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Groundhog day: why the asylum problem is like the drug problem

WEEKEND READ: What does Australia’s handling of asylum seekers have in common with our approach to illicit drugs? Quite a lot, writes Desmond Manderson. In the following 10,000 word essay, he argues we…

Zero tolerance leads to extreme solutions. Image from shutterstock.com

WEEKEND READ: What does Australia’s handling of asylum seekers have in common with our approach to illicit drugs? Quite a lot, writes Desmond Manderson. In the following 10,000 word essay, he argues we should abandon the zero tolerance approach and focus on harm reduction. This piece was first published in the Griffith Review and has been reprinted with permission.


FOR ten years I lived and worked in Canada. It’s a funny feeling, coming home. After years of living overseas the ex-expat (to coin a phrase) notices not the things that have changed, like the cafés, but the things that have stayed the same, like the politics. Ten years on and the news is weirdly familiar: a second airport for Sydney, high-speed rail for Canberra and asylum seekers invading us from the sea. Planes, trains and boats; it’s Groundhog Day in Australia.

I began to write this essay because I was so frustrated by the lack of clear information around asylum seekers. I wanted to clarify as well as I could a debate I couldn’t make sense of. But seeing the problem afresh, the hysteria that surrounds it suddenly reminded me of a political debate from ten or twenty years ago.

The asylum problem now is like the drug problem then. Debate is framed in a moral language that excites a crisis completely unrelated to the dimensions of the problem. The asylum seeker, like the drug addict, is depicted as a piteous victim who must be locked up for their own good; the “trafficker” or “smuggler” is considered a villain against whom no action is too harsh.

Policy settings in both cases depend on a zero-tolerance approach built around hugely expensive law enforcement strategies. The underlying assumption is that if only our laws are severe enough, people’s behaviour will change. But the prohibition of drugs and the prohibition of boats make the same mistake. Supply-side responses to demand-side problems often fail to make real inroads into the underlying problems.

Indeed, the case of drug policies shows that sometimes harsh law enforcement does not merely fail to stop the problem. It can actually make matters worse; much worse. Raising the stakes and driving people underground creates more profit, causes more deaths, and leads to more suffering. But rational arguments have little purchase in a climate fashioned by false assumptions as to what law can achieve, and a wilful blindness as to its unintended consequences.

In what follows, I explore the issues around Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers by developing this comparison with drug policy. My aim is not only to demonstrate that we have been this way before, with disastrous results. What is especially interesting about the drug debate is that, remarkably, something has changed in the past ten years. The shift from zero-tolerance to harm-reduction strategies provides us with a model for how to rethink a policy agenda, which is just making things worse.

What does the story of Australian drug policy teach us? What would a harm-reduction approach to asylum seekers look like? And how can we get there from here?


THE SO-CALLED “war on drugs” featured a heightened moral rhetoric that long smothered it. Ever since anti-Chinese opium laws were enacted over one hundred years ago, drug users have been portrayed as pitiable, weak and doomed. “Why not just shoot them?” asked one member of the New South Wales Parliament in 1927. The then premier regretted that while this “might be desirable … it is not done in civilised countries.”

As late as 2000, Salvation Army Major Brian Watters, former prime minister John Howard’s principal adviser on drug policy, declared that “there are worse things than death when it comes to addiction.” John Howard’s decade as prime minister, including Tony Abbott’s four-year tenure as minister for health, marked the ascendancy of a “tough on drugs” policy that sought prohibition through the “ruthless pursuit of drug importers, traffickers and dealers,” while framing the battle as a “moral crusade” against illicit drugs.

In the heightened rhetoric over drug use, morality and legality became hopelessly muddled. For many years, the illegality of certain drugs was justified because of their immorality, while their immorality was explained in terms of their illegality. Drug users were criminals because they were bad, and bad because they were criminals.

A similar confusion clouds the hyperbole around asylum seekers. The Liberal Party under Tony Abbott brands asylum seekers as criminals. “People should not come illegally to this country. That’s the bottom line, mate.” In fact, there is nothing illegal about claiming one’s rights under international law or making an application for refugee status under Australian law. Yet the Leader of the Opposition repeatedly fudges the line.

The Australian Labor Party sometimes speaks less about a moral crusade than a moral dilemma: the harsh treatment of asylum seekers is regrettable, but unavoidable. Nonetheless, both sides buy into the same rhetoric. They assume that an effective policy must stop “irregular maritime arrivals” (IMAs) once and for all, and they employ the same moral language of “fairness”, “queue jumping”, and “no advantage”. In a widely reported speech shortly after she became prime minister Julia Gillard said,

People like my own parents who have worked hard all their lives can’t abide the idea that others might get an inside track to special privileges. And that finally, if this were to happen, it would offend the Australian sense of fair play.

As with drug traffickers, people smugglers are singled out for particular moral opprobrium. In 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called them “vermin” and “the vilest form of human life”. While the “user” of boats is imagined as the hapless victim of these evil smugglers, they are nonetheless portrayed as morally weak. In the words of Nancy Reagan, they should learn to “just say no”.

Kevin Rudd: people smugglers the ‘vilest form of human life’. AAP Image/ Eka Nickmatulhuda

Yet the language of morality and fairness is disingenuous. Most IMAs currently come from a few countries including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. These outflows are not a function of their lack of moral fibre or the trickery of smugglers, but directly related to insecurity, violence, and persecution in their countries of origin. The overwhelming majority of those who arrive in Australia, or are processed in “off-shore facilities” such as Nauru, are found to be genuine refugees – more than double the rate of those who apply for refugee status in other ways. In 2011–12, the final grant rate for Afghani IMAs was 95.8%, 93.1% for Pakistanis, 86.9% for Sri Lankans, and over 90% of all applicants.

Indeed in the past few years our processes have attempted to artificially reduce the number of asylum seekers whose claims we accept. In 2008–09, only 189 IMAs were assessed; none was refused. The following year, with boats on the rise, over a quarter of 2,826 refugee-status determinations were refused by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The following year, 5,206 were processed, almost doubling again, but this time almost two-thirds of the claims were refused. It would appear then that the department’s scepticism is directly proportional to the number of claims made.

But Australia’s legal review process largely undid this tendency. The higher the department’s refusal rate, the higher the rate at which its decisions were overturned. In 2009–10 only fifty IMAs were ultimately refused protection visas: just on 2% . In 2010–11, 313 were refused, still only 10%. Overall, fully three-quarters of those whose applications for asylum were rejected were later found to be genuine. In the December 2012 quarter, the department refused 581 applications – over half of status determinations; but two-thirds of those refusals were overturned. In the March 2013 quarter, refusals were down to 445, or just over one third of primary decisions; but the overturn rate continued over 70%.

The shadow minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, commented that the figures “made a mockery of the initial assessment of asylum claims”. True enough, but the scandal lies not in the dishonesty of IMAs or the gullibility of the Refugee Review Tribunal. The scandal lies in the department’s expedient reluctance to recognise genuine claims. If our magistrates were overturned at anything even remotely approaching that rate, the legal system would be in uproar. It would not be the appeals courts being hauled over the coals.

So if an IMA claims to be a refugee, that’s because they probably are. To sidestep this uncomfortable truth, a new moral rhetoric has emerged around queues and fairness. We are asked to distinguish between “bad” asylum seekers who “jump the queue”, and “good” refugees who patiently wait their turn.

But this argument reveals a basic misconception. The Refugee Convention does not distinguish between degrees of goodness in refugees. Neither international law nor Australian policy ranks applicants on the basis of their method of arrival or wealth (or lack of it). One either has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” or one does not. The refugee who might have enough money or family connections to buy passage on a boat is not somehow less of a refugee than if they stayed put. Many Jews in Nazi Germany used money or family connections to escape. Did that make them somehow unworthy of our sympathy?

And the image of an orderly queue is facile nonsense. Australian embassies overseas refuse to accept direct applications from refugees. In some countries we don’t even have diplomatic missions. You could try applying to our consulate in Afghanistan, but even its location is a secret. Nor will Australian airlines let anyone board a plane without their already having obtained a valid visa. Our processes force refugees to become “irregular entrants”.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – the “proper channel”, so to speak – is swamped. There are currently about fifteen million refugees and a million asylum seekers around the world, a quarter in the Asia-Pacific region. UNHCR reports that 800,000 people became refugees last year alone, the highest figure this century. Only a small proportion is even registered with the agency. In 2009, 119,100 applications were registered out of 923,400 new claims; Pakistan, for example, hosts almost two million refugees, and virtually none of them have been officially processed.

On top of this, barely 1% of registered refugees are resettled in new host countries in any one year. Waiting times are extreme throughout our region, and the chance of being eventually resettled is remote. The imaginary queue now stretches for one thousand years.


FOR MANY YEARS the moral rhetoric deployed against drug users generated intense social anxiety. Drugs posed an unprecedented danger to our community, were always out of control, always a new and “insidious threat to Australian society which has been unsurpassed in the country’s history”. Illicit drug use grew in Australia during the 1960s, notably cannabis use by young people and, on a much smaller scale, heroin use during and after the Vietnam War; but the hysteria which met this change was out of all proportion to the specific social and health problems it posed. It was, in a term introduced in 1972, a “moral panic”.

Between 1971 and 1983 Australia endured no less than eight royal or parliamentary commissions into drugs and drug trafficking. Many of these reports implored politicians and the public to maintain a sense of proportion. The best of them, such as the South Australian Royal Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (1979) insisted that the major drug problems in Australian society lay not with illicit drugs but on the contrary with the use and abuse of legal drugs, including alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals.

In 1977, the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare produced a celebrated report entitled Drug problems in Australia – an intoxicated society? Its chair, Liberal senator (and future minister for health) Peter Baume, argued that Australia did not have a “drug problem” but a “drug problem problem”; not a social or a health crisis but a crisis in how we framed and talked about an important but by no means unmanageable issue. We were in the grip of a kind of moral panic.

