Last weekend, an overcrowded fishing boat sank off the coast of Indonesia with more than 200 asylum seekers on board.
In Australia, the political blame game started soon after with both sides trying to get the upper hand in the controversial policy area.
Tony Abbott has been under pressure from Liberal party elders Alexander Downer and Philip Ruddock to reach a workable solution with the Gillard government, but the situation remains at an impasse.
As we begin to come to terms with the second major refugee boat disaster in less than 12 months, The Conversation asked key experts to take a considered look at the problem of refugees who risk the journey to Australia by boat.
We had two simple questions – what is the problem? And, most importantly, how can we do better?
This is what they told us.
Andrew Markus, Pratt Foundation Research Chair of Jewish Civilisation, Monash University
The asylum debate has raged in Australia on and off since the mid-1970s, with little progress towards reasoned understanding. The advocates for a humanitarian response recycle myths and simplicities, as do others with their prescriptions.
Just look at some responses to the latest drowning tragedy. Julian Burnside argues on The Conversation that “if we took 10,000 refugees each year from Indonesia, and took them in order of lodging an application in Indonesia for protection, the incentive to get on a boat would disappear.”
The Age editorialises in similar terms: “The best way of destroying the people smugglers' business would be to increase substantially our humanitarian intake from refugee camps in neighbouring countries.”
Without a regional agreement, it is more likely that if Australia took 10,000 refugees from Indonesia many more than 10,000 would arrive in that country seeking entry into Australia, and the incentive to get on a boat would be just as great, if not greater.
The flow of refugees is dynamic, not static, driven by numbers that defy solution. At the end of 2009 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures indicate that there are more than 11 million refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced populations and others of concern in five Asian region countries: Pakistan, Thailand, Iraq, Iran and Myanmar.
For some it is debasing and humiliating to talk of numbers in the context of desperate human suffering – and it is. But governments must make decisions. There is insufficient funding to meet competing needs, including the need to provide adequate foreign aid.
Globally there are more than one billion people living in extreme poverty. Where do the estimated 22,000 children under the age of five who die each day from preventable causes figure in the calculus?
The reality is that with one choice taken, be it passive or active, another choice is foregone. Australia maintains a world class resettlement program, taking more refugees per capita than any other country.
It is an expensive program but let’s agree that we should do more, starting with a doubling of the present intake. But having agreed on a number, how is a limit to be observed, given that demand will greatly exceed the available places?
Professor Robert Manne, Personal Chair in Politics at La Trobe University
There is no possibility of finding a solution to the problem of asylum seeker boat arrivals that will not be seriously morally, legally and politically flawed in one way or another. In particular, no workable solution will be discovered by former opponents of the Howard policy that will offer the psychological reward of what James McClelland once described as “the warm inner glow” – the permanent but usually illusory hope of the Left.
There is probably now no alternative to some form of offshore processing. Public opinion is opposed to the spontaneous arrival of asylum seeker boats. We now know that onshore processing — even when combined with harsh deterrent measures like mandatory detention and temporary protection visas — will not stop the boats of (mainly) desperate human beings arriving. We now also know that because of the unscrupulous nature of the people smugglers, boats sailing from Indonesia to Australia will never be even remotely safe.
Once offshore processing is established, the legislation permitting mandatory detention should be repealed. The memory of the dreadful things that happened in the Australian asylum seeker detention camp archipelago will most likely puzzle, perplex and shame later generations of Australians.
If there are almost no more spontaneous boat arrivals, Australia should move at once to the policy now favoured by both the Labor Party’s Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, and by the Greens—an increase in the annual quota of refugees from 13, 750 to 20,000. Some emphasis should be placed on finding homes for those people who have been found to be refugees but who have been marooned for several years in Indonesia.
This is part of a longer piece that can be found in Robert Manne’s blog, Left, Right, Left on The Monthly’s website.
Kate Gauthier, migration law, Monash University
We often hear the issue of boat arrival asylum seekers described as a “problem” that must be solved. But is it actually a problem for Australia?
The media obsesses over boat stats like footy scores, but no-one seems to care about the much larger number of asylum seekers arriving by plane, who have a far lower rate of being found to be in need of protection. And when you compare Australian asylum arrivals to European numbers, the idea that we are being overrun becomes a weak joke.
Some say boat arrivals are a border security issue. But there are around 1 million visitors in Australia at any given time, who enter Australia on temporary visas without any in-depth security check.
