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The vexed question of onshore processing and possible civil unrest

A child in a Malaysian refugee camp. AAP

Would an increase in the number of asylum seekers being processed on the Australian mainland lead to London and Paris style rioting on the streets?

According to press reports this week, that is what the head of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), Andrew Metcalfe, is said to advised the government in the wake of the High Court blocking the “Malaysia Solution”.

Yet there is no concrete confirmation that Metcalfe actually used those words, the idea has now been planted in the public consciousness.

The Conversation spoke with Professor Andrew Jakubowicz of the University of Technology, Sydney about immigration and Australian social cohesion.

In your opinion, will onshore processing lead to social unrest?

There is no evidence that onshore processing will contribute anything additional to current social unrest. Given there’s a fairly low level of unrest in Australia at the moment, the issue is how politicians and opinion leaders frame the refugee presence, and whether they increase local anxiety.

All the experience in Australia has been that it is opinion leaders who intensify these issues. Not that people don’t feel low levels of anxiety about “difference”, but the focusing of that anxiety on particular groups as points of hatred or intolerance really depends very much on the way public and political opinion leaders actually work.

If we go back to 2007 when then Immigration Minister Andrews targeted Africans, particularly Sudanese, as impossible to assimilate, that caused a significant drop in public support, particularly in Victoria, towards the settlement of refugees.

It wasn’t the refugees who caused it, it was the public statements of hostility from leading political figures. As it turns out African refugees (rarely if ever boat arrivals) have proven to be generally law abiding, hard working and passionately attached to the Australia that has given them the precious gift of freedom.

Small numbers of young people have been involved in crime and delinquency, a perennial problem among poorer youth populations of all colours and backgrounds (since the Cabbage Tree mob of the early nineteenth century).

Commentators and the Greens have said this is a return to White Australia Policy thinking. Is that something you’d agree with?

It is a very difficult situation because, as far as I can see, DIAC Secretary Andrew Metcalfe’s comments have only been interpreted through [Opposition Leader] Tony Abbott’s office.

As I understand it Metcalfe hasn’t made any clear public statements about what he actually said, and will not do so, so we have no context or elaboration. According to Senator Mitch Fifield on Sky News last night, Abbott’s office was not briefed by DIAC in relation to the likelihood of social conflict here similar to that in Europe, but he said that DIAC told the media after the briefing that this was discussed.

The ABC says Abbott told them this was the advice from the Department. The Department’s Sandi Logan has told me that “There certainly was no (repeat no) briefing of the media by the department following the secretary’s briefing of the Opposition leader.”

Media reports seem unanimous that this is what they understood DIAC told them that officers had told Abbott, even though the Department says there was no media briefing.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown has called for the sacking of any senior officers who might have made what he regards as racist statements, describing them as “turkeys”. If these statements were never made by officers, hopefully Brown will withdraw his description of them, and even apologise.

I would treat anything coming out of Abbott’s office not with scepticism but with great care. What we now seem to have is a situation which is not too dissimilar to that generated by statements that Geoffrey Blainey made in 1984.

Blainey’s statement was that the Australian community was not able to deal effectively, particularly in its poorer more vulnerable communities, with the presence of large numbers of competing foreigners, particularly at that stage Indo-Chinese and Chinese. He proposed the answer was not to take the refugees (rather than address the fear, anxiety and hostility in the community). So you blame the victim with very unfortunate and long term negative results.

What Blainey was pointing to, although he didn’t take enough care in his thoughts, was that communities which are vulnerable, if mobilised in an inappropriate way, can react negatively towards new arrivals.

On the other hand, if there is support for refugee settlement, and proper services and care and attention to integrating people on arrival, then communities don’t react in such negative and hostile ways.

We have a lot of experience in both of these approaches, and hopefully we might learn something. We have seen situations where there has been bi-partisan support of new arrivals, for instance the Bosnian refugees during the Kosovo crisis. We got fantastic bipartisan support for their presence once the decision was made to take them in and there were no problems until the very end when some of the refugees wanted to stay and conservative politicians and shock jocks got angry with them.

We have had situations where politicians have been aggressively anti-refugee. We have had situations like the Minister Andrews speech in 2007 which ramped up hostility to the refugees quite considerably.

We have got evidence about what happens if you take different perspectives. There is nothing natural about the responses. They are always part of an ongoing system of communication and interpretation.

If they are interpreted negatively, then people will pick up on that. If they are interpreted positively, people take it in a much more benign and less hostile way. But the critical issue is getting them in and out of the initial reception centres as quickly as possible, having on shore community-based determination, so they can get into the community where they become part of the school population and part of the community and they begin actively contributing.

In that environment where they cease being feared strangers, the unknown, and become part of the locality and neighbourhoods things become more positive very quickly.

Are there examples of other countries comparable to Australia that have onshore processing where there has been unrest that can be directly linked to asylum seekers?

It really depends on what countries we’re talking about. New Zealand has onshore processing and in New Zealand there is almost no conflict. New Zealand has significant issues about Pakeha/Maori relations and because it is such a significant part of New Zealand society, they have built institutions which actively work to minimise racism.

The beneficiaries of that are both the wider community and the new arrivals. Similarly in Canada you have points of conflict but again Canada has a long history of biculturalism and trying to resolve inter-cultural conflict which are embedded in their social institutions.

They do onshore processing. They don’t send people out to the middle of the North Atlantic and try and fiddle with them out there. The United States I guess has onshore processing, they have hundreds of thousands of people every year coming over the US/Mexican border and they just go into the community, or are soon sent back across the border.

It doesn’t create havoc, there are issues, but it doesn’t create havoc. So there are many situations where new arrivals don’t create major problems. In the Australian context, we have well over 100,000 people, mainly from non-Anglo backgrounds, arriving in the country and settling in the community with no particular havoc.

The suggestion that a small number above the current number of asylum seekers going into communities where they could settle properly could create something that is not there is just ridiculous.

There is no evidence and no sense in that kind of statement unless politicians and opinion leaders actively seek to make it an issue and cause havoc as a consequence.

What does the advice from the department say about the politicisation of the bureaucracy?

Part of the problem is that we don’t know what Metcalfe actually said. What we know is what Abbott’s office said Metcalfe said. It would be helpful to get clarification from Metcalfe on his words and intentions.

If what Metcalfe is saying is that if there is no change in onshore processing strategies, that is if we lock people up for extended periods, we process them at the slow rate we do, and we create pressure cookers of distress in reception centres, then yes, there could be all kinds of hostility and anxiety and crises occurring.

We should put people though very quickly and get them into the community, even if ultimately their applications fail and they are returned to their countries of origin. It seems to me to be a much sensible way to go about it.

If the government is very apprehensive about this response, then it is much easier and very much cheaper to stick a tracking bangle on somebody’s ankle than put them on Christmas Island. You know where they are, they are not going to get away and they might actually be making a contribution rather than being a drain on the economy.

Can we ever de-politicise the asylum seeker debate?

Population management in Australia has always been and will always be political. It is about power, it is about responsibility, it is about contribution. But making it political is not a bad thing in that you might address some of the questions and concerns in the whole situation.

At one level it is more problematic if nobody takes any notice and people are locked away in warehouses to rot because nobody needs to have a concern about what is happening to them; that’s the Nauru solution. Remarkably, it is possible that we are now reaching a critical point where we might actually be able to break the Gordian Knot and have an evidence-based rational policy which actually integrates that small part of our annual flow of population, whom we currently so traumatise and destroy that some become a chronic burden on Australia’s mental health services for the rest of their lives.

There is nothing humane about that, nothing rational, and nothing economically sane.

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