1970s Australia didn’t have a drug problem, it had a ‘drug problem problem’. Flickr/wbaiv

Australia does not have an asylum problem. It has an “asylum problem problem”, likewise a crisis of language and perception. For as long as the drug issue was framed as a crisis undermining the very fabric of our society, politicians saw little mileage in trying to defuse the issue; to be “against” law and order was a losing proposition. By the same token, for as long as the asylum issue is framed as a crisis undermining the very cohesion of our society, politicians see little mileage in trying to defuse the issue; to be “against” border protection is equally a losing proposition.

The recent surge of IMAs is not a crisis. In absolute terms and in relation to the global population of concern, the number of people we are talking about is still small. It is true that we have seen a significant increase in IMAs. In 2008–9, 23 boats arrived, carrying 1,033 people. In 2009–10, 118 boats carried 5,609 people. In 2011–12, 110 boats carried 7,983 people. According to the Gillard government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers,

the number of IMAs who have arrived in Australia in the first seven months of 2012 (7,120) has exceeded the number who arrived in total in 2011 (4,733) and 2010 (6,850).

More recent figures reflect a similar figure for this year; just over three thousand IMAs arrived in the first three months of 2013, and over seven thousand refugee determinations were commenced in the March quarter.

But refugees remain overwhelmingly a third world problem. Australia’s current asylum population of 23,434 is equivalent to one for every thousand citizens (compare US 0.9, UK 3.8, Germany 7.2, Iran 14.5 or Syria 49.3). This puts Australia seventy-first in the world. There are 1.7 million refugees in Pakistan, almost a million in Iran and in Syria, and several hundred thousand in South Africa; the city of Dadaab in Kenya alone houses 559,000 registered refugees.

Looked at more broadly, in 2011, Australia received around 15,000 asylum applications, or less than 1% (ranked thirty-second per capita) of the 1.6 million applications globally. Of industrialised countries, Australia was responsible for 3% of applications, which ranked eighteenth per capita. While Australia is on track to receive considerably more IMAs in 2012–13, this will not significantly change its standing in the world tables.

Until August last year, the total quota of around 13,000 places allocated for Australia’s Humanitarian Program remained unchanged for years, even as the refugee problem expanded in our region and despite the fact that the language of crisis was deployed on all sides. As recommended by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, which reported to the Gillard government in August last year, the quota has now risen to 20,000. Yet this figure remains a smaller proportion of our overall migrant intake than throughout most of our recent history: a mere 6% in 2011–12, rising to an anticipated 10.5% in 2012–13.

In 1948–49, in the aftermath of World War II and in the context of the growing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Australia accepted 33,816 refugees (almost a third of Australia’s total immigrant intake that year) – the next year 89,199 refugees made up a half of the total number of immigrants, and the following year the 36,912 refugees represented a quarter of all immigrants. Again in the years 1979–85, Australia accepted between 15,000 and 20,000 Vietnamese boat people annually, hovering around 20% of the immigrant intake in each of those years.

The beneficial social and economic impacts of these decisions are now self-evident. Many of these new groups were the object of considerable short-term anxiety about “refos” and “boat people”, a pattern of hostility that goes back to Irish Catholic and Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. But after a few years one wonders what all the fuss was about. Has there been a single period in which Australia would have been better off if we had just said no?

The current wave of IMAs reaching Australian waters has had hardly any effect on the overall size of the Humanitarian Program. Until last year the so-called “quiet invasion” had been entirely offset by reductions to other parts of the program. That was indeed the effect of consciously linking the off-shore and on-shore components, introduced under Philip Ruddock. Every time on-shore migration (including maritime arrivals) increased, other parts of the program were reduced. Between 2006 and 2011, the Special Humanitarian Program, which allows Australian residents to bring in family members facing human rights abuse abroad, was cut by more than 2,000 places, while the number of IMA visas increased by the same amount. This was not the surreptitious expansion of Australia’s refugee population, but largely its redistribution.

In 2011–12, the “on-shore” or IMA component of the humanitarian envelope exceeded the “off-shore” component (including family provisions, and refugees resettled from other parts of the world) for the first time. As recommended by the expert panel, this has led to an expansion in the Humanitarian Program to 20,000 places, including a marked growth in the number of refugees accepted for resettlement via UNHCR, but nothing approaching historic highs. IMAs will probably ease off once conditions improve in source countries such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan or transit countries like Malaysia. It is towards those goals, rather than “border protection”, that our energies should be directed.

The Ruddock linkage has few parallels in other countries. As a direct result, the ever-shrinking Special Humanitarian Program now faces a backlog of over 20,000 applicants who face a wait of many years to bring endangered family members to join them in Australia. The emotional hardship this is causing is enormous and apparently intentional, since the policy seems designed to set up a zero-sum game pitting IMAs against established migrant groups looking to access the “split family” provisions.

This linkage has had no discernible impact on the number of IMAs. As with many ill-thought-out deterrents, however, it did fall foul of the rule of unintended consequences. In 1999, when linkage was first introduced, children made up only 13% of asylum seekers. By 2001, faced with the risk of never being able to bring their families out, the proportion of children on boats had risen to a third. Even the Department of Immigration and Citizenship now acknowledges that more families began to arrive by boat due to the lack of family reunion options. In October 2001, the SIEV X disaster claimed the lives of 65 men, 142 women and 146 children.

Names from the SIEV X memorial. No Fixed Address TJ

Yet since August 2012 the Australian government now denies IMAs any right to access the split family program. Not only will this surely increase the number of families on boats again; the policy will hit unaccompanied minors hardest of all. Unlikely to satisfy the sponsorship requirements of the regular family reunion program, these children will lose all contact with their parents – indefinitely, and no doubt at appalling psychological and emotional cost.

Astonishingly, the 2012 expert panel itself recommended this change, because it was thought it would prevent parents from sending their children out to Australia as an advance party. Even to the extent that this is true, which is unclear, the government appears to be going to outrageous lengths to punish children for the sins of their parents.


THE MOST IMPORTANT point of comparison between the drug problem and the asylum problem in Australia lies in the kind of legal and political response which moral panic produced. The “drug problem problem” led to increasingly draconian legislation, increased law enforcement and the criminalisation of growing numbers of drug users. These reforms did nothing to stop rising levels of drug use. Cannabis and heroin use grew steadily through the 1970s and 1980s. The courts faced an endless procession of young people from all walks of life facing the lasting stigma of a criminal conviction.

In relation to drug policy, laws that simply prohibit the use of drugs make no inroads into underlying levels of use or addiction. Illicit drugs are as widely used and as easily accessible as ever. Even government inquiries such as those in Canada and South Australia conceded as much. In recent years, their arguments have been bolstered by a parade of former premiers and government ministers, retired police commissioners, and weary public health officials, all bemoaning the pointless war to which they have been conscripted.

We tend to assume that if only deterrents are severe enough, people will change their behaviour. So if a policy centred on law enforcement fails, the solution lies in more law enforcement and heavier deterrents. But with certain kinds of problems, including, for example, prostitution and drug use, this is a kind of legal magic realism – it attributes a kind of abracadabra power to legal words. Here is Alfred Conroy, first member for Werriwa and a founding member of the Commonwealth Liberal Party, speaking during the first Australian parliamentary debate on drug laws:

We are assuming that all we have to do is to pass an Act of Parliament when, hey presto, all sin and misery will disappear from the world… [We are] ready to pass an Act for the prohibition of the opium traffic in the full belief that the evil will at once disappear.

That was 1905.

The very thing that worries people about drugs – the intensity of the desire that draws people to them – likewise makes crude deterrence relatively ineffective. But these laws are not just ineffective. They have terrible consequences. Prohibition is the opposite of regulation. Regulation works to the extent that it allows some level of social activity to continue; it becomes counterproductive when it drives users underground. Thus, in relation to alcohol and tobacco, we see a range of licensing controls, plain packaging laws, and so on, which limit the harms associated with these drugs precisely by adopting a regulatory approach.

On the other hand, the terrible harms of un-regulation we know from the most notorious experiment of them all, “prohibition” in the United States. Gangsters such as Al Capone had a field day; violence and corruption flourished as never before. Alcohol prohibition was a short-lived failure, introduced in 1918 and unceremoniously rubbed out 15 years later. Drug prohibition – begun in the United States in 1914 and since exported around the world – has a longer but no less inglorious history.

Violence and corruption flourished during the days of prohibition. Wikimedia commons

Policies directed at criminalising users and demonising traffickers do not stop drug use and have only a minor and temporary effect on drug importation. But the riskier it is, the higher the profits made by drug traffickers, and the more dangerous the conditions under which drugs are used.

Tragically, drug prohibition is itself responsible for the very problems that it claims to address. The consumption of alcohol and tobacco are clearly correlated with high levels of sickness, disease and death, to which the government responds through a complex web of legal regulations controlling sale, possession and use.

On the other hand, almost no illicit drug-related deaths in Australia are attributable to their bio-chemical operation. People die not because they inject heroin but because of the conditions under which they take it – conditions created by the legal framework itself. Illegal use ensures that dosages are unpredictable. A heroin user might consume a dangerously pure dose one time and a cocktail of toxins the next. The secretive conditions of illegality ensure that there is no medical or social support for the user. When users can’t legally obtain clean needles, they share dirty ones, spreading diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV–AIDS.

In our inner cities, the criminal nature of the enterprise does not discourage traffickers – far from it – but sometimes leads to dangerous turf wars; 36 people were killed during Melbourne’s recent methamphetamine gang wars. In many Latin American countries, escalating drug wars have corrupted the social and political structure with devastating results – over 28,000 deaths in Mexico alone. Drugs are not the cause of these deaths; their (il)legal status is.


THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN harm, deterrence and unintended consequences is more complicated in relation to asylum policy but the lesson is the same. The logic of prohibition is not only failing, but counter-productive.

