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Can we break the people smugglers’ business model?

Australia can break the people smugglers’ business model by changing its ‘prohibition regime’ policy approach. AAP

As prime minister Kevin Rudd prepares to visit Indonesia and meet with his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he should bear in mind that the asylum seeker problem plaguing the Australian government is a direct consequence of our “prohibition regime”.

Just as the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s generated crime, corruption and a decline in the authority of government, the current asylum seeker policies of both the Australian government and the federal opposition directly fuel the problem they claim to address.

Australian society is suffering major collateral damage, reminiscent of the American prohibition. The government is currently developing long-term problems for Australia’s future generations. The solutions, however, are not dissimilar, with the consequences identifiable and ultimately more manageable and benign.

Globally, people smuggling is a massive part of the “black economy”. The monetisation of cross-border people movement is now significantly institutionalised through links between organised crime, international money transfers and worried states criminalising cross-border people movement.

Foreign minister Bob Carr has been at pains to argue since the fall of Julia Gillard that the spike and monetisation of asylum seeking is accelerated by cashed-up, middle class Iranians. They are fleeing the economic disaster of Iran caused by international sanctions - Australian included - against the Iranian government’s nuclear development policy.

Carr believes the overwhelming majority of these asylum seekers, including Tamils from Sri Lanka, do not meet the spirit of the UN’s Refugee Convention as “economic refugees”. Their role in the refugee flow has therefore seriously corrupted the system.

On current figures, it is estimated that as much as A$400 million has flowed into the Indonesian and Malaysian economies from asylum seeker payments to local smugglers during Labor’s six years in office.

This cash also subsidises the low salaries of regional officials, police and army personnel, as well as providing employment for shipwrights and sailors. So turning off the flow without an alternative source of income may simply deepen the strategies used by the crime networks to avoid detection.

The UNHCR has argued recently that Australia needs to ask Indonesia what it wants to do to manage the asylum seekers crisis. Current policies and practices will produce many adverse outcomes. Primarily, it is furthering corruption in the Indonesian and Malaysian law enforcement system. Domestically, it will rapidly increase Australian investment in a prohibition regime, which flows in great part to private multinational security firms such as Serco.

There are a number of other social, economic and health concerns that result from trying to put a permanent stop to people smuggling. Collateral damage to asylum seekers through rising death tolls will increase, posing increased challenges to the law of the sea, and the safety of navy and border protection personnel.

The creation of an incarceration network also has an 80% likelihood of causing significant mental health damage to detainees. Such damage would include long term social and behavioural consequences. Australians can already witness the impoverishment of thousands of vulnerable detainees in the community, with social costs for their support, and a wastage of a large potential labour resource. More widely we are seeing a brutalisation of political discussion, and toughness replacing compassion as a moral polestar.

Foreign minister Bob Carr has argued that many asylum seekers do not meet the ‘spirit’ of the UN’s Refugee Convention. EPA/Made Nagi

If Australia wants to remedy these concerns, policy responses should emphasise social cohesion. To achieve this, there are several steps that need to be taken. Australia first needs to ask Indonesia and Malaysia how they see the problem and how they would like to see it progress, so that Australia can be part of a solution to rather than part of the problem. Indonesia and Malaysia need to be on-side and see the outcome as a potential win-win.

Recognising the internal pressures, Australia should agree to requests from Indonesia to identify the 6000 or so UNHCR approved refugees waiting for resettlement and facilitate their movement to Australia (or to an agreed third country).

With that reduction in the refugee load, Australia should also work with Indonesia to implement regional development strategies to replace people smuggling networks that both benefit and corrupt local power elites. This may be in the “opium poppy” model which would provide alternative income opportunities for people smugglers, as has occurred with opium growers in northern Thailand.

A policy of “stopping the boats” means asylum seekers finding an alternative before embarking on the potentially deadly sea journey, and one that stands scrutiny for its robustness, humanity and intelligence. Australia should create a new category of “applying for refugee status” visa, available at points along the supply route from the point of first sanctuary, through Australian or other friendly governments and the UNHCR.

Applicants would need to show verifiable proof of identity; an indication of what convention or protection category applied to them; their agreement if successful to accept placement in location and employment as decided by Australia for a period of two years; and agree to accept return to their point of origin or other agreed point if unsuccessful, maybe at Australian government cost or with subsidy.

If successful, this whole dynamic would essentially bypass the people smuggler network.

Clearly there could be many potential opportunities for rorting of this system. However, given the agreement to leave Australia voluntary is a condition of the visa, this is less so than currently. A “applying for refugee status” visa should be very difficult to forge and valid for six months from arrival. It would include a specific right to work in a specified location as permitted, operating something like work for the dole where no commercial employment opportunities existed.

The visa could be held until determination of refugee status, and could be extended if circumstances required. Any breach of the law resulting in a conviction would trigger the return element of the visa. The visa would be used in offshore processing (for example, by the UNHCR in Indonesia in agreement with the Indonesian government) and onshore in Australia. Any person arriving on a regular visa who thereafter seeks protection should also go onto this visa.

This normalisation of asylum seeking would provide a widely spread, cheaper and more accessible system. This should accommodate and benefit all legitimate refugees. People without an “applying for refugee status” visa seeking to enter Australia using any means would be slow-tracked, and would not have access to the conditions under that visa.

In order to close the loophole and obtain agreement for voluntary return if unsuccessful from current unprocessed detainees, the “applying for refugee status” visa would have to be offered to all asylum seekers currently in any form of detention in Australia or elsewhere. To help speed things up, they should be encouraged to recover their true identity documents from their source country or through some other form of certification.

If all these steps were followed, maybe then Australia could get somewhere in breaking the people smuggler business model. By default, Australia would also not end up with such a brutalising, costly and deadly system.

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