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Houston report on asylum seekers: did the panel listen to the experts?

Angus Houston’s expert panel on asylum seekers released its final report yesterday. Charged by the prime minister with breaking the political deadlock on asylum seeker policy, the panel has handed down…

The Conversation expert panel and the Houston panel: same terms of reference, different recommendations. AAP/Alan Porritt

Angus Houston’s expert panel on asylum seekers released its final report yesterday. Charged by the prime minister with breaking the political deadlock on asylum seeker policy, the panel has handed down 22 recommendations for preventing deaths at sea.

Two weeks ago, The Conversation’s asylum seeker expert panel released its own recommendations, tailored to the Houston’s terms of reference and based on the wealth of research evidence on asylum seeker issues.

So how did our experts differ from the government’s? Here’s a comparison between the two.

One: how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat

The Houston panel: The application of a “no advantage” principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements.

The Conversation panel: We should enhance regularised travel for asylum seekers by redressing visa processes which unnecessarily restrict travel access for main asylum groups including Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians and Sri Lankans.

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that a capacity be established in Nauru as soon as practical to process the claims of IMAs [Irregular Maritime Arrivals] transferred from Australia in ways consistent with Australian and Nauruan responsibilities under international law.

The panel recommends that a capacity be established in PNG as soon as possible to process the claims of IMAs transferred from Australia in ways consistent with the responsibilities of Australia and PNG under international law.

The Conversation panel: We should enhance onshore procedures for efficient and effective processing of asylum claims.

As an alternative to detention, we should implement procedures that require regular reporting by onshore applicants after necessary health and security checks have been completed.

Two: source, transit and destination country aspects of irregular migration

The Houston panel: The panel recommends a more effective whole-of-government strategy be developed for engaging with source countries for asylum seekers to Australia, with a focus on a significant increase in resettlement places provided by Australia to the Middle East and Asia regions.

The Conversation panel: As part of coalition forces in current key countries of origin such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia should recognise and honour our moral obligations in responding to irregular flows generated by conflict in the region.

Recognising the importance of regional solutions, Australia should prioritise asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific.

Three: relevant international obligations

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with Indonesia be advanced as a matter of urgency.

The panel recommends that Australia continue to develop its vitally important cooperation with Malaysia on asylum issues, including the management of a substantial number of refugees to be taken annually from Malaysia.

The Conversation panel: All asylum and border control processes must be consistent with Australia’s international obligations. These obligations should be promoted as a matter of pride and prominence in all measures.

Recognising the likely increase in prosperity and growth throughout this region, Australia as a human rights leader should encourage other nations in the region to become parties to the Refugee Convention and Protocol and enhance their capacity to provide protection.

Four: short, medium and long term approaches to assist in the development of an effective and sustainable approach to asylum seekers

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that, in the context of a review of the efficacy of the recommendations put forward in this report, the linkage between the onshore and offshore components of the humanitarian program be reviewed within two years.

The Conversation panel: Australia should cease its practice of reducing the number of offshore special humanitarian places made available through its refugee and humanitarian resettlement program each year by the number of onshore protection visas granted that year.

The Houston panel: The humanitarian program be immediately increased to 20,000 places per annum.

Of the 20,000 places recommended for the humanitarian program, a minimum of 12,000 places should be allocated for the refugee component which would double the current allocation.

Subject to prevailing economic circumstances, the impact of the program increase (recommended above) and progress in achieving more effective regional cooperation arrangements, consideration be given to increasing the number of places in the humanitarian program to around 27,000 within five years.

The panel recommends that the current backlog in the SHP (Special Humanitarian Program) be addressed as a means of reducing the demand for family reunion through irregular and dangerous maritime voyages to Australia, and that this be achieved through removing family reunion concessions for proposers who arrive through irregular maritime voyages – with these proposers to instead seek reunion through the family stream of the migration program

The Conversation panel: Australia should at minimum double its annual refugee and humanitarian resettlement program and seriously consider a larger intake.

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that the 2011 Arrangement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Malaysia on Transfer and Resettlement (Malaysia agreement) be built on further, rather than being discarded or neglected, and that this be achieved through high-level bilateral engagement focused on strengthening safeguards and accountability as a positive basis for the Australian parliament’s reconsideration of new legislation that would be necessary.

The Conversation panel: Australia should negotiate with regional governments for the establishment of asylum claim processing centres in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia so that asylum seekers do not need to travel further afield in order to access protection.

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that in support of the further development of a regional cooperation framework on protection and asylum systems, the Australian government expand its relevant capacity-building initiatives in the region and significantly increase the allocation of resources for this purpose.

The Conversation panel: Australia should work with regional governments to find regional solutions to refugee protection.