One of the main harms in question is the issue of deaths at sea. At least 900 asylum seekers have died since 2001. The SIEV X disaster took 353 lives; the loss of the Barokah off the coast of East Java in December 2011 probably 200 more. Yet these deaths are clear instances of harms caused by the legal framework. The Refugee Convention places obligations on state parties not to return refugees to places where they may be in danger. This is called non-refoulement. Australia is a party to the convention; most of the other countries in our region, including Malaysia and Indonesia, are not.

This legal distinction makes Australia a more attractive destination for asylum seekers, while making it harder for our government to return them to countries which lack similar legal protections, as the recent High Court case which overturned the government’s Malaysia plan demonstrates. In large part, asylum seekers are drawn here because of an imaginary legal line in the middle of the ocean.

Furthermore, asylum seekers use boats because Australia aggressively prevents their arrival by other means. We do not accept refugee applications in our consulates or embassies. We make it as difficult as possible for refugees to fly safely to Australia. We call them criminals if they don’t have a visa; we call them liars if they do. As James Hathaway wrote,

if you could lawfully come to Australia and make a refugee claim without the need of sneaking in with a boat, people would do it. But we make it illegal and create the market that smugglers thrive on.

Two extreme responses come to mind. The first would be to withdraw from the Refugee Convention. Some make this suggestion not because the convention places an unfair burden on countries like Australia but because the sheer volume of refugees is causing the system to break down. Yet although the convention is proving an increasingly unwieldy instrument, it does accomplish something important. Its signatories are typically developed countries; the burdens of irregular migration fall overwhelmingly on developing countries. Without it, those burdens would be even more unequal.

Previous generations of mass migration were accompanied by a sympathetic rhetoric. AAP Image/Paul Miller

We did not choose for IMAs to come here, true. But neither did the Malaysians or the Pakistanis. Neither do refugees simply “choose” to leave their own country. The Refugee Convention brings home our small part in a global web of interdependence and responsibility. It is hard to accept this lack of freedom.

But it is not so strange, really. In our own lives, too, responsibility is not something we choose but something that chooses us. Even when we accept our responsibility for another person – as parents or children, friends or neighbours – the forms that it takes and the demands that it makes are always unpredictable. In an increasingly globalised world, we can run but we can’t hide. It is hard to imagine this country, our country, and this world, our world, surviving the 21st century without a greater consideration of the deeper and interconnected questions of global inequity and global mobility. The Phoenicians, it is said, used to beat the waves to calm the storm. Withdrawing from the Refugee Convention would be a similar exercise in futility.

The second response would be to get our neighbours to sign the Convention too. The less distinction between the treatment of refugees in different countries the less reason asylum seekers have to move. The High Court of Australia struck down the federal government’s “Malaysia solution” for complex reasons but essentially because Malaysia was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. If laws were in place there that recognised and protected refugees (for example, by guaranteeing non-refoulement), Australia could legally accept larger numbers of refugees from transit countries in exchange for returning IMAs there.

Precisely because of the heavy burdens that it imposes, there is no likelihood that transit countries will sign up any time soon. But in the long run and with our support such developments are not inconceivable. After all, the pressure to find real solutions is greater in Malaysia and Indonesia than in Australia. Over the next few years it may come to seem only practical for Malaysia and Indonesia to accept greater domestic legal obligations in exchange for a substantially expanded contribution from Australia. Our countries stand a long way apart, but they are being inexorably driven into each other’s arms. What largely stands in the way at the moment is not the asylum problem, but the “asylum problem problem”.


SINCE THE CONVENTION was drafted sixty years ago the number of refugees has grown 15-fold. Climate change and consequent political instability will surely make matters worse over the next 60 years. In Indonesia, for example, where there are about 6,000 asylum seekers and recognised refugees, resettlement lags well behind arrivals. UNHCR appears not to start looking for resettlement possibilities for three to five years.

Meanwhile refugees find themselves in a state of limbo; children get no schooling, adults cannot work. The situation in Malaysia is far worse. In a population similar in size to Australia’s there are now 86,680 refugees and 10,937 asylum seekers, together with a further 120,000 irregular migrants, vulnerable to exploitation, living under the constant threat of deportation and subject to draconian penalties for breaching immigration laws.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many should look for a safer haven. In an effort to stop them coming here, Australian policy aims to make us as unattractive a destination as possible. Economist Timothy Hatton carefully analysed the likely effect of different kinds of policies. He concluded that the treatment of asylum seekers once they arrive “ha[s] little deterrent effect”. “Push factors” which drive asylum seekers out of their own countries and away from transit countries are out of our control; “pull factors” which draw them to Australia (as opposed to elsewhere), including our reputation as a prosperous and tolerant country, are likewise largely out of our control.

Furthermore, it is doubtful how much sound information asylum seekers have about destination countries. A study in Britain showed that most asylum seekers relied mainly on vague impressions. Specific policies have little impact. Governments and international organisations are simply not trusted by the people they are trying to reach; dissemination strategies are inadequate; and there are serious practical barriers in terms of translation, literacy and access.

Mandatory detention has had no identifiable impact on rates of rates of people seeking asylum. EPA/Holti Simanjuntak

The greatest example of the failure of in-country deterrence is mandatory detention itself. In February 2013, 4,526 people were being held in immigration detention on the Australian mainland and 1,224 in detention on Christmas Island. This includes over 1,000 children, but not those currently held in “regional processing centres” on Manus Island or Nauru. No other developed country thinks a policy on such a scale necessary or desirable. It was first introduced under Bob Hawke in 1989 and legislated in 1992, supposedly “for a limited period”, in order to gather basic information about an asylum claim, health, identity or security issues.

It has long since exceeded these limits. Unauthorised arrivals are kept under conditions of isolation and hardship for years at a time and at a cost to the Australian taxpayer of over A$700 million per year. As Robert Manne wrote with great power almost a decade ago, the policy inflicts psychological and physical harm, sickness, suffering and death on those who have committed no crime other than to claim their rights under international law. Yet mandatory detention has had no identifiable impact on rates of IMAs over the years.

If there is some danger of rejected applicants for asylum going to ground if they are not kept in detention, the policy is ridiculously disproportionate. Given the very high levels of genuine refugees amongst IMAs, we lock up the vast majority of legitimate applicants for the sake of a risk, posed by a few, which can be dealt with more cheaply and humanely in other ways. Mandatory detention is often treated as Australia’s sacred cow. In reality it is nothing but a white elephant.

The notion that we can “send a message” to potential asylum seekers – to scare them off as it were – by treating those who make it here with exemplary severity, continues to befuddle the debate. On 21 November 2012, the Minister for Immigration announced a new category of bridging visas designed to reduce the pressure on Australia’s overcrowded detention facilities. Chris Bowen said:

Consistent with “no advantage”, people from this cohort going onto bridging visas will have no work rights and will receive only basic accommodation assistance, and limited financial support

Not only will this policy do nothing to discourage asylum seekers coming to Australia; like many other examples of the logic of prohibition, it will have appallingly counter-productive effects. Those on bridging visas will be condemned to poverty and isolation.

But it is worse than that. The legal magical realists assume that if work is prohibited, hey presto, no work will be done. But the case study of drug policy reminds us that prohibition is not regulation; it is un-regulation. Visa-holders will work; on 80% of the government’s lowest benefit how could they survive otherwise? So work they will, in poor conditions, paid under the table, paying no tax, and undercutting Australian workers. They will find work on the margins of society, some no doubt as prostitutes, some in the drug trade. All of them will be vulnerable to exploitation and blackmail. And after several years, certain politicians will use the inevitable effects of the legal framework we set up as evidence that refugees make bad Australians.

The cycle has already begun. Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison recently used the occasion of an assault by a young man on a bridging visa to demand that asylum seekers should not be released into the community without special “behaviour protocols” and the notification of police and residents in the area. Illicit drug laws turned thousands of young people into criminals, and their criminality was then cited to justify ever harsher laws that stigmatised more and more of them. These laws will follow the same downward spiral.

Tony Abbott proposed cutting Australia’s humanitarian program in half. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The logic of prohibition assumes that if harsh policies are ineffective, the answer is simple; make them harsher. Thus the opposition leader responded to the government’s bridging visa policy not by criticising its lack of generosity, but on the contrary, condemning it as too bountiful; Tony Abbott proposed cutting Australia’s humanitarian program in half. Again, this is breathtakingly counter-productive. On the one hand, halving the quota will certainly not reduce the number of claimants or “shorten the queue”. On the other hand, if there is any way forward it lies in attempting to help resolve the global resettlement crisis.

At the moment Australia does little to relieve the very pressures that drive asylum seekers to take the risk of trying to reach Australia. Australia resettled only 48 refugees from Indonesia in 2005, 13 in 2006, 87 in 2007, and 45 in 2008. Altogether, Australia resettled only 560 refugees from Indonesia from 2001 to 2010. Out of a hundred thousand refugees in Malaysia, Australia accepted a grand total of 340 for settlement in 2009–10 and 490 in 2010–11. While the recent increase in Australia’s humanitarian program doubled the UNHCR-resettlement component to twelve thousand places, the program indicates only a moderate increase in resettlement from Indonesia and none at all from Malaysia. Reducing our Humanitarian Program would make life harder not only for Indonesia and Malaysia, but for ourselves.

Ultimately, “a solution to Australia’s asylum seeker problem that does not include Malaysia would soon prove to be no solution at all”. The expert panel’s central recommendations focused precisely on building adequate regional mechanisms. One part of the solution clearly involves the “local integration” of many refugees into Malaysian society. It is hard to imagine how Australia could lose more credibility than by going out of its way to reject for itself the very “local integration” that it insists must be accepted by other, poorer countries. Such policy proposals undermine all our efforts to establish regional co-operation. They “send a message” all right – Australia would like to cut off its nose to spite its face.


AUSTRALIA’S DETERRENCE POLICIES are centred on the establishment of off-shore “regional processing centres” supported by a “no advantage” test. By processing them in places such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea, asylum seekers are no longer our concern, or rather they are no longer in our face. Yet given continuing demand pressures, this policy has already overloaded the facilities we have set up. Amnesty International describes conditions on Nauru as “a human rights catastrophe … a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions”. No doubt immediate problems can be addressed, at least to some extent.

