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There are better alternatives to the ‘Malaysia solution’

Not a deterrent? This boat arrived on Christmas Island after the “Malaysia solution” deal was finalised. AAP/Josh Jerga

The government’s controversial “Malaysia solution”, in which Australia “swaps” refugees with Malaysia is being challenged in the High Court this week.

Asylum seekers are being backed by the Australian Human Rights Commission in their legal challenge, and many campaigners think there is a better way to deal with refugees who want to enter this country.

The Conversation spoke with Australian National University associate lecturer, Kate Gauthier who has just co-authored a report on alternative asylum strategies for the Centre of Policy Development, which has been backed by a number of prominent Australians.

What the