Some think that unauthorised arrivals threaten an orderly migration program. But just how does one flee a crisis or war-zone in an orderly manner?
And lastly, the greatest “problem” of all, the safety issue. Everyone can agree that taking an asylum boat to Australia is a dangerous journey. But imagine this scenario: there is a hospital giving life-saving treatment on the other side of a dangerous freeway. There is no pedestrian crossing and many sick people are hit by cars as they cross seeking medical help.
Doesn’t it seem a bit heartless (and pointless) to build a fence to stop people entering the freeway? In a matter of life and death, won’t they just climb the fence?
There is bipartisan support for reducing the number of people dying in an attempt to reach Australia. But that support can be viewed as hypocrisy since the debate is, to continue the analogy, about how to build a better fence to stop people travelling to the hospital instead of how to help people get there, or even how to provide medical care at the source.
There is only one approach that policy experts agree would reduce boat arrival numbers. That is to increase Australia’s refugee and humanitarian intake numbers and to give more resettlement places to refugees in our region. If refugees see there is a credible chance they will get a resettlement place then there is less chance they would risk their life.
Dr Anthony Billingsley, Middle Eastern and international studies, University of New South Wales
The recent disaster off the coast of Indonesia again brings us face-to-face with the human side of refugee flows to Australia but also points to their origins. People are risking their life at sea in order to escape the horrors of civil conflict at home.
While the focus is rightly on the search for survivors and the circumstances of the voyage, this disaster, and others before it, should also highlight what is called the “push factor” in refugee flows. This is at the nub of the problem faced by many countries, including Australia.
Australians accept we have a moral obligation to help people in trouble and have welcomed many people from countries experiencing civil disorder. Importantly, we are also legally obliged to accept refugees because Australia is party to the Convention on the Status of Refugees and its accompanying Protocol.
The politicised nature of the debate about these obligations is unfortunate as it distracts us from our duty as global citizens. But it also overlooks the actual cause of the problem and only responds to the symptoms.
The problems in key source countries means we can only expect the refugee situation to get worse. Security in Afghanistan is likely to continue to deteriorate with the impending withdrawal of Western forces. Similar security problems will worsen in Iraq after now that the US military have withdrawn. Civil order is breaking down in Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and many other countries.
Despite widespread formal support for the Refugee Convention, Western countries have been less than committed to the underlying problems that cause refugee movements.
The world paid great attention to Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s occupation of that country. But once Soviet forces had withdrawn, we abandoned Afghanistan to its fate, a situation that President Hamid Karzai has been insisting must not happen again. Similarly in Iraq and Somalia we have lost interest in the terrible conditions faced by people.
If we are to relieve the problems of refugees and to limit the risk of more boat disasters, we must work actively to seek political, not military, solutions to the problems of troubled countries. As long as countries are plagued by violence and we do nothing to help resolve their problems, refugees will appear on our doorstep seeking help.
James Jupp, Director, Centre of Immigration and Multicultural Studies, ANU
The “boat people" problem is undoubtedly a political, not administrative, one. Administrative devices have been tried by governments ever since mandatory detention was introduced twenty years ago. This kicked off a process of avoiding the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and increasing legal intervention.
At that time, the refugees admitted annually was 25,000, with special consideration given for those coming from the crises in Yugoslavia, China and Indochina. Little harm and much good resulted.
Now, there are three major problems: control of the boats by privateers inadequately supervised by maritime authorities in Asia, the recalcitrance of governments, and popular opinion blaming asylum seekers. Unfortunately, asylum seekers are seen as those who must be punished and controlled, rather than assisted, within the terms of the convention.
These asylum seekers come from war-torn and oppressive conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Myanmar unlike their predecessors from Vietnam and Cambodia. Their plight is urgent, with many belonging to persecuted minorities. In many cases they are seeking family reunification with those already in Australia.
Reform of the refugee system would alleviate, but not necessarily solve, the problems created by wars in which many thousands of civilians have died, wars in which Australia has been actively engaged.
But an extension of the refugee program and the re-adoption of the Special Humanitarian Program abolished by the Howard government would help.
Increasing the capacity of overseas immigration posts in Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand would permit more refugee applicants to use the legal avenues. Co-operation with Indonesia in supervising overloaded boat departures and criminal involvement would be the first step in a regional policy similar to that once adopted for the Vietnamese.
The vital objective must be to adhere as closely to the convention as is possible, and to reverse the punitive approaches adopted since the more liberal days of the Whitlam, Hawke and Fraser governments.