Need for mature asylum policy, not political point scoring

William Maley
Canberra Times
June 27, 2012


A stance of deterrence will simply force refugees to take even more perilous journeys, WILLIAM MALEY writes

The recent tragic deaths of asylum seekers who drowned when their boat sank between Indonesia and Australia have prompted fresh demands for a bipartisan approach to refugee policy. This is an understandable response. But more is required than simply a recourse to bipartisanship. A bipartisan policy designed to deter refugees from seeking protection will fail to come to grips with the wider forces in the world that underpin forced migration. Only by addressing the root causes of these refugee movements can one hope to avoid further deaths at sea.

Observers of the Australian political elite have every reason to be sceptical as to whether they approach issues of this sort with clean hands. From Wikileaks we learned that a senior Liberal party strategist had remarked to the US Embassy that the flow of boats was ''fantastic'' for the Opposition, and the more boats that came the better. In the light of this, the Opposition's tears over the loss of life at sea are almost certainly of the crocodile variety.

Its promotion of Nauru and a new Pacific solution as a magic bullet, in the face of all expert advice that it will not work, shows how focused the Opposition is on winning the votes of the gullible. While the Gillard government may be less cynical, it is just as prone to promoting panicked and flaky solutions to the asylum seeker issue, ranging from the ridiculous proposal to establish an asylum seeker processing centre in Timor Leste to the more recent Malaysia solution struck down by the High Court of Australia.

None of these comes even remotely to grips with the nature of the refugee problem. At its core, the difficulty that we face is that the number of places for refugee resettlement that stable countries are prepared to make available falls far short of the numbers of refugees in the world who desperately require resettlement from countries of first asylum. Refugees fleeing persecution and abuse understandably seek to relocate to states in which they will enjoy both legal and substantive protection. For many refugees, this is increasingly difficult to find.

Countries that once seemed welcoming have in far too many cases become dangerously unstable. The result is that refugees are looking further afield for protection, and their eyes naturally fall on those countries that are parties to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and that have a history of treating refugees with some decency. Australia falls into this category, and is therefore a natural destination.

One of the reasons why the asylum debate in Australia is so exasperating is that few major-party politicians are prepared to recognise the significance of such push factors in determining the shape of refugee flows. Opposition figures crow about the alleged ''success'' of the Pacific solution without mentioning that in November 2001, the vicious Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown, triggering a period of considerable (if misplaced) optimism among Afghans about the future of their country, and reducing their disposition to seek protection abroad. Sadly, one of the key reasons why the number of refugees seeking asylum in Australia has risen in recent times is the progressive breakdown of the transition process in Afghanistan, combined with the increasing danger in Pakistan.

A large number of those seeking protection in Australia are Shiite Hazaras who have had a long experience of being marginalised or persecuted in Afghanistan. In August 1998, 2000 Hazaras were massacred in just three days by the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif, and on December 6, 2011, a bomb blast at a religious festival for Hazaras in Kabul killed a large number of people: a poignant photograph of a little girl crying in the midst of a pile of dead bodies won a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer Massoud Hossaini, who himself had been injured in the explosion.

With a real risk of the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, it is hardly surprising that Hazaras are seeking to escape, often on the strength of the pooled life-savings of others within their extended families. Yet Pakistan is no longer safe for Hazaras either. In Quetta and Parachinar, brutal massacres of Shiite Muslims are being carried out regularly by sectarian extremists. Hazaras in search of protection are likely to continue eastward in search of a country that is a party to the 1951 Convention. And it just so happens that Australia is the first such country they will encounter: in intervening states, they can expect to be pushed to the fringes of society and denied any meaningful future. The combination of powerful push factors in their own country and misery in transit means that Australia will likely remain the obvious destination, no matter what bipartisan deterrent measures might be pursued.

A more sensible approach to undermining the smuggling trade would be to allow Afghans at risk to apply for resettlement from Afghanistan through an ''in-country'' program, and to resettle really large numbers of Afghans from transit countries. Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, and can easily afford to do far more than it does.

Some of our politicians may comfort themselves with the thought that through deterrent policies they are really ''saving lives'', but it would be unwise to fall for the comforting delusion that deterring refugees from seeking asylum in Australia through a trip by boat will put an end to the loss of life at sea. What is more likely to happen is that Afghan refugees, instead of heading eastward towards Australia, will head westward, only to risk drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Only the most cynical politician could take pleasure in such an outcome. A mature refugee policy needs to be more than an exercise in balloon squeezing.

Professor William Maley is director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, and author of Rescuing Afghanistan and The Afghanistan Wars.


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