Humane reasons for processing asylum seekers offshore
September 17, 2011
Do you support onshore or offshore processing? In some quarters, support for onshore processing of asylum seekers is used as a de facto test of compassion, morality or support.
Letter writers to newspapers across the country suggest that the only possible rationale for supporting offshore processing is to appeal to voters in marginal seats. Immigration policy is complex and often misunderstood, but this is a simplistic and inaccurate approach.
There are people of goodwill on both sides of this debate. Nobody would question the credentials and motivation of those who passionately argue for onshore processing. However, there are sound policy and humanitarian reasons for supporting the processing of people seeking asylum in Australia in another country when it is part of a properly thought through regional framework. A truly regional approach involves Australia playing more of a role in resettling refugees and helping countries in the region move towards consistent standards and treatments. Advertisement: Story continues below
Those who argue for onshore processing usually couch their argument in the following terms: ''We should process asylum seekers here. Those who are refugees should be settled here. Those who are not genuine should be sent back home.''
It is a fine theory. However, it doesn't work that way in practice.
The return of failed asylum seekers can occur only with the agreement of the host country. It is a difficult process that can take place only after an exhaustive process of assessment and appeal, which can take years. In any event, most asylum seekers arriving by boat now come from Iran.
Despite many attempts by Australia, Iran has made it clear it does not and will not accept the return of failed asylum seekers.
Our second largest group of asylum seekers is from Afghanistan. While Australia has successfully negotiated a return agreement with Afghanistan, no unsuccessful asylum seeker has ever returned involuntarily to Afghanistan from Australia, as they continue to use every available appeal mechanism to delay or avoid return.
Having a system where it is known that even if you are not a genuine refugee Australia will find it very difficult to return you, is to invite people to circumvent our skilled and family migration programs.
Then there is the matter of deaths at sea. Last year we watched on helplessly and in horror as about 50 people lost their lives at Christmas Island, including a two-month-old child.
This was simply the latest in what is a long line of tragedies. In 2001, 353 men, women and children died on the SIEV X. Several elderly asylum seekers drowned near Ashmore Reef in 2001, and 12 Sri Lankans died in 2009 in the Indian Ocean when their boat sank before a commercial tanker could rescue it.
These are just the tragedies we know of. There is credible evidence of other boats simply disappearing between Indonesia and Australia.
And of course, giving preferential treatment to people who arrive by boat reduces the chance of settlement for refugees in the camps of Africa, Syria, Thailand and around the world. These are generally people who have waited a long time for resettlement, those who couldn't in their wildest dreams afford to pay a people smuggler.
No one denies the serious issues in Afghanistan and Iran. But should they have preferential treatment over other refugees? Of course not.
Finally, there is the matter of public support for our migration program. I am deeply committed to multiculturalism, as has been well documented. I grew up in and represent one the most multicultural areas in Australia. But I know that to build and maintain strong public support for a high migration program and multiculturalism, we need to ensure public confidence in the fairness and orderly nature of migration, including asylum claims.
This is not a concern limited to Anglo-Celtic Australians. Some of the strongest arguments I hear for a strong offshore processing regime are from migrants, refugees and those with relatives hoping desperately for resettlement.
The issues around asylum will always be emotive. We are talking about the hopes and aspirations of real people as well as our understanding and conceptualisation of our national values. But the high moral ground is held by those who argue for what they believe to be the most humanitarian response, not only those who conclude the most humanitarian response is onshore processing.
Chris Bowen is the Minister for Immigration.
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