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Before getting practical on asylum policy, let’s change our discourse

It’s not hard to see that caging people indefinitely behind razor wire does considerable harm. AAP

It was a foolish moment when prime minister Bob Hawke promised that by 1990 no child in Australia would be living in poverty. After all, what are the solutions to child poverty, to crime, to educational inequality? Likewise, it would be a foolish academic who would offer “the solution” to the problem of asylum seekers.

Intractable social problems do not have simple solutions. But that doesn’t mean that we can say or do nothing about the problems of asylum seekers – we can do considerably better.

First, we can move from the “stop the boats” refrain to one of “do no further harm”. After that we can talk about ameliorating existing harms. Our advice to politicians is both practical and discursive.

It’s not hard to see that caging people indefinitely behind razor wire does considerable harm. Taking away rights and hope in a systemically abusive system erodes asylum seeker well-being and mental health, sometimes irreversibly. The suffering from indefinite incarceration in detention camps is entirely avoidable.

Cease locking people up in deserts and on desert islands and do what we must do eventually when they’re found to be refugees (as the majority will likely be) them settle and start a new life.

It is commonsense that asylum seekers should be allowed to live in the Australian community and provided with sustenance, work opportunities and health treatment. The only rationale offered for not doing so is deterrence. This is illegitimate; cruelly punishing those who exercise their right under international law to seek safe haven.

Bear in mind that countries far less resourced than ours are home to a hugely disproportional share of the world’s refugees. In countries such as Iran and Pakistan asylum seekers are not locked up as deterrence to future arrivals and these nations are not measurably worse off for it.

Current asylum seeker policies punish those who exercise their right under international law to seek safe haven. Image from

Don’t pretend to care

We must stop promoting the risk of drowning as a deterrent; that we are transporting people away from our shores because we care.

Duplicitously, Rudd wants to wear the Howard mantle of mean-spiritedness of the Tampa election, (“we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”) while claiming moral authority. He wants to pander to those punters in pubs and on buses and their gurus, the pundits of cornflakes radio, who would tow “them” out to sea in a military “solution”. Abbott is hard-pressed to out-bid Rudd.

If, as a nation, we really care about people dying, why was there not more outpouring of grief when 353 people died in the preventable sinking of SIEV X in 2001? Why did it take until the asylum seeker boat crash at Christmas Island in December 2010 for tears to be shed? The inference is clear. For the first time “we” saw people die on our shores and “we” don’t want visible deaths disrupting our comfort.

We should admit that the deaths are not merely avoidable; they are contrived by a policy of deterrence. By invoking the “deterrence trumps all” mantra, we are imposing a death penalty by neglect.

Saving lives

The government wants to restore order to the immigration program. A first step can be taken by offering hope and home to refugees waiting indeterminately in Indonesia and Malaysia. Send in planes to give them safe passage. This would reinstate our flagging human rights reputation and reinvent us as an ethical regional partner.

We should abandon our colonialist arrogance and work collaboratively with countries affected by Rudd’s “no advantage” and “you won’t be settled in Australia” tactics as well as by Abbott’s crisis-driven military solution. Let’s stop outsourcing responsibility to our neighbours with bribes disguised as aid dollars.

Restoring decency

We can’t stop the boats until the push factors are redressed. Once we admit this, we stop the cynical competition over toughness to asylum seekers. The outrageous full-page advertisements in our daily newspapers are not designed to reach Kabul, Tehran or Quetta – they’re aimed at us.

With an election looming, both Rudd and Abbott strive to garner votes from the xenophobically fearful, instead of showing leadership and allaying the fears of the insecure by discharging the duty of educating the public. Both prefer to play to the populist age-old Australian hostility towards the “other” which is sustained through ignorance.

Let politicians confess that while it may be possible to slow the boats at particular moments, deterrence does not address the problems that refugees face. In the long term we have to confront our consciences.

Let politicians stop treating the voting public like fools and recognise that boats are not their main concern.

There is no magical asylum seeker “solution”, these few simple tips enjoin our politicians to drag themselves out from the moral archives and meet international human rights standards and norms of decency.

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