What cannot be fixed is the logic. The same pressures that drive refugees from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka to Malaysia and Indonesia will continue to drive them to Australia. If we do not accept them straight away they will be housed off-shore at hideous expense and with increasing harm to Australia’s reputation. The “no advantage” test does nothing to solve this inexorable logic; it merely postpones it. The expert panel reasoned that IMAs should incur no advantage over an asylum seeker who awaits resettlement in Indonesia, thus discouraging anyone from taking to the sea. All must wait their turn.

But the whole notion of an orderly queue is nonsense. It is impossible even to hazard a guess as to how many years those on Nauru should wait since there is no actual queue with which to compare them.

And in the end, most of them will be settled in Australia anyway. Of the asylum seekers sent to Nauru under the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, 586 were granted Australian resettlement, 360 resettled in New Zealand and a mere 33 were resettled elsewhere. New Zealand has already indicated it will take only half as many this time around. So the burden of resettlement will increasingly fall on Australia.

Two things must follow. Either material and psychological pressures in these places will become so intolerable that resettlement will take place sooner, via bridging visas or otherwise. Ironically that is one reason why the boats keep coming – the more that come, the more pressure there will be to find an alternative. Again our policies have exactly the opposite results than intended. Or there will be a delay of several years, in which case the facilities will get more and more overcrowded and dangerous. In 2005 the Australian government resettled all remaining detainees still held on Manus Island and Nauru, apparently in response to an independent report which expressed alarm at their deteriorating mental health.

Without a comprehensive settlement plan in which Australia will have to take the lion’s share, we are merely creating a dangerous backlog of “warehoused” refugees, ill-health and bad blood. This is “no advantage” with a vengeance. In a bizarre piece of logic, Australia is attempting to reproduce on purpose the conditions that Malaysia and Indonesia have achieved quite by accident. Apparently we are prepared to pay billions for the privilege.

This is not to say that deterrence never works. Tim Hatton concluded that policies have a deterrent effect when directed towards “access to the country’s territory in order to establish a claim for asylum” and “the toughness of the refugee status determination procedure”. Under John Howard the Pacific Solution accomplished the latter in a roundabout way. This too is buried in the statistics. In total, 1,637 asylum seekers were processed, but only 1,153 were resettled. A third were denied status as refugees and sent home. As the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission) noted in 2006, asylum seekers processed off-shore at that time had no access to an independent merits review.

Indeed, the return rate is similar to the Department of Immigration’s own primary refusal rate in recent years. But as we know, in Australia close to three-quarters of those initial refusals are later overturned. If regional processing took any pressure off Australia during the Howard years it is clear how. The initial assessment made convenient but hasty assumptions about refugee claims. It was supported by a second-rate process that almost certainly sent back genuine refugees in order to keep the numbers down.

Such a denial of rights would be difficult to justify publicly, even in Australia. Indeed, the failure to provide a proper determination procedure would itself place us in breach of our international obligations. Consequently Nauru’s new refugee legislation allows for both independent merits review and judicial review, probably staffed by officials and judges from a third country, such as New Zealand – with Australia, you guessed it, footing the bill.

The Pacific Solution also made access to Australian territory more difficult. It did so by a combination of interception on the high seas, the legal excision of places like Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island from the Australian mainland, and off-shore processing. This indeed seems to have made a difference to the number of boats that came to Australia after 2001.

Christmas Island was excised from Australia’s mainland under the Pacific Solution. Chai Sabz

Yet several caveats need to be entered. It is unclear to what extent changing “push factors” (such as the fall of the Taliban) were ultimately responsible for a decline in IMAs. As the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship conceded before the Senate Estimates Committee, the dramatic turnaround in Afghani refugees post-9/11 was due in a significant measure to changing conditions in that country. John Menadue, former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, insists that

if we compare the flow of asylum seekers to OECD countries and Australia in the years 2000 to 2009, it is quite clear that, with a few leads and lags, the flows of asylum seekers to Australia followed very closely those to other OECD countries.

Indeed, total asylum seekers rose by a quarter in the last two years of the Howard Government, again largely in line with global trends. Tim Hatton concludes that this “policy explains only about a third of the steep decline between 2001 and 2006 – a distinctly smaller effect than some politicians have claimed”. The expert panel supported re-establishing regional processing centres as “a necessary circuit breaker”. But it is not clear what circuits they are breaking.

Since the resurrection of the Pacific Solution in 2011–12 corresponded with a steep rise in IMAs, it remains unclear just how effective deterrence actually is. Just over 3,000 passengers arrived in Australia seeking asylum in the first quarter of 2013, compared with 1,302 in the corresponding period last year, while 7,464 determinations were commenced in the March quarter compared to 7,379 in the whole year 2011–12. Regional processing in the last year or two has certainly not stemmed the flow.


AUSTRALIA’S RESPONSE TO IMAs might be described as “zero tolerance”. In relation to drug policy, zero tolerance assumes that no level of illicit use is acceptable; the only proper goal for law enforcement is to wipe it out. John Howard argued that “illicit drugs are highly dangerous, that there is no safe level of use, [and] that the only sensible objective is abstinence”. In other words, “just say no”.

Throughout the 1980s, the obvious failure of zero tolerance merely intensified the demand for extreme solutions. The steady development of punitive laws, reverse onus provisions, financial appropriations and other devices carved out a field of legal anomalies in which fundamental principles of justice were sidelined. The history of Australian drug policy highlights the collateral damage which such a cycle causes, both to the integrity of the Australian legal system and to those who are caught up in the law enforcement juggernaut.

The integrity of the Australian legal system is likewise jeopardised by our asylum policy. In order to advance a zero tolerance model that aims to remove all IMAs from Australian jurisdiction, come what may, Australia has “excised” parts of Australian territory, thereby permitting their legal removal off-shore where they may be afforded significantly lesser protections than under domestic law.

This strategy reached its reductio ad absurdum on 17 May 2013 when parliament passed legislation which excises the whole of the Australian mainland for the purposes of immigration – authorising the government to gather up all asylum seekers and deposit them in off-shore centres, no matter where they land. Australia the continent is no longer “Australia” the country when it comes to IMAs. The Act establishes an extraordinary Bermuda triangle with sides up to seven thousand kilometres long in the hope that Australia itself will mysteriously disappear into it.

In order, supposedly, to better protect us, governments around the world have, since 9/11, extended their capacity to exercise power unfettered by legal constraints or supervision. Guantánamo, which Lord Steyn famously described as a “legal black hole”, is one example. The growth of state-sanctioned bombings, drone attacks, assassinations, “eliminations” and other acts of vigilante law, is another. Under the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Act the whole of Australia is transformed into a “legal black hole” for refugees and asylum seekers.

These practices are not without precedent. After all, what was the founding of modern Australia but a state of exception outside the rule of law, Port Jackson and Port Arthur the Naurus of their time? The convicts’ struggle for legal status marked early Australian history. Throughout the 19th century, Aboriginal populations were similarly herded into detention centres like Point Civilisation in Tasmania.

We treat asylum seekers like strange fruit. Image from shutterstock.com

The struggle for legal recognition marks Aboriginal history too. Throughout the nineteenth century, ideas of management, control and isolation were often invoked as a solution to problems posed by all kinds of undesirables, lepers, criminals, immigrants, black men, mad men, sick men, or radicals. As historians Alison Bashford and Caroline Strange have pointed out, perhaps the best metaphor for this archipelago of exceptional structures is that great Australian institution, quarantine. We treat asylum seekers like strange fruit.

The other side of the collateral damage caused by zero tolerance is the harm done by aggressive law enforcement. Footage of spectacular customs hauls was the staple diet of television news in the 1990s (and Border Patrol more recently). But these dramatic actions failed to make any lasting inroads into the drug trade. Drug smuggling became slightly riskier. Drugs became more expensive, the drug trade became more lucrative and more violent, pushers and users became more dependent on enlisting new clients or stepped up the crime needed to support their habits – a classic example of a vicious circle in which tough law enforcement policies exacerbate the very problems they were meant to eradicate.

Those with the least choice always suffer the most at the hands of a legal structure lashing out at its own impotence: members of the underclass in US cities, for example, or low-level couriers subject to the death penalty in places like Malaysia, Singapore, or most recently Indonesia. Several countries in the Americas are currently suffering from the ugly end-game of this particular logic, with unintended consequences that are steadily unravelling the fabric of their societies.

Aggressive interdiction strategies are likewise an important element in our war on asylum seekers. Under the Howard government, Operation Relex targeted people-smuggling boats and attempted to return them to Indonesian waters; now we have the Bali Process. But, like the occasional Customs haul of heroin, such actions leave the underlying problems and pressures, here and in Indonesia, quite untouched.

“People smuggling disruption activities” are in fact far from benign. They might involve disrupting established smuggling routes, confiscating boats and in some cases even sabotaging them. The Australian government has provided significant funds over the years to support covert Indonesian police actions, and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is said to have been involved in similar conduct over the years.

Robin de Crespigny’s recent book The People Smuggler (Penguin, 2012) makes a powerful case for Ali Al Jenabi as “the Oskar Schindler of Asia”. But the public discourse of “vermin” who should “rot in hell” continues to predominate – family members in Sri Lanka, Pakistani travel agents, poor Indonesian fishermen, vermin one and all.

Predictably, severe penalties and confiscating boats only encourage smugglers to minimise their economic risk and to maximise their profit. Vessels are increasingly unseaworthy and overcrowded, crewed by inexperienced and impoverished young Indonesians, altogether increasing the risk of a tragedy at sea. On 25 March 2013, two asylum seekers died as a result of the inexperience of the “sailors” who were handling their boat when it was boarded by Australian officials.

We suppose that if we make smuggling secretive enough and dangerous enough, asylum seekers will just say no. We should know from our experience with drug users and drug smuggling that this is not so. But the fantasy of zero tolerance lives on in the politics of IMAs.


