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Six issues missing from the asylum seeker debate

When asylum seekers die at sea there are too many things we don’t want to talk about. Following the news of another asylum boat capsizing yesterday, at 2pm the federal Parliament began with a sombre and…

While politicians debated a bill in Canberra, 150 asylum seekers' lives were at risk. AAP/Australian Maritime Safety Authority

When asylum seekers die at sea there are too many things we don’t want to talk about.

Following the news of another asylum boat capsizing yesterday, at 2pm the federal Parliament began with a sombre and measured tone purportedly seeking to leave behind political partisanship and move forward with common resolve to stop the boats from coming and hence prevent future deaths.

But by 6pm the performance had well and truly returned to type – the commentary had swiftly divided along party lines, and partisan combat opened out into blatant and breathtaking hypocrisy.

And finally, just before 8pm, Julia Gillard scored a “victory” for her government by pushing legislation through the lower house that will allow for offshore processing of asylum seekers.

Despite various amendments, new deals and a range of other measures being countenanced, it was clear that what we saw yesterday had little to do with what MP Tony Windsor had suggested earlier in the week – wiping the policy and legislative slate clean and genuinely starting afresh – and everything to do with which side could look more like a “government” by landing a deal.

Not to underestimate the valiant efforts of longstanding campaigners for legal and just solutions, what most in the parliament sought was the appearance that something was being done.

Effectively what they sought was the physical relocation of “the problem” rather than the more terrifying option – a fundamental shift in approach. The urgency was arguably about avoiding the outcomes of a genuinely different, far-reaching set of options. With a focus on the physical relocation of the problem, a clear disconnect emerged between what was being said in Parliament and the core issues that yet again were not being discussed.

What have we been missing?

  1. No one is talking about the UNHCR having such a small number of officers processing asylum claims in Indonesia. It is impossible for this tiny cohort to process any reasonable number of applications. According to the International Organisation for Migration, from January 1 to May 31 this year, 24 refugees were resettled from Indonesia to Australia. That’s from a pool of 5732 asylum seekers and refugees.

  2. No one is talking about the relationship of people smuggling (as an illicit activity) to the licit regulation of entry into Australia. Australia’s universal visa system deems entire groups “high-risk”. For example, those from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka are routinely denied visas that would enable them to arrive legitimately by air. These groups are not considered risky because they represent a significant security threat (for, say, terrorism or serious crime), but because they may engage Australia’s protection obligations. No one is talking about changing these risk profiles and visa issuing practices.

  3. No one is talking about what happens to those who are prevented from coming to Australia (subject to disruption or deterrence regimes) or whether this is a desirable objective for a nation such as Australia. Preventing or deterring people from coming to Australia does not mean persecution stops. Instead, those being persecuted become some other country’s problem. This surely is an unsustainable contribution to regional (let alone) global relations.

  4. No one is talking about the role parliament and politicians have played in fuelling the high-octane political debate that has seen Australia engage in a race to lead the world in some of the most punitive and demonising arrangements for asylum seekers. While we need to grieve for the lives lost and seek to prevent future loss we should do so by keeping in perspective the scale of Australia’s asylum seeker “problem” and enable less reactionary approaches to refugee protection and irregular border crossing.

  5. No one is talking about decoupling the zero-sum game between refugees settled from offshore, and onshore arrival numbers (in which as arrivals increase, offshore resettlement places go down). This is a policy change that could end the mindless pitching of one group of refugees against another.

  6. No one is talking about the invisibility of border-related deaths in Australia. There is no official cumulative record of who has died en route and post-entry into Australia and why. Both the EU and the US have records of border related deaths. The Border Observatory database of Australian border-related deaths is the only cumulative record that enables us to robustly analyse these deaths and consider issues of accountability that go beyond the simplistic refrains regarding “evil people smugglers”. A glance at this database shows the deaths of asylum seekers at sea are but one kind of death among many others, which also need to be recognised. For example, deaths in Australian immigration detention centres are not considered deaths “in custody” for the purpose of the monitoring program run by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

The desperate, frantic efforts of politicians clambering for a tidy solution – one where they can say “we just got something done” - is simply insufficient.

Complex, far-reaching arrangements and relationships, which are capable of effectively responding to those in need of protection are required.

All of this means we need a discussion of many things that were not on the table yesterday, and show no sign of being raised in future.