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Refuge and morality in Australia, from lost at sea to lost on land

Despite what the protesters’ sign says, it remains to be seen how regional Australia accepts refugees under the proposed safe haven enterprise visa scheme. AAP/Newzulu/Lesly Lotha

Australia has long had an obsession with migration law and national boundaries. Currently, it appears in the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill. If passed, this bill will solidify our centuries-long obsession into a series of harsh measures, ignoring natural justice and shifting the settlement of refugees to regional Australia.

It is time all of Australia worked to design more humane approaches for those who seek our protection. This bill will not do that.

In the first half of the 20th-century, exclusionary immigration policies were based on race. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth) was designed to exclude non-white immigrants. The Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 (Cth) deported thousands of Pacific Island labourers and their families.

Under the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth), Aboriginal men and some Aboriginal women lost the right to vote in federal elections, as did residents from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands (not including New Zealand). When the Naturalization Act 1903 (Cth) was implemented they could no longer be naturalised.

Barring entry by boat but not planes

Today, exclusion is based on mode of arrival. Those arriving by boat without a valid visa are viewed as “illegals”, “queue jumpers” and “welfare cheats”. Government policies demonise this immigrant group, moving them to detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) is viewed as a hindrance, rather than a tool to promote human rights.

The proposed bill fits in with these policies, amending both the Maritime Powers Act 2013 (Cth) and the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) so that international obligations and the rules of natural justice can be disregarded during certain exercises of maritime power. The bill would allow Australia to ignore non-refoulement obligations integral to the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984).

The international definition of “a well-founded fear of persecution” would be narrowed so that it does not exist if a person could “modify” their behaviour.

Shifting refugees outside the big cities

Temporary protection visas could be introduced and a form of safe haven enterprise visa developed. This would allow refugees to be employed in certain regional areas for five years. They would not be guaranteed any form of permanent protection or citizenship.

The safe haven enterprise visa is an attempt to respond to Australia’s labour shortages through refugee intake. Australia needs migrants and in the past year has accepted almost 130,000 people through the skilled migration program. This program includes visas like the 457 visa, which permits recipients to work in Australia for up to four years in diverse occupations, including engineering, fashion design, teaching, brick laying, flower growing, nursing, working as a real estate agent or as a café manager.

While employers can rort the system, it demonstrates that Australia’s skills shortage is not limited to mining or medicine. In this sense, the safe haven enterprise visa would be commendable if it led to some form of permanent protection instead of leaving refugees in protection limbo.

Confining people solely to regional areas is another problematic aspect, although the suggestion has some merit. In June, refugee advocate Julian Burnside argued that boat arrivals to Australia could “be released into the community” and “required to live in a specified rural town or regional city”.

The challenges this approach faces were evident when the ABC television program Q&A visited Geelong, a Victorian regional city, on in June. Although the audience was compassionate about the death of an asylum seeker in the community who was awaiting permanent protection, clear distress was apparent in regard to rising unemployment and cuts to government services.

In the same month, news media reported increased tension and widening opposition to a proposed mosque to be built in Bendigo, illustrating the prejudices remaining in many regional areas.

Hard hearts create cruel policy

The employment and care of refugees should not be left solely to regional Australia. We must all work towards more compassionate responses for those who arrive by boat. The year 2014 has seen rioting and the deaths of two asylum seekers in detention on Manus Island and protests and allegations of sexual abuse of women and children in detention on Nauru.

We need to ask if saving lives that could have been lost at sea outweighs the harm done to thousands languishing in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, facing numerous mental health issues in overseas detention centres run by the Australian government.

The safe haven enterprise visa may be a step forward in acknowledging that refugees are migrants who can work and contribute to the economy, although it is on a path we have travelled before. We know temporary protection visas are a cruel form of semi-protection, which exacerbate mental health issues. Is it worth returning to?

In an ideal world, Australia would move away from punitive approaches to refugees who arrive by boat. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison recently announced that Australia will no longer resettle refugees who register with the UNHCR in Indonesia. It seems our punitive form of border protection punishes not only those who arrive on our shores by boat, but those who entertain the very idea.

Refuge and displacement is a global issue, requiring global solutions. In Australia, our response should not solely come from regional areas. Finding a moral and empathetic way to provide protection for refugees in our region who arrive by boat must be borne by all. At the very least, Australia must balance border control with compassion and morality.

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