Anyone who wants to design a solution to the asylum seeker dilemma needs to start by understanding it’s not the product of a single phenomenon: there are five issues, all connected. To create a workable policy solution you have to address all five.
The first big issue is the boats: actually it’s not the boats, or the numbers, or even the poor souls dying at sea. It’s that every boat that arrives corrodes the authority and legitimacy of the government.
Since federation in 1901, Australians have wanted their governments to keep our borders “secure”. We had the first federal parliament spending every ounce of its power to work up a deal that would keep out the boats without alienating the British government - we got the White Australia policy as a result.
You can’t turn them around, slow then or stop them unless you have a real alternative in place that deals with subordinate complications that arise from this basic point.
The second issue is our ability to influence the push factors, such as the ongoing violence in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, and the Pakistani city of Quetta, home to the persecuted Hazara minority. Nearly 12 years after our troops first arrived in Afghanistan, Hazaras still form one of the biggest groups of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Given the continuing sectarian attacks on Hazaras, there is not much we can do that is likely to moderate the pressures at this end.
The third issue is our waning commitment to the United Nations' refugee convention. We have signed up to a commitment to save the lives of people fleeing for safety and we don’t know how to do it anymore.
Fourth, we have an asylum model that seems designed to annoy everyone involved, from refugee families trying to save their relatives, to the people held hopelessly in camps, to Australian workers forced to act as gaolers for people they are supposed to be succouring, all the way down to the wider Australian population whose callousness blossoms with every iteration of the “get tough” rhetoric.
Finally, we have no way of managing the legitimate claims to filter the potentially overwhelming demand. We are in a situation where a large number of those arriving do not know if they are genuine refugees. Our politicians witter on about a “regional plan” but no-one seems to know what that might really mean, who’ll pay for it, and precisely why the richest nation in the area should be able to outsource its problems to its impoverished neighbours.
So is there any solution to this seemingly never-ending conundrum? There is, but it requires some hard choices and creative thinking on our part.
Australia needs to recognise that we will need to increase our intake of refugees to 50,000 people per year for the next five years. In the context of Australia’s total migrant intake of 200,000 people per year, this may be hard, but not impossible. It is however, in the immortal words of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, politically courageous.
We can start by accepting 20,000 people under the family reunion, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian-sponsored programs, and not allow these places to be consumed by other arrivals. That leaves another 30,000 to play with.
The critical element for these 30,000 places is they must be made available in a reasonably accessible way, before the frail boat option is all that’s left. Intervention in Jakarta for a process that begins in Quetta is pointless, something the Australian government has refused to recognise for years.
In this scenario, Australia would create something like a bridging visa that could be issued at the point of origin for refugees such as Quetta. The visa would require proof of identity, or good evidence that such proof is not available and some evidence of claim. The Australian authorities issuing the visas would need to work closely with UNHCR to process people, as well as those who are choosing the current UNHCR pathway.
Once in Australia, successful applicants would then be issued with a short-term visa with certain conditions: like a working holiday visa but with some added elements, notably a commitment to leave Australia if found not to be a refugee and to undertake work or training as directed for pay while in Australia.
If deemed a refugee, the arrivals would be allocated a location and work or training for two years under a new national settlement plan that encourages economic enterprise, education and integration. Unsuccessful applicants would be informed as near to the start of the process as possible and sent home or to a port where they have legal access.
These short term permits would allow people to be processed onshore but not affect the existing humanitarian intake. Anyone seeking to arrive without such a permit would be deported or detained.
Leaving any neighbouring country without such a permit would place people at the end of the queue, and they may be placed on Nauru or Manus Island: they can always choose to go back to their last port and apply for a permit. People with a permit would not be placed on Manus Island, Nauru or anywhere else, though they may be sent to specific work locations around Australia (as occurred under the sponsored migration program for decades after World War Two).
Inevitably, there are holes in such a plan - but it at least engages with the key problems in the existing setup. Altogether that has got to be a step ahead of where we are, and we may just surprise ourselves and produce a regional solution out of it that means something.