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that disruption strategies be continued as part of any comprehensive approach to the challenges posed by people smuggling and that relevant Australian agencies be resourced with appropriate funding on a continuing basis for this purpose.

The panel notes that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met, but that this situation could change in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place.

The Conversation panel: Countries that agree to provide refugee protection – including Australia – should provide air transport from origin and transit countries to destination countries for all persons assessed as being in need of protection. Providing an opportunity for legal and safe passage to Australia could help reduce unauthorised entries.

Five: the legislative requirements for implementation

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that legislation to support the transfer of people to regional processing arrangements be introduced into the Australian Parliament as a matter of urgency. This legislation should require that any future designation of a country as an appropriate place for processing be achieved through a further legislative instrument that would provide the opportunity for the Australian Parliament to allow or disallow the instrument.

The panel recommends that the Migration Act 1958 be amended so that arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular maritime means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place.

The Conversation panel: It is already within the power of the executive government to ensure that all Australia’s international obligations towards asylum seekers are honoured. However, under existing domestic law, it is also within the power of the government to act contrary to Australia’s international obligations in many respects if it chooses to do so. Therefore, legislation should be passed which expressly incorporates the Refugee Convention and Refugee Protocol and all human rights treaties to which Australia is a party into Australia’s domestic law without change.

This is not a summary of the full Houston report, which can be read here.

Read The Conversation expert panel’s full statement here.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark A Gregory

    Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

    Being a devils advocate....(and quite happy to do so in this case)

    Could it be the Huston panel was a balanced group that included a range of views and the academic panel was a group of bleeding heart lefties?

    A major point in the favour of the Huston panel was the "no advantage" principle, as we need to also remember the actions of people taking to sea on leaky boats also put Australians and Indonesians at risk, not to mention the risk to flora and fauna through the spread of disease and pests.

    1. Marilyn Shepherd


      In reply to Mark A Gregory

      There is no such thing as an advantage test for refugees. Refugees are all the same no matter where they are, they all are entitled to protection, legal rights, welfare, education and so on and none are deserving of the ongoing brutalisation Australia dishes out.

      We don't apply some silly advantage test to migrants excpet to make sure they advantage us because they have enough money, same with everyone else.

      We don't do this to the majority who fly here, why do it to the tiny minority who we won't let fly here.

      Now we have the absurdity of votes for torture chambers but no increase in refugee resettlement because it is too expensive.

      Billions for jails, nothing for assistance.

    2. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email

      In reply to Mark A Gregory

      The "expert"panel basically is recommending an open borders policy. Their idea for stopping dangerous boat journeys is to fly all genuine refugees from processing centres established near the source countries to Australia.
      The "expert" panel make no comments on how many refugees Australia would have to absorb.
      The question of "how many would come?" is not a question that can simply be ignored.
      At least the Huston panel's "no advantage" principle is an attempt for the Australian Government to regain control over who and how many refugees we accept.
      As a sovereign nation the Australian people are unlikely to vote in a government that cannot have reasonable control over who and how many people, move to Australia.

    3. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      Billions for pensioners too.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Just time to get in early before the tsunami of "spontaneous" outrage that seems to be attending any Conversation article on Houston and refugees, to say thanks for trying.

    It seems that there is very little chance of a rational and factual discussion of this issue - either here or in parliament. But your expert panel has provided a solid basis for reconsidering the Australian fear-based approaches.

    Sadly it appears there are folks who are just flatly opposed to any sort of balanced or informed discussion.

    1. Peter Reefman

      Project Manager

      In reply to Peter Ormonde


      I was discussing the "Boat People" issue with a friend just yesterday. He came here as a migrant, and my parents came here as migrants, so both of us have an idea of the issues faced in coming to a new country. In both cases it was seeking opportunity that drove the migration, where fundamentally desperation to escape an intolerable situation drives most of the Boat People.

      He asked me what I thought about the recent bipartisan agreement, and I responded that I was deeply disappointed…

      Read more
    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Peter Reefman


      No argument from me about Big Australia - unsustainable - of course it is. It increases the rate at which we trash the place. But that assumes that even say 5 million is sustainable - or 2 - or even one.

      Folks that dig stuff up, that burn things and have machines do all their work for them are not sustainable - even in tiny numbers.

      And that "sustainable" one million wouldn't be viable - not if we are talking about living the way we do now... not if the rest of the planet is collapsing under the weight of hungry mouths and rapacious resource depletion. Who would make our ipods and solar panels?

      The one thing I am certain of Peter is that we must see ourselves as global residents and try to help reduce the impact of our exploding population on the planet. Trying to cast ourselves adrift, turn ourselves into some sort of gated community, an island of prosperity in a sea of misery is not a solution.

      Not sure there is one actually.