DRUG HISTORY OFFERS more than a cautionary tale of misplaced zeal. Since my return to Australia last year, I have been struck by a decline in the use of overblown rhetoric in this country, accompanied by what seems to have been a steady shift from a policy of “zero tolerance” to one of “harm reduction”. Zero tolerance assumes that any level of drug use in society is unacceptable. Policies that help drug users live better lives or avoid prison are seen as misguided. Illegal drugs are a law and order problem.

But harm reduction strategies start from the opposite assumptions. They argue that some level of drug use in society is inevitable. Policies should therefore not aim to eliminate drug use entirely, but instead concentrate on modifying the dangerous conditions under which drugs are taken. Illegal drugs are reframed as a health problem.

Inconsistently, incrementally, and in some ways almost unnoticed, Australian society has moved away from the hysteria of the 1970s and 1980s. While it is certainly true that levels of police illicit drug interdiction continues to rise, up for example to 23.8 tonnes in 2011–12 from 9.63 tonnes the previous year, and with cocaine seizures at their highest level for a decade, these activities are increasingly focused at levels of commercial importation and accompanied by much less of the moral panic of the past.

Drugs are no longer regular front-page news except when the hauls are displayed for the cameras. Meanwhile, the possession or growing of cannabis for personal use has been decriminalised in three jurisdictions, with clear benefits to users and to the legal system. Elsewhere, conviction for small levels of personal use is rare. All Australian jurisdictions now make extensive use of “cannabis cautioning schemes” and/or divert users to education or counselling programs. In May 2013, after a thorough investigation, a New South Wales Parliamentary Committee unanimously recommended the legalisation of the medical use of cannabis. Such a decision would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

Meanwhile, court-based schemes frequently divert heroin users to treatment. Despite the continuing illegality of heroin, needle exchanges have been running successfully in Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere for years. The public health outcomes have been impressive. Australia has one of the lowest rates of AIDS infection among intravenous drug users in the world. Clearly these programs do not attempt to prohibit drug injection; instead they intend to regulate it better and make it safer. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada recently held that denying addicts access to such life-saving services violates the Canadian Constitution. Zero tolerance or harm reduction – that’s the issue. Increasingly, it looks like prohibition is losing the war it started.

What would a “harm reduction” policy in relation to IMAs look like?

It would not seek to “stop the boats”, but to stop the conditions which lead to them, and to alleviate the conditions of those on them. In the face of increasing refugee populations across our region, Australia is more dependent on best practices in other countries than they are on us. There can be no alternative but to act as we urgently need other countries to act. For our own sake as well as for theirs, we need to increase the size of our settlement program from transit countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Likewise, we must remove all counter-productive measures in our treatment of refugees. This would involve reinstating a workable quota for the Special Humanitarian Program without treating it as a hostage to fortune. Linking the program to the number of IMAs creates more suffering for new arrivals, increases the number of children arriving by boat and seriously inhibits the integration and settlement of refugees.

We should dismantle mandatory detention facilities and off-shore processing centres, and rescind our own denial of the right to work and education. These are entirely pointless gestures. They do not protect Australia and they do not discourage IMAs. They are mind-bogglingly counter-productive not only in terms of refugee health and safety, but also in terms of building viable regional processes.

Instead of spending exorbitant sums pursuing a counter-productive logic, Australia should increase its support for UNHCR operations and capacity-building in transit countries. The fundamental reason that IMAs keep coming to Australia is because of the lack of other options. Funding detention centres and interdiction efforts in neighbouring countries is a classic example of the problem with zero tolerance. Such measures only serve to make conditions worse for asylum seekers in Indonesia and Malaysia, directly causing more and more of them to try and reach Australia.

Australia should improve conditions for refugees and support their right to work, health care and education. DruhScoff

Taking a leaf out of the harm-reduction handbook, Australia should instead actively support measures to improve conditions for refugees in those countries, including by the legal recognition of the status of refugees and asylum seekers, and supporting their right to work, education and health. Of course, we cannot seriously advance these policies elsewhere without walking the walk ourselves.

In any case we should stop deflecting blame for the loss of life caused by our own policies onto IMAs or “people smugglers” – the inevitable by-products of Australia’s self-inflicted “asylum problem problem”. Just as we have seen in relation to illegal drugs, laws do have effects – just not always the ones we want. Bad laws turn good intentions into bad consequences. Cutting all access to family reunion programs increases the number of children who drown at sea; prohibiting visa-holders from working creates an underclass; supporting interdiction and disruption activities overseas does not save lives, but costs them; failing to take more refugees now stores up a bigger problem for the future.

Our current policies exhibit a dogged and self-destructive logic. In the interests of an unrealistic policy of prohibition and a counter-productive fantasy of zero tolerance, our governments have attempted to establish pockets of non-law in order to prevent IMAs from accessing protections to which they are entitled. These anomalies are justified by reference to a non-existent queue, in the interests of which the logic of “no advantage” drives conditions on Nauru, Manus Island and so on, down and down.

Deteriorating physical and psychological conditions create their own political pressures which ultimately import unhealthy and discriminatory conditions back to the Australian mainland and right in to the middle of our cities. Meanwhile, the costs of maintaining the system spiral out of control and prevent us from putting money in places that might make a difference.

Each turn of the screw only amplifies the errors. Unless we begin to accept our responsibilities the problems will continue to metastasise and the debate will continue to fester. We have been down that road before.


THE GOOD NEWS for Australians is that shifting the debate by accepting that we need to do more, not less, is not simply a matter of “doing the right thing” – a kind of cold comfort by which Australians seem largely unmoved. We are putting in place structures and processes that will improve the underlying problems as well. The growing acceptance of harm reduction in the field of drug policy gives us a model for real change. Australia’s policy leadership there illustrates a lesson of enormous pragmatic importance: compassion and understanding are more successful social policy settings than anger and ignorance.

What factors allowed the seemingly interminable “drug wars” to subside? As Bill Bowtell wrote in Griffith Review 17: Staying Alive, the imminent threat of HIV/AIDS brought together a small but influential group of “politicians, bureaucrats, advisers, doctors, nurses, nuns, sex workers, gay men, drug users, academics, journalists, advertising executives and social workers” around a pragmatic response that ended up saving many thousands of lives. In the process the drug problem finally managed to escape the populist rhetoric which had held it captive. That is the task we now face: to shift the narrative that frames the “asylum problem problem” from zero tolerance to harm reduction, and from border protection to regional security.

Yet although the undoubted urgency of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the dedicated influence of a few professionals was certainly vital, two significant elements help explain the widespread acceptance that harm reduction drug policies came to enjoy. The first was the horrendous cost of the law enforcement system. Many economists, conservative as well as left-leaning, have documented extensively the irrationality and expense of drug prohibition. As Alex Wodak argued in a recent essay, “In 2002–03 commonwealth, state and territory governments spent A$3.2 billion preventing and responding to illicit drugs,” three-quarters of which went on law enforcement, 7% on drug treatment and only 1% on harm reduction.

Despite minimal evidence of effectiveness and abundant evidence of serious collateral damage, gold bars continue to rain down on drug law enforcement. It’s just the opposite for drug treatment and harm reduction where there is substantial evidence of benefit and minimal evidence of serious collateral damage. In contrast to the money spent on law enforcement, the A$224 million spent in 2002–03 on drug treatment was an excellent investment. Methadone maintenance treatment saves between $4 and $7 for every dollar spent. The A$32 million spent on harm reduction in 2002–03 was also a great investment. Needle syringe programs save $4 in healthcare costs and $27 overall for every dollar spent.

In a political climate dominated by the language of economic efficiency – not morality – such arguments are increasingly hard to ignore.

The second was what we might call the “normalisation” of drug users. We fear the unknown. Stereotypes create anxiety, but personal contact reduces it. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s many Australians came in contact with young people, in particular, who were suffering from the real physical and social consequences of drug laws – not as shock-jock fodder but as co-workers, friends or family members. Stereotypes began to fall; punitive measures seemed neither to reflect reality nor to do any good. Cases like those of Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine have been the subject of huge media interest in Australia and dramatised the plight of rather normal, if foolish, young people who find themselves facing exorbitant prison terms and in some cases the death penalty for acts of stupidity.

Even closer to home, Friends and Families for Drug Law Reform was one small group established in 1995 in response to four heroin-related deaths in the Australian Capital Territory. Rather than demanding tougher penalties, this group came to believe that “prohibition laws are more the problem than the solution”. There is nothing so powerful as lived experience, even tragic experience, to wean people off the false comfort of conventional wisdom.

Stereotypes about drug use broke down in the 1980s and 90s. Flickr/prensa420

Of these two catalysts to pragmatic change, the economic implications of our current asylum policy are crystal clear. Deterrence and interdiction will cost Australia around A$654 million over four years. Nauru will cost around A$2 billion over that time; Manus Island about A$1 billion more. The cost of on-shore processing for refugees waiting to have their claims heard, including those on bridging visas and in mandatory detention, is now estimated at A$375 million a year – money which has been taken directly out of the foreign aid budget. Australia probably spends over A$100,000 on every asylum seeker we attempt, largely ineffectually, to turn back. In comparison, Australia contributed A$48 million to UNHCR in 2012; a significant contribution, but a reduction of over 13% on the previous year.

Regrettably, Australia’s political discourse at present does not seem to provide much scope for the kind of normalisation that helped to temper the “drug problem problem”. The fewer refugees we take in, the harder it is for average Australians to become their friends, neighbours or co-workers. By defining the problem as one of “border protection”, excising the whole country from any relationship with asylum seekers, segregating them behind razor wire and holding them thousands of kilometres off-shore, we make it impossible for Australians to even see or hear their stories. This fanatical isolation is not only expensive and cruel: by “immunising” ourselves against any interaction, we merely ratchet up the very anxiety which fuelled the “asylum problem problem” to begin with. This is another example of the perils of unintended consequences.

