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Houston report: hard heads deliver $1 billion asylum seeker plan

The Houston panel, including, from left, National Security College Director Michael L'Estrange, former defence force chief Angus Houston & refugee advocate Paris Aristotle. AAP

The expert panel on asylum seekers has made 22 recommendations, including the establishment of a capacity for processing asylum seekers in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea, in a report expected to define the government’s future policy on asylum seekers.

The report, which the panel described as “hard-headed but not hard-hearted” and “realistic, but not idealistic”, also recommends the government continue to build on the current arrangement with Malaysia.

Read the full Houston panel report here.

Panel leader Angus Houston said there were no quick and easy solutions to the problem, but that the panel’s recommendations were driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness.

“Like all Australians we are deeply concerned about this tragic loss of life at sea … to do nothing is unacceptable,” Mr Houston said.

Other recommendations put forward by the Houston panel include increasing the current humanitarian program from 13,000 to 20,000 immediately, and expanding it to 27,000 within five years.

The panel also weighed in on the approach of turning back boat arrivals, saying it could be operationally achieved and would act as a disincentive to people smugglers.

However Mr Houston said it would only be an option if a range of safety of life, diplomatic and legal conditions are met.

“Currently the panel doesn’t believe those conditions exist though they could in the future,” Mr Houston said.

The panel recommended urgently advancing bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with Indonesia, including the allocation of an increased number of humanitarian program resettlement places for Indonesia, enhanced cooperation on surveillance and search and rescue operations, and changes to Australian law in relation to Indonesian minors and others crewing unlawful boat voyages from Indonesia to Australia.

The panel also recommended an increase of 4,000 places in the family migration program, with measures designed to incentivise asylum seekers to use “regular pathways’ for migration to Australia, as opposed to more dangerous maritime routes.

"We believe current family reunion concessions for immediate family applicants where they are sponsored by a person who arrived by irregular maritime means should be removed,” Mr Houston said.

The recommendations, should they be adopted, will come at a cost to the government of A$1 billion a year; however Mr Houston said the cost needs to be offset against expenditures currently incurred as a result of managing the increasing number of unauthorised arrivals.

The report largely fails to pick up on the recommendations of The Conversation’s asylum seeker expert panel, which drafted a position tailored to the Houston panel.

It proposed the immediate doubling of Australia’s annual refugee and humanitarian resettlement program and the establishment of asylum claim processing centres in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia.

It also recommended Australia take a leadership position in the Asia Pacific, working in partnership with its neighbours to implement fair and just measures in responding to asylum seekers in the region.

Today The Conversation will bring you the reactions of experts to the Houston panel’s recommendations.

Helen Ware, Professor, International Agency Leadership at University of New England

I think their tag line ‘hard headed not hard hearted’ is a reasonable summary of what they’ve achieved.

It is a step forward, but subject to whether the opposition goes with it, because I don’t think the Greens will.

The addition to the humanitarian program is an excellent start and they’re talking about 27,000 by the end of five years. They couldn’t go much more than that in terms of what Australia can cope with.

They had to say Nauru because the opposition has pushed it very hard, therefore if it doesn’t work they will say ‘We did that and it still hasn’t worked’.

The theory is you will save money because you’re going to save money on people coming in via irregular routes. But it means a lot of empty processing centres here which is quite bizarre.

Nick Economou, Senior Lecturer, School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

This committee has potential to embarrass the government just at a time when it doesn’t need it. It seems to me they’ve endorsed Liberal policy.

The late Fred Daly, the Labor MP, once said governments ought not to have inquiries unless they know what the outcome will be.

Scott Morrison will spend the rest of the day telling the electorate “I told you so”.

I’m sure that the opposition will ignore the criticism of their policy and seize on the Nauru option. That’s what they’ve been running hard and fast and often.

I would expect that the Greens will continue to keep their hard line policy as they have in the past. For the Greens to prevaricate and become pragmatic on this would be electorally dangerous for them. They have to realise this is a core issue in the rise of the Greens and if they mishandle this they could put themselves in electoral jeopardy.

The government has managed to snooker itself once again.

Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology and Codirector of Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at University of Technology, Sydney

Even though Houston said over and over it’s not a political document he did say also it was a realistic document.

What they wanted was a total package - short term, medium term, and long term and I think it’s got that.

There are issues on whether the government will buy on it. The Greens are walking away from the whole thing and saying it has to be a deal between the government and the opposition.

If the deal is that there’s a short term thing that at the same time immediately increases the intake from Indonesia, which is the crucial question, it seems to me that’s what it’s doing.

The aim of opening Nauru and Manus (PNG) is really not to use them if they can avoid it. Nauru and Manus is a sort of warning and in the submission that I made which looked at the question of the social psychology of asylum seeking, I argued there had to be something that would effectively raise the salience of alternatives for asylum seekers.

Once they’re in the system from the countries of origin there’s a psychological process where every step they take locks them into their original decision.

The challenge is to crack that so they take advantage of a real alternative. The problem is there’s been no real alternative and I think what the report offers is areal alternative.

