as the pipeline swells with more desperate people. This reality will confront whoever wins the next election. Any government, now or in the future, will need an integrated package similar to that proposed by the Houston panel last year, of which I was a member.

As the panel's report stated in its foreword: ''There are no quick or simple solutions to the policy dilemmas and the humanitarian challenges that asylum-seeking create. In addressing these dilemmas we believe that Australian policy can, and should, be hard-headed but not hard-hearted; that practicality and fairness should take precedence over theory and inertia; and that the perfect should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good.'' Our nation must embrace this reality.

Parliament can negotiate on the report's components and how they will be applied but to delay further is to allow more lives to be lost.

Nobody in Parliament can hide from this truth - the warning signs are clear and the evidence is unequivocal. Unfortunately, to date there has been a reluctance by people on all sides to analyse information objectively and to allow new information to be considered with the depth and honesty this issue demands.

This gets in the way of robust analysis and the co-operative action we need, and stifles our ability to speak with a clarion voice on these issues.

How then can we expect to assure refugees that a regional system will work for them or that engaging smugglers is neither better or safer?

Much of the debate surrounding a way forward has been argued on the ethics of either intervening or not intervening to prevent people risking their lives in search of protection.

Good people argue that creating disincentives such as transferring asylum seekers who arrive by boat back into a regional system for processing is unethical and harmful, and that no Australian government should be a party to that.

They argue that refugees die seeking protection all over the world and that if we intervene in this way, people will die taking risks going elsewhere.

Other good people argue that we should intervene to prevent people taking unnecessary risks and in this case dying at sea. That if it is within our sphere of influence to do so and to create a safer alternative system at the same time, then we should. We should employ measures that will assess refugee claims fairly and promptly, and provide a durable solution to those who need it.

To make such a system viable, it will also have to include the ability to transfer people into it. They would need the protection of adequate safeguards, easy access to a fair processing system and services that would help to protect their wellbeing. Malaysia as well as Indonesia are critical countries to form part of this system. Without both of them, no government will be able make it work. How else could a regional system work? If it can be easily circumvented, then it will not be sustainable. This is the only realistic way to prevent deaths at sea and safely protect more refugees.

Media and government reports indicate more than 400 people drowned coming to Australia in the past 10 months. Anecdotal information from refugee communities suggest the figure is much higher. If just a couple of these tragedies occurred in full view of the media, if the terror on the people's faces was public or the sight of children being crushed by waves flooded our TV screens, it would be impossible for our Parliament to ignore or avoid uniting in response. It would be impossible for the rest of us also.

So while I agree wholeheartedly that we should never deliberately set out to do harm, I also believe that we should not allow harm or death to occur through inaction when we have the capability to prevent it.

The fact that it is beyond our immediate gaze should not weaken our efforts or diminish our commitment. That would be unethical.

My preference is we create a regional system that is fair and humane rather than simply accepting that these deaths are unavoidable or the lesser of two evils. I believe by working together, we can achieve this without resorting to simplistic deterrence-based actions alone.

If those who disagree have a more effective, more humane, completely implementable plan that addresses the full complexity of the issue, then please present it and I for one will support it. If no such plan exists, then let us take a leap of faith and draw on the goodness that we are capable of to do better than we are at present.

Paris Aristotle was a member of the Prime Minister's expert panel on asylum seekers.


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