The government of the day does not face a moral dilemma. It faces a political dilemma, which is a very different thing. Previous generations of mass migration were accompanied by a sympathetic rhetoric that matched Australia’s prevailing world view. The paradox is that there is no reason why this should not be the case now, too. Why should the post-war “refos” or Vietnamese “boat people” (fleeing a conflict in which we were implicated) be seen as repudiating communism, while Afghani and Iraqi asylum seekers (equally fleeing a conflict in which we are implicated) are seen as importing terrorism?

Our support is surely a powerful political statement as well as a constructive step. Indeed, the development of moderate and stable Islamic states is our very best guarantee of regional security, and finding a long-term solution to their refugee problems is critical to that development. The less help we give Pakistan, for example (95% Muslim), or Indonesia (87%) or Malaysia (61%) to deal with the refugee crisis on and within their borders, the more we encourage regional instability and perhaps even extremism. If one day not 1,000 but 100,000 Indonesians took to the open seas, what exactly would Australia do then?

I said that Australian policy is cutting off its nose to spite its face. Actually, we are excising our brain to spite our heart.

Drug policy history not only shows us the characteristic failures and dead-ends of this kind of thinking. It also points the way to alternative approaches in which compassion and pragmatism are revealed not to be opposites but partners. Australians may yet appreciate how we are connected to the regional and global problems that now seem to surprise and bewilder us.

Our understanding of the global circumstances of refugees may yet outweigh our long-standing defensive anxiety. It is possible, after all, to wake up from Groundhog Day. And not a moment too soon. As an ex-expat I have chosen, on more than one occasion, the country in which I wish to live. Not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone is free to choose when they leave, where they go, and when – or whether – they come home again.

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  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    In one sense this whole issue is a lose-lose proposition.

    "There are currently about fifteen million refugees and a million asylum seekers "

    Without resorting to hyperbole, that's a lot of displaced people.

    Does the author have a ceiling number for refugees and asylum seekers entering Australia. Obviously we can't take 16 million.

    Is there an answer? The author oultines plenty of problems, but what could be some of the answers?

    Australia needs to protect it's own sustainablility - that's not alarmist rhetoric, but practical.

    There must be middle ground somewhere!

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Sure Stephen, Australia does need to protect its own future.

      But how about, instead of looking at this as an 'Australian' problem, we look at it as a global problem affecting humanity. And instead of looking at it as refugees etc, we think of them as human beings.

      You would be amazed how the problems look different when you look at them from a different perspective.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike that was more or less my point........it's a problem that will not go away - we can't just pretend it isn't happening by closing down the borders. Although we do take refugees and immigrants through other means.

      My point also was that there is a ton of criticism on one side, but not a lot of practical solutions forthcoming.

      It's not simply a matter of saying come on over - there are practical solutions that need to be addressed.

      This is not a neat situation with easy outcomes.

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      There're also about 30M IDPs Stephen, classed by the UNHCR as those people inside their own countries but still displaced.
      What you will also find from UNHCR reports is that not all the 15M refugees are seeking resettlement and in fact very few want that as against wanting to return to their own country when safe to do so, that being a prime reason for the UNHCR and other NGOs setting up camps where they are.

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    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Yep Mike, have a look at UNHCR reports per my comment to Stephen.
      If you take a look from another perspectiuve, you could also say that the success of resettlements are such that whether it is a good idea at all is questionable for with the cost of that as compared to looking after people in camps, there could be far more to be gained from contributing to developments that will see a better quality of life for many more than the relative few that get resettled, especially if we are creating many long term welfare dependant citizens.
      Of course, achieving more contraception use could also do something for populations growth.

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    5. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike, I can assure you that people who live in places like Sydney's western suburbs know for more about how 'global' this problem, than the whitey white NIMBYs, who think they know more about this issue than anybody else.

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    6. Urs Baumgartner

      Consultant for Environment and Sustainability

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I can only agree with what other have said above!
      Besides, can you specify what you mean with "Australia needs to protect it's own sustainablility"?
      Are you aware of the fact that Australia remains one of the worlds top three per capita carbon polluters (and hence climate change pusher)? That a big part of all the seafood imported to Australia (over 70% of the total consumption) comes from highly unsustainable production and illegal fishing? That we wear clothing that was produced by abusing and exploiting workers?
      All just example of circumstances that will lead to more migration over the coming years and decades. Australia is part of the world and we can't just take without being responsible.
      Nothing is sustainable about what we are doing here and your view of being practical is very selfish and short-sighted!

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    7. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Urs Baumgartner

      Interesting comments you have there Urs and with
      " Besides, can you specify what you mean with "Australia needs to protect it's own sustainablility"? "
      You kind of answer the question somewhat yourself with:
      " Are you aware of the fact that Australia remains one of the worlds top three per capita carbon polluters (and hence climate change pusher)? That a big part of all the seafood imported to Australia (over 70% of the total consumption) comes from highly unsustainable production and illegal…

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  2. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    This is a long long article Desmond just as Refugees/IDPs and Asylum Seekers are a big problem and you do cover so many facts I'll take the rest of the weekend to explore them if I indeed do.
    Just a few of what you stated ( and you may have expanded more on them ) do need expanding.
    For instance when you talk of how many people Australia has attempting to settle here via claiming asylum and compare that to Pakistan or wherever, it does need to be considered that the many millions in refugee camps…

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, I think Australia should triple our humanitarian quota, but focus our humanitarian resettlement efforts exclusively on the Asia Pacific. However, I also insist all this be done cut off from the Refugee Convention, with the UNHCR kept on as a 'consultant' only, with no independent authority.

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to David Thompson

      The future may hold quite a few issues for the Asia Pacific region David, timing depending on what happens when with climate change, sea level rises and petroleum products shortages.
      Australia will also be affected to some extent or another by the same and if we do not have governments prepared to build some new coal fired or nuclear power stations before too much longer we'll also have large sections of communities making do with less power and perhaps the building commencement date to avoid that…

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    3. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, we certainly need to be on the front foot with the effects of climate change in Micro/Poly/Melanesia, and especially low-lying Pacific islands, such as Tuvalu. We should be putting in place policies now to introduce these nations to Australia life, through work and study visas, so that when migration becomes unavoidable, there will not be any tensions

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to David Thompson

      David - excellent point.

      Who knows what the future may hold in this regard - although there's probably a good indication at this point in time.

      A & NZ need to look at this issue seriously.

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    5. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Greg the UNHCR really doesn't have independent authority because it is simply a representative (a neutral body) made up of nations from around the world. So it is really what other countries make of it and even if Australia were to distance itself from its international obligations by rescinding the CRSR we then set ourselves apart from human rights norms and as such separate from the rest of the civilized world which would no doubt come at a great cost to Australia re sanctions etc. So what you…

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    6. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, your grasp of history, even very recent history is shocking. And you really need to start learning about the actual dynamics at play in the world around you - political, diplomatic, legal, cultural, economic - rather than relying on sophomoric slogans from 'human rights' luvvies.

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    7. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Your claims about 'UN sanctions' are both hilarious and tragic. Here's some more homework for you. Check out the history of UNSC Chapter VI and Chapter VII Resolutions, then get back to us on the risks Australia faces. ;)

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    8. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Really David, I'm wondering whether you're being pedantic and trying to pick up on the fact that I didn't mention the League of Nations (WW1) which failed and hence the UN was formed after WW2 as a result of the shocking crimes committed by and against humanity. The real point being is that the UN was formed to stop power hungry imbeciles committing human rights violations against others - or supporting them as you do to expand somewhat on that premise.

      'human rights' luvvies"

      You make love sound like a bad thing David. Tut tut, what did your wife leave you and you became an embittered little man?

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    9. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      David at this point Australia doesn't face risks - but if we rescind I can guarantee Australia faces severe risks. All I can say to that one David is enjoy living in a culturally and economically isolated country. Good luck with that!

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    10. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, TC is a blog that prides itself on expertise and intellectual quality. My expecting you to know the basic facts before you go calling everybody under the sun 'xenophobes', 'racists', accusing them of ignorance of the law, has nothing to do with bitterness. It is about calling out such notorious and endless statements and arguments, which are so obviously wrong. You think your little MA degree makes you the smartest "human rights" expert online. This is a fraudulent pose, as you clearly know not much more than the man on the Clapham omnibus.

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    11. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      On that point, you are far from the only offender on TC. Over the past two weeks, about 20 articles on boat people have been published on TC. Every single one of them has repeated 'facts' which have long been exposed as hoaxes. OTOH, they replay long discredited cliches, especially about Malcolm Fraser. This lame propaganda needs to be called out as a democratic obligation.

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    12. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Oh David we are back to this are we? Intellectual snobbery from a xenophobe seems highly contradictory I must say.

      "It is about calling out such notorious and endless statements and arguments, which are so obviously wrong."

      Okay then discuss where my arguments are wrong David. Let's bat this one out again until once again you your arguments become more than apparently wrong.

      "You think your little MA degree makes you the smartest "human rights" expert online."

      Not at all actually…

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    13. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      "but if we rescind I can guarantee Australia faces severe risks"
      Grant, you are in no position to make any guarantees of anything whatsoever, let alone UN sanctions against Australia! Again, get back to the books on UNSC sanctions under Chapters VI and VII. I know you do not even know what these are, and what significance they have to this debate. But I am quite a good user of the socratic method, so you will work it out in time.

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    14. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to David Thompson

      You are making assertions that are not backed up with evidence.

      Please identify the "hoaxes" that you have found in "Every single one..." of the "'about 20 articles on boat people." on The Conversation.

      If you have proof of propaganda provide it.

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    15. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Oh David I am fully up to speed on humanitarian international law I can assure you. Again you come back to a semantic point. I could explain it to you if you like but I expect there is no point because as with most ignorant people they will argue their poitn out cherry picking and distorting facts. What you are trying to do is present an argument that Australia can rescind and get away with it. This of course is ludicrous to even someone with half an iota of UN mechanisms and international law. It's actually very easy David - look at what happened to South Africa and get back to me on this - there's a good boy.