  3. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    So how many of the self-proclaimed "experts" ever had responsibility for anything.pther than deciding between skinny latter and decaff cappuccino.

    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      The red score indicates that I was prejudiced and non-inclusive no doubt. Some of the experts are probably deciding between Earl Grey and green tea as I write. Such responsibility.

    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      No, Philip, the red score indicates that you made a rather childish ad hominem attack and offered no reasoning or evidence.

    3. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix, the authors claimed to be "experts". I had the temerity to ask them a question which hasn't been answered.
      At issue is whether they have ever had to draw up, and/or implement and/or take responsibility for any significant public policy.
      Armchair critics are easily found.

    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Then why didn't you simply ask, rather than indulging in a snide and cliched little dig?

      And 'having worked in the area' is not axiomatically the only way to achieve useful expertise. Given that this is The Conversation and the majority of article contributors ar academics, one generally expects that they will be coming from that perspective.

      The advantage with acadeimc expertise is that you can take a broad, dispassionate view of the wider evidence - often from countries or systems other than…

      Read more
    5. John Coochey


      In reply to Philip Dowling

      I agree I do not see how the academic so called experts are expert in anything particularly Public Policy. There solution is not one at all simply funnelling an unlimited number of people from third world countries to live in and off Australia. We have already seen an article in the UK Guardian v left wing and PC about how documents are manufactured to give people refugee status and that Australia is seen as a soft touch

    6. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      However the so-called experts did not have broad experience. In fact, most of their "evidence" seemed to be anecdotal. with little fact checking.

  4. Marilyn Shepherd


    I do not understand why this country has to take the cruellest possible course every time instead of simply letting people fly here.

    The open concentration camps because people get here even though the first option should have been the increase in visas from Indonesia,.

    Now they won't do the visas from Indonesia as promised to the region and will then punish those who come because we again broke our promise.

    Then we expect the region to sign the conventions and uphold international law.

    I hate this worthless country.

    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      Marilyn, I hope that you have the courage of your convictions and leave this "worthless" country asap.
      I hear that Ecuador is popular with Australian asylum seekers currently.
      The foreign minister might even give your asylum application an international audience.

    2. Ahmad Abu-tukit


      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      It is a pity that feeling frustrated with policies not being shaped according to your convictions and purities makes you exaggerate Australia’s vile beyond proportion.

      A quick look at the “international community” as it is referred to will demonstrate that things could be much much worse.

      The “cruellest course” we could offer boat people could include treatments learnt from people smugglers in Egypt where often refugees fleeing to Israel from Sudan are raped, held for further…

      Read more
  5. Dalit Prawasi

    Auditor, Accountant, Trade Teacher

    This acco expert panel try to show that they are not biased by a disclosure of their interest. But looking at their images I see that some of them have personal interest in letting certain group of asylum seekers who may have been involved in blowing up innocent civilians. In this day an age we should take a global view of the problem not a regional view. Let us have a lottery for the 37.2 million refugees world wide and select our quota. Houston report has done its job of saving face of the major party of the minority government.
    There is always money and other personal benefits behind bleeding hearts, do goods and crying tears.

  6. Trade Mark


    Dear Conversation
    I am as interested in HOW this policy is being implemented as in the policy itself. The explanatory memoranda for the Amendment Bill make clear that in order to safeguard itself against future interventions from the High Court, "The amendments will ensure that the Government has sufficient power to implement offshore processing arrangements. The amendments will ensure that the government of the day can determine the border protection policy that it believes is in the national interest…

    Read more
  7. Michel Theroux


    Although I don't necessarily agree with all of the Houston panel's recommendations, they are trying to find a 'realistic' resolution which is the point the authors of this piece have missed.

    They need to be realistic in order to minimize drowning incidents. The authors of this article seem to be advocating similar approach by the European countries. Europe tried to provide better pathways and housings for asylum seekers to waiting in Africa before crossing the border but it only alleviate the…

    Read more
  8. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email

    Title: "....did the panel listen to the experts?"
    Did the experts listen to the people on their online discussion?

    Sadly the answer seems to be "no".
    The experts were asked different versions of the question "how many refugees would come if we effectively changed to a very accepting policy for genuine refugees?"
    At no stage have the experts attempted to provide an answer.

    Is it unrealistic for the Australian people to expect some sort of estimates on the numbers of refugees that could arrive?

    1. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      I cannot find a single incidence of one of the authors of these articles actually responding to one of the comments.

      Maybe they are still clinging to the notion that the only people with concerns about this are just being racist. Maybe that assumption suits their elitist psyches.

      Maybe it makes them feel better to just sit in their offices feeling superior to other people than to engage and discuss people's real concerns. I guess it is easier to spend all of your time talking to people who already agree with you than to actually risk challenging your beliefs and assumptions.