This is a guest post from Adam Fletcher. Adam manages the accountability project at the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. View his profile here.
Last night in Melbourne the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law hosted an event which gave Paris Aristotle an opportunity to speak about his involvement in the government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. Aristotle was interviewed live by The Age newspaper’s National Affairs Editor Michael Gordon, who was one of the few journalists to visit Nauru under the Howard government.
For those who are not aware of his background, Aristotle is the Director of Foundation House – the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture. He has been on various government advisory boards for refugee resettlement and humanitarian issues for more than 20 years, and was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his work with refugees in 2002.
A key theme in the evening was Aristotle’s clear commitment to the Expert Panel report as an integrated package of recommendations, rather than as a set of recommendations to be cherry-picked according to the government’s will. He said he had informed the prime minister that his continued support for her policies was contingent on implementation of all recommendations, rather than only the deterrent aspects which have already been put in place.
As is well known, the panel recommended the recommencement of offshore processing in Nauru and on Manus Island. Perhaps inevitably, it is that aspect of the report that has attracted the most attention and controversy. Aristotle explained his position on that issue. Although he said he had “significant anxiety” about the resurrection of offshore processing after the suffering experienced by those who went through it last time, he concluded it was a necessary “circuit breaker” to prevent loss of life at sea, which has increased significantly in the past couple of years. More than 2000 boat arrivals per month means 40-50 boats on the water at once; exceeding the capacity of the Navy and search and rescue agencies to cope.
Faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to recommend Australia do what it can to prevent further deaths at sea, Aristotle said he and the rest of the panel came to the conclusion that it was unacceptable to omit a recommendation to provide a strong disincentive to getting on leaky boats.
Aristotle contended that critics were failing to face up to the life-and-death consequences of their opposition to offshore processing. He also said that many critics seemed not to have read the panel’s full report because their comments were ill-informed. He claimed the panel had been criticised for recommending a decrease in family reunion places when in fact it had done the opposite.
On regional cooperation, Aristotle noted that there is significant ill-will towards Australia on this issue on the part of the Indonesian government. In particular, Indonesia feels Australia is reluctant to do its fair share in dealing with refugees in the region after the Oceanic Viking and Merak episodes.
Additionally, the mandatory imprisonment of young Indonesian fishermen on people-smuggling charges has aggravated Indonesian voters, who see them as victims of the trade rather than perpetrators. Australian NGOs and even judges had been recommending a change to this policy for some time. Once the panel recommended it be scrapped the government moved swiftly to comply.
Aristotle said he recognised that enhanced regional cooperation is crucial to the success of the Panel’s package of recommendations. He said the proposed “no advantage” test would see people kept on Nauru and Manus for “a couple of years”, if that was how long it took to establish an orderly regional process, though he did not specify an exact time frame.
On the other hand, he did not seem particularly optimistic about the prospects for improved cooperation, which does not sit well with his assertion that people will not be on Nauru/Manus for “four, five or more years like last time”. He also conceded that the initial transfers to the islands may produce ugly scenes (as they did before).
Still, he insists that the regime as recommended is not intended to be punitive, and that safeguards such as guaranteed access to medical care and legal representation will constitute a significant improvement over the original Pacific Solution. He reported that his organisation and others are already advising the government on the implementation of safeguards and how processing should proceed.
Aristotle was at pains to point out that there are several aspects of the Panel’s recommendations (which have already been accepted in principle by the government) which are unprecedented – for example $10.5m for regional capacity-building and $70m for NGOs to boost their protection work. He urged NGOs to grasp the opportunity presented by this funding injection.
Aristotle expects the first planeload of the 400 extra refugees to be resettled from Indonesia to arrive in Australia very soon, and an announcement on the extra 4000 places in the family stream to be announced within the next couple of weeks.
In summation, there was no perfect answer to the problem of irregular asylum seeker flows; only improved ways of managing the issue. He cautioned that we cannot take an unlimited number of refugees, nor can we have a credible asylum system under the Refugees Convention unless we are able to return those who are found not to be in need of protection.
For Aristotle, the most important thing is to provide a system which is as fair as possible to all refugees – those who arrive by boat and those who do not.