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    16. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Ken, you were present on a couple of those very articles, so you've seen some of it.

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    17. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to David Thompson

      If there are no risks in "denouncing" the Refugee Convention(this is the official term for rescinding) why has neither political party suggested this relatively simple step as a way of avoiding granting asylum to boat people. They have tried or suggested almost everything else.

      The UN is not the only body that can apply sanctions. Our neighbours have no rule book they need follow.

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    18. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      SOUTH AFRICA!!!??? ROFL. You are seriously drawing an analogy between not only Sth Africa in 1963 and Australia in 2013, but also between the UN - and especially the UNSC - during the Cold War and 2013. Dude, if you really had a Law degree, you couldn't possibly draw such lame analogies.

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    19. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      David fortunately we won't have to find that one out. As I said even with Blabbitt being a brainless twit he still has a lot more smarts than you. Fortunately, Pauline Hanson won't be winning the election so safe to say Australia won't rescind.

      "Sth Africa in 1963 and Australia in 2013" Yeah scary isn't it. Thing is the South Africans thought what they were doing was moral also. To their disadvantage the world disagreed. Speaking of which David did you know that in Western Australia we jail our black fellahs at 9 times the rate that Sth Africa jailed blacks during apartheid. And yet some here would like to claim Australia isn't a racist nation????? Confused!!?

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    20. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to David Thompson

      Present your evidence for hoaxes in "Every single one..." of the "'about 20 articles on boat people."

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    21. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, when you've completed Analogies For Dummies, maybe then you can try presenting arguments on these issues. But not before. And a bit of work on the old syllogisms, if you want to make arguments about state actions that would invoke UNSC sanctions under Chapter VI, let alone Chapter VII!!! ROFL.

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    22. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Ken David won't have a straight answer for a very obviously good question, The fact is and he knows it that there are very real risks. He's marketing I expect - selling the political line. He hangs in here and attacks anyone that counters his line and hopes they go away because he has something to sell:-)

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    23. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Ken, I'm not your goafer. Go back and read for yourself. But you posted on some of them, so you know quite well.

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    24. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Well, yes, I do, paying for your Newstart payments; which I don't mind.

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    25. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to David Thompson

      You made the seriuos assertion that hoaxes repeat hoaxes were perpetrated in every single article on asylum seekers in The Coversation. If this is true you must have them all to hand. Prove it.!

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    26. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      David as a tip I enjoy it as I see you descend into jibes and insults. Great to see you're being got to. But pssst students are on Austudy and not Newstart and safe to say I've paid that myself a thousand times over. Juts would be kind of nice to see you gets your facts straight on anything really.

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    27. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Ken, this very article, we are reading her, is full of historical, legal, and geopolitical howlers. This one, that has been used so many times over the past two weeks, I suspect they are all copying from the same fraudulent source:
      "Again in the years 1979–85, Australia accepted between 15,000 and 20,000 Vietnamese boat people annually."
      This is a favourite of non-scholars like Julian Burnside, which both The Age and ABC print, despite it being absolute bollocks. An then TC article writers repeat it. No wonder public discourse on this issue is so fraught, with all the so-called 'experts' spreading misinformation. It is hard to know when this is due to negligence or malicious intent.

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    28. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Of course knob heads using the term "illegals", "illegal immigrants","boat people", IMAs (gad now they're not even people), "terrorists" etc are not perverting the discourse on the asylum seeker debate which just so happens to be a debate because Howard politicised them with the above rhetoric and played on white Australia policy to the 19th hole.

      "No wonder public discourse on this issue is so fraught, with all the so-called 'experts' spreading misinformation" (yes David it's actually called propaganda or as Hitler once put it "make the lie big, keep it simple and keep saying it and eventually they will believe it" - or something to this effect. So David keep saying it and eventually some here might believe it ---- safe to say I won't be one of them)

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    29. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Ken, even Desmond here links to a Refugee Council Annual Report, whose very charts shows Desmond in no way got his data from anything published by the Refugee Council. The claim of Fraser taking 15-25,000 Vietnamese boat people ever year from 1977 is almost as sacred an historical fact in Australian historical discourse - particularly immigration - George Bradman in the historical imagination in sport. Difference is, Desmond's story never happened. Not even close. In fact, Malcolm Fraser only allowed 2,000 boat people reach Australian soil during his whole three governments. That's an average of about 300 per year. Hardly 20,000!
      I'd put money on Desmond using Julian Burnside's un-reviewed orgy of false claims that carries on betweenm the pages of The Age

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    30. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      That is actually fairly accurate David surprise surprise.... The first boat arrived in Darwin in April 1976 carrying five Indochinese men. Over the next five years there were 2059 Vietnamese boat arrivals with the last arriving in August 1981.[2] http://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/2012-2013/boatarrivals

      So what you are talking about is media distortions and not distortions by human rights people. Surprise! Surprise! again. No way - the media manufacture rubbish. Hell man! That one is new to me (hmmmm perhaps its also why I haven't bought an Australian newspaper in about 15 years).

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    31. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Oh and David you've just cited an example of the media plague. So where are the other 19 examples you speak of?

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    32. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Ah Grant, the discourses using all those derogatory names started in 1975. Starting with Gough Whitlam himself, who was cheered on by the ALP Left ('we will decide who comes into this country, and it won't be any of those fucking Vietnamese Balts) then Communists kicked off about "bourgeois economic migrants}, then by Fraser's notion of the front and back of the queue. and his government themselves.
      Is you problem you just have no historical knowledge, poor research skills, or a paranoid view of the world, where you think John Howard was responsible for everything you hate, and you think he is still secretly ruling the country.

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    33. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Right. And the media in this case being the author of this article, Julian Burnside, dozens of other academics, including many here on TC.

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    34. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      The fact, you have only learnt this stiff TODAY, says a lot of your MA course, and your own critical thinking skills.

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    35. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to David Thompson

      You will of course have the right numbers?

      But be careful. The Immigration Department reports that 73,693 'settlers' from Vietnam arrived in that period. The definiton of 'settlers' is:

      'Settlers comprise persons arriving in Australia who are one of the following:

      1. Holders of a permanent visa.
      2. Holders of a temporary (provisional) visa where there is a clear intention to settle.
      3. New Zealand citizens indicating an intention to settle.
      4. Persons otherwise eligible to settle.'

      But can we trust DIAC figures?

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    36. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Ken, I am not interested in arguing with a student, who has not done the reading beforehand. You clearly have a LONG way if you've been accepting even this particular bollocks about the Great Fraser year. however, without a moment's critical reflection. Come back in a few months, when you might be starting to see the picture of what is actually going, and how we how here.

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    37. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to David Thompson

      Your arrogance is breathtaking! You are challenged to provide evidence and you immediately duck for cover.

      Read the other part of my descriptor. I have had direct involvement and experience on the ground with refugees, the people that protect them and the countries from which they originate for a longer period than you can imagine.

      I will be here when you come up with the goods, if you can.

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    38. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Ken Alderton

      Well boys, that's enough tutoring for one day. But PLEASE do some - a lot even - of the reading you are clearly not familiar with. You are not to get on top of these issues with this extra effort.

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  3. Grant Mahy

    Unemployed

    It's an interesting approach to take and I enjoyed the essay very much. It is long so I'll definitely be cutting and pasting it to go over the material properly. I do agree however that the same irrationality (power, the politics of fear, the other) drives the asylum seeker debate and the ill fated drug war (haha yeah how can you launch a war against drugs? It's a war against people!). Great read.

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  4. Barry Nicholson

    Engineer

    It's an interesting comparison as both "problems" are produced by the same people who create the problem, which is presumably why they have a difficulty seeing a solution.

    Consider the war on drugs - what happens in a war? Young people are sent to fight and die for others and some "innocent" people are killed, justified as being for the greater good and "minimising harm". So if you want to win a war, then you have to accept this is the way to "minimise harm". If you include in the drugs situation…

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Barry Nicholson

      Barry, wrong, wrong, wrong. While the 'war on drugs' was state-driven, Australia's attitude to boat people has overwhelmingly been driven by us, the people.

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    2. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      So what you're saying David is Australians are callous xenophobes. I think that is far too easy an explanation but would agree in part. Certainly many Australians are callous xenophobes. One needs to realise that Australia has a long history of racism and xenophobia. Yep I know and then there are howls that this isn't racism because Muslims aren't a race but an archetype - which is really the same thing as racism. Anyway mate not on my behalf thank you. I am one of the people as you put it and I object strongly to callous racism, illegal imprisonment, torture and other forms of inhuman and degrading punishment. If that is what you are saying Australia is about then it is time Australia checked in with itself. By the way the Aboriginals made a symbolic gesture at the tent embassy inviting refugees to Australia. I would say David that they are the real people and ask are you speaking on behalf of the first wave of boat people (confused?)

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    3. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      No Grant, I am saying that you and your ilk are ignorant, lousy socio-political analysts of the world around you. Though I'd say not very bright, rather than outright malicious.

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    4. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Interesting perspective there David. Launches with a barrage of ignorance and malicious garbage and accuses me of being ignorant and "outright malicious". God forbid that I'd upset a callous racist mate - the truth hurts doesn't it? Still being subjected to torture hurts a lot more so I'm more than happy to step on the toes of those who support torture and violence against others. Now if you have something intelligent to say please do because week after week I seeing you spreading hate and division about those fleeing persecution and war. Mate any coward can kick a man when he is down - toughen up princess!

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    5. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, if push came to shove, I'd be the first to step up. As it is, I pay taxes to enable representatives to take care of that stuff.

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    6. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Haha yeah mate I'd really want someone in the tranches like you at my side. You'd do my scone in with your racist nonsense and I'd have to shoot you myself:-) Go market David. Oh hang on you're marketing an ideology. Nice one.

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    7. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, as a foreigner, you chose to leave your own people in favour of a society that presumably you thought did things ns a way your own could never. We agree. And we do not want to slip back into a society where not even you would want to migrate to.