There’s not that much attention on it but really the issue is onshore processing in Indonesia.

It’s not a Malaysia, Nauru or Manus solution, the real issue is how do you crack the bottleneck in Indonesia and how do you get people in the asylum seeker system to use something that will actually work.

While there will be a lot of flame and energy focusing on Nauru and Manus that’s a very small sideshow in the overall thing. Once the blockade in Indonesia starts to move then the whole situation will change.

What this strategy says is if you walk out of Jalan Jaksa and go to the UNHCR, you will be processed quickly, and if you’re fair dinkum you’ll be out of there, you’ll be safe and what’s more we’ll fly you to Australia and you’ll be in the community and you’ll have full rights to apply for family reunions through the humanitarian program. If you decide you want to go with the people smugglers then its going to be more difficult.

At the moment we’ve said if you go with the asylum seekers you’ll have a hell of a time, but there’s no real alternative.

A very serious examination of the psychological dynamics that are associated with the asylum seekers process in order to ensure safety is really important.

In the dynamic of safety seeking once you sink your capital into the people smuggler loop you’re stuck there, there’s no capacity outside that to escape it.

The Houston plan is so different to anything we’ve had up to now.

Andrew Markus, Pratt Foundation Research Chair of Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.

There is much factual detail in the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, some of it not previously readily accessible. It provides a basis for more informed, less emotive debate – which is not to say that there can be confidence that it will achieve that outcome.

Many will be surprised that the projected cost of managing unauthorised arrivals incurred by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship alone between 2011-12 to 2015-16 was expected to be a very substantial $5 billion, assuming arrivals at the rate of 450 per month. Arrivals have been close to three times that level since April 2012. The known loss of life at sea since October 2009 is 604 people, with survivors ‘deeply traumatised’.

The report states that the numbers seeking asylum internationally, including Asia, is likely to increase. This is seen as an issue of direct relevance for the ‘integrity of Australia’s borders’, linked to ongoing community support for Migration and Humanitarian Programs.

A dual approach is suggested to reduce unauthorised arrivals. While significantly more generous in its recommendation of numbers to be resettled and with a heightened focus on regional co-operation, it has much in common with the disincentive principle that informed Howard government policy.

First, there should be enhanced regional cooperation and bilateral arrangements to better assist asylum seekers – and control their movement. Second, an immediate increase in Australian resettlement places, with a higher proportion allocated in the South-East Asian region (a bad outcome for refugees in Africa), to encourage asylum seekers to apply through regular channels.

Linked to the increase in places is a disincentive against irregular entry, so that those who choose that path ‘will gain no advantage’. On arrival they will be sent offshore, with no prospect of permanent resettlement earlier than if they had ‘applied to the UNHCR within the regional processing arrangement’.

The resettlement options of those found to be in need of protection will be explored with the UNHCR and other countries, with the possibility of indefinite residence in a location such as Nauru or voluntary return to their home country.

And if the hoped for regional co-operation and incentive of increased resettlement places do not work in stopping irregular arrivals? It seems that the only remaining option is to increase disincentives, whatever that might entail.

Lucy Fiske, Lecturer in Human Rights at Curtin University.

There are several problems with the expert panel’s report. In no particular order:

The report purports to address both immediate domestic concern with boat arrivals (how to ‘stop the boats’) as well as progressing a potential regional framework. However, the report is vague on how to move forward regional measures, offering no substantive steps that could be taken in the short, medium or long term. On the other hand it is alarmingly clear on deterrence measures which could be implemented immediately with bi-partisan support – as such the implementable steps are designed with Australia’s national political impasse in mind. This approach all but guarantees a resurrection of the Pacific Solution, a policy framework which pays little or no regard to human rights or international law and which would require amendments to Australian law in order to be lawful here.

The ‘no advantage principle’, while having a catchy appeal, is punitive pure and simple.

Core to the punitive elements are that refugees arriving by boat will be compelled to wait in Nauru or Manus for the same length of time a wait elsewhere might entail. Where is ‘elsewhere’? Approved refugees routinely wait years, even decades in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, Iran, Kenya. There are serious issues with the international refugee protection regime and the global efforts of the UNHCR are directed at improving processing times not extending them.

Refugees making boat journeys will also be refused the opportunity for family reunion. Again, this measure is in direct contrast to UNHCR guidance on global refugee protection. The UNHCR states that the “family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” and that family reunion is an “essential right of the refugee” ( p.3). It is also very much in keeping with Australian values – the well being of families is at the heart of Australia’s economic, social, educational, cultural and political life. Apart from the cruelty of this recommendation, it has been shown to correlate strongly with an increase, not decrease, in boat arrivals as refugees’ wives, husbands, children or parents take the only option left open to them.

Rather than contributing to improved regional mechanisms, the ‘no advantage principle’ aims instead to erode Australia’s framework and ensure we offer no better protection than non-signatory neighbours.

The expert panel appears to have paid little attention to submissions made by legal, health, welfare workers or academics with decades of experience in the field. The result is a report which remains firmly in a ‘border protection’ framework with little attention to human rights, mental health, legal principle or international relations.

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