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Don’t blame people smugglers – bad policy leads to deaths at sea

A boat carrying asylum seekers arrives at Christmas Island today. AAP/Rossbach/Krepp

As I write this, mainstream political parties are locked in a futile battle to determine whose deterrence-based policy will prevail.

Debates like the one we saw yesterday in the House of Representatives, and the one going on in the Senate right now, have become circular and self-defeating, not just because of lack of “compromise”, but because their arguments begin, and therefore end, in the wrong place.

The starting point for both government and opposition proposals is a mutual conviction that people smugglers are solely responsible for the unacceptable risks faced by asylum seekers. The only solution, they say, is “breaking the people smuggler’s business model” through punitive policies aimed at those who use their services.

No-one asks why it is that people who reportedly pay thousands of dollars to make uncomfortable and dangerous sea voyages don’t simply use the money to buy an airline ticket to Sydney or Melbourne.

The answer opens up a bigger picture that no government has been prepared to canvas – that the people smuggling industry would not exist in its present form if asylum seekers were allowed to travel here legally.

Many onshore asylum seekers arrive safely in Australia through legal means, although not with refugee visas in hand. They are able to pursue their claims quietly, outside the glare of public debate. This does not seem to have brought the country to a standstill, nor created a national security emergency.

The reason that others cannot travel legally and safely is because an elaborate network of visa regimes and offshore interception programs has been put in place specifically to prevent their arrival. Visa applications from asylum seekers from “high risk” nationalities are routinely denied. Networks of Immigration Department liaison officers are posted throughout South-East Asia to prevent “inadequately documented passengers” from boarding flights. This is a significant part of the reason there are such large populations of asylum seekers concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Rather than acknowledge the role of these preemptive measures in fuelling demand for unregulated travel, however, people smugglers have emerged as a convenient “straw man” to be held uniquely responsible for this human misery.

Of course, there are mixed reports about the motives and personal qualities of the individuals who have moved in to provide these services. But turning the debate solely into a discussion of their illegal activities deflects attention from the role government policies themselves have played in creating the conditions that allow them to flourish.

The search for “solutions” in this case starts, and ends, with the consequence rather than the cause, and the options available for saving lives are artificially narrowed.

The connection between non-arrival policies and migrant deaths is not hypothetical, it is well documented through careful research conducted here and elsewhere.

In Britain, the Refugee Council reported on the connections between “remote control policies” aimed at preventing arrival, and increased risks faced by refugees.

In the United States, the Government Accountability Office analysed official data on deaths at the US-Mexico border and calculated that increased border patrols aimed at deterring unauthorised border crossing greatly increased the risk of death by displacing people into more dangerous journeys.

As we should have learned over the past decade, no end of locking up young Indonesian fishermen, or threatening asylum seekers with mandatory detention or transportation to a third country, has reduced the fundamental human drive to seek safety by whatever means are available. The politics of border control has continued to be part of the problem, not a pathway towards a solution.

If the recent spate of tragedies is to stand as a watershed in Australian border control policy, those who are serious about preventing deaths will need to confront the full range of factors that lead people to undertake these desperate, dangerous journeys. These must include considering the harmful effects of existing policies, rather than artificially reducing the debate to a choice between different policies designed to deter arrival, based on a political obsession with keeping people out.

When the prime minister points out that she has sought advice from the same experts who advised the Howard government, we see the source of the current impasse.

There is no shortage of experts within Australia who can give alternative perspectives. These people have the knowledge of refugee movements, a nuanced appreciation of international law, and understand the limitations of deterrence across a range of policy areas.

Continuing to view irregular arrivals only through a national security lens, as the prime minister’s advisers seemingly do, merely perpetuates the negative spiral that results from the erection of ever-higher barriers which desperate people then seek to overcome.

Knee-jerk policy in any field has never been good policy.

Long-term solutions won’t be found until there is more honesty about the role border control policy has played in stranding large numbers of people in transit countries, until policymakers are prepared to put refugee protection, not border control, back at the centre of debate.

Whatever the outcome of today’s vote, once the hysteria has subsided, we can only hope that calmer heads will prevail, and begin a process in which alternative voices can at last be heard.

This would be a fitting legacy to those who have died trying to seek Australia’s protection.

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