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    8. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      David I was born in Australia:-) Sort of makes me far more Australian than you. I'm in the right hemisphere and like the first Australians have dark skin:-) Try picking me up on typos next time - if that is the best you can do I'd say we're pretty much done big fella.

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    9. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, you need to learn how to read English sentences. I said the opposite to you people being "outright malicious".

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    10. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Though I'd say not very bright, rather than outright malicious.

      Oh yes I see - never do look too closely at your posts. My apologies.

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  5. Martha Kinsman

    consultant

    Many thanks for a very informative article. I have two questions that you may be able to answer. Firstly, do you know, or know where I can find out, how many ‘IMAs’ there have been to Australia in the last three-four weeks? For a long time the numbers were nightly news headlines, now it seems there is a deafening silence. Google search only tells me about last financial year. Secondly, do you know if the UNHCR – or the UN itself - has any means of sanctioning nation states which, like Australia, act in flagrant breach of their obligations under the Refugee Convention?

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Martha Kinsman

      Martha, the answers to your two questions are absolutely NO. Especially the UNHCR, which is nothing more than public servants.

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    2. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to Martha Kinsman

      "do you know if the UNHCR – or the UN itself - has any means of sanctioning nation states which, like Australia, act in flagrant breach of their obligations under the Refugee Convention?"

      Yes they do by democratic consensus through the UN Council and other mechanisms. Or as has happened in the past the UN can voice disapproval through the UNHCR or for that matter the head of the UN can go so far as to condemn Australia's actions. If there is enough calls to condemn Australia through the council members can vote for sanctions but this is unlikely. Further, if Australia's policy disadvantages other states by displacing asylum seekers elsewhere another state could bring Australia before the World Court (similar to what Australia is doing now with Japan over whaling).

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    3. In reply to Grant Mahy

      Comment removed by moderator.

    4. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Ah here we go again David. Okay correction the UN Human Rights Council (established 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights) which was established as a subsidiary body to the UN General Assembly. To help you out http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/

      And David you're partially right the UN is perhaps the most undemocratic body in the world but also to come back to the question that was asked it is through a democratic process that sanctions could be applied - but again I stress…

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    5. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      "Okay correction."
      Thank you.

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    6. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Yeah good to see the MA in Human Rights actually has some purpose:-) Did a whole semester on UN Instruments and institutions - would have felt well ripped off if I didn't actually understand them David. Oh and Martha one thing that could be done is Australia could be expelled from the UN Council - no country has been expelled yet but mechanisms exist to enable this through a vote (note democracy David) in the UN General Assembly. This is actually possible but I expect unlikely. It will depend where the UN takes things re Australia's position. Certainly it has huge implications for the respect for human rights and the refugee convention.

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    7. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Grant, it is your money, so spend as you wish. But you do realize that 99% pf these MA degrees costing tens of thousands of dollars are cons for foreigners. You'd do well to spend your money on something more strategic, like toilet paper.

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    8. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Odd David - just got a gig with Foreign Affairs (DFAT) starting early next year but thanks for the tip. Scary isn't mate - I'll soon be speaking on behalf of the people and representing Australian interests:-) First one I must speak to them about is the lousy opinion civilized countries have of Australia and Australians.

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    9. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Of course you did dear. I know the types who get those gigs, and the only DFAT you could be talking about is the Department of Farts and Tits.

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    10. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter at Trophy hunter

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Which are these civilised countries that are prejudiced against us, Grant? That sentiment would seem to satisfy your rather unconventional definition of "racism".

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    11. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Oh my god David you're not telling me that the Australian Government has discriminatory polices are you?

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    12. Martha Kinsman

      consultant

      In reply to Grant Mahy

      Thanks Grant, For David's information I think the Security Council is often referred to as 'the UN Council' and he is certainly confusing knowledge with critical thinking!

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    13. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Martha Kinsman

      Oh dear Martha. The point proved here is that Grant knows as much as you do.

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    14. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to Martha Kinsman

      No probs Martha although the security council and the UN Human Rights Council (typically referred to as the UN Council or the UNHRC - which is a very similar acronym to the UNHCR = High Commissioner for Refugees which is why most refer to it as the UN Council so as not to confuse) are different things. The UN is actually an extremely complex body made up of large numbers of representative bodies and committees and subcommittees but the ones where your question is concerned would largely be handled…

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    15. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to David Thompson

      I wouldn't even respond to the troll Martha. His game is to hound and annoy in the hope that the people that seemingly aren't his type of people (i.e. callous xenophobes) go away and don't challenge his world views because when challenged these types of views are shown for the bigotry they are.

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    16. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Martha Kinsman

      To answer your first question Martha, I do not know that Immi release data on a week by week basis other than what they put into news releases via http://www.newsroom.immi.gov.au/releases and you could troll through to see announcements, there for instance:
      " 30-07-2013 - A group of 68 Sri Lankans who recently arrived at Cocos (Keeling) Islands is now on Christmas Island about to begin enhanced screening processes. They face the same assessment process that unauthorised maritime arrivals (UMAs) of "
      and
      " 22-07-2013 - People who arrived by boat at Christmas Island over the weekend are coming to the realisation their dangerous journey will not win them a place in Australia. The 81 Iranians were told – based on new asylum processing arrangements ... Read More → "
      As to the other it seems it is again the Grant and David show and yes, the UN could go through a process as unlikely as it is for Australia could just say well, we'll revoke being a signatory.

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  6. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The analogy with drug control would work if the article was proposing free movement of people.

    If that's the case - let's do it!

    But the author is suggesting freeing up one form of control, but not others - so it doesn't have internal consistency. If there's control over migration, people will find other ways of getting around the laws (like enrolling in bogus courses that get you migration points).

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  7. ess elle

    Economist

    The concept of 'Zero Tolerance' is absurd. Treating symptoms instead of the root cause is what we do in our society. The economics are irrational and the social and humanity costs are stunning. Desmond rightly makes the financial point at the end of the piece by outlining the amount of resources we apply to each sector. The future health of the people and associated financial costs blow out big time which he hasn't accounted for. In fact if we just chartered planes and invited all of those seeking…

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    1. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to ess elle

      Couldn't agree more. History still hasn't taught these cretins that proactive will win while reactive will lose every time.

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  8. Dalit Prawasi

    Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

    A great article. The drug problem of Australia is the same as asylum seeker refugee problem. Looks like he was in Canada, not in Colombia,

    The asylum seeker problem in Australia is the same as the drug problem of Colombia.

    For example the so called refugees and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are Indian colonial parasites who came to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from India under the British guns as Sepoys and Coolies of the British-Indian Empire. India trained and armed a terrorist group to divide the country so India will have a deep sea port for its Navy with nuclear submarines. The other aim was to send as many Indians from the island nation to the West. In the eighties more than half a million of them went to the Wes claiming that thae are discrimuinated by thelocals. Bou in fact they have been a priviledges group of people like the Indians in any other Britiish -Indian colony. More than 300,000 of them went to Canada whwre the writer has spent the last decade,

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    1. Dalit Prawasi

      Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

      In reply to Dalit Prawasi

      Continued......

      During that time, only about 20,000 managed to come to Australia due to the representations made by the local Ceylonese community to the then Immigration Minister Hon. Gerry Hand.

      We definitely have a moral obligation (addicted ort not) to allow Iraqis and Afghans to stay here until we fix their problems.

      In a few words I see a similarity between the drug problem in Colombia and the terrorists who exploit Australian immigration laws and International human rights conventions.

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    2. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to Dalit Prawasi

      I think you're misinterpreting what the author is actually saying Dalit and using inflammatory language such as "terrorists" to demonise asylum seekers further (you perhaps should go and work for Tony Abbott). What all of this comes down to is to induce conflict carries extreme risk because the more complex the system and the denser the interactions between the parts, the more difficult it is to anticipate the full effects of any action.

      What we're seeing now is this process in action. The overflow…

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  9. Ken Alderton

    PhD student, former CEO

    This is a very interesting article.

    "Australian embassies overseas refuse to accept direct applications from refugees. In some countries we don’t even have diplomatic missions. You could try applying to our consulate in Afghanistan, but even its location is a
    secret."

    Why can't refugees make direct application ? I see nothing in DIAC instructions that prevent it

    To apply for a refugee visa you must be outside your country of origin which makes sense if you have a “well-founded fear of…

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  10. Steven Waters

    logged in via Facebook

    how do we know the govt hasn't bought itself a whole lot of trouble in the future with this latest deal in PNG. how can australia set up camps in a country that has its own problems with humanitarian rights and living standards. right next door in west papau there is a crisis looming with unrest and civil rights. this could become a major source of tension and human rights issue in itself. australia is the only western country in the region who is a member of the UN and should be setting the example…

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  11. Dalit Prawasi

    Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

    Human rights entrepreneurs, doo gooders, and money hungry lawyers and the Colombian drug cartels. NO DIFFERENCE.

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    1. Grant Mahy

      Unemployed

      In reply to Dalit Prawasi

      Haha that's classic Dalit. Same as calling asylum seekers terrorists:-) But hang on Colombian drug cartels make a fortune and aren't exactly what you'd call do gooders and certainly don't respect human rights (i.e. they murder and persecute people for breakfast and then take things from there) so I'm wondering where the "NO DIFFERENCE" (howls of outrage:-) comes from. Yeah as for lawyers - well yep true the only human rights violations they've likely encountered is being served a bad bottle of wine but safe to say that given they could make a shed load more defending Colombian drug lords I feel you're being a bit unfair.

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  12. Steven Waters

    logged in via Facebook

    Mr O'Neill contradicted Mr Rudd and the fact he has said that all refugees will stay in PNG. he said that while PNG was willing to assist with resettling refugees, the country could only take ''our quota'' as it was also faced with the challenges of managing about 8000 refugees from Indonesia.

    ''We will take what we think we are able to assist but we are also aware that we have our own issues with refugees from West Papua,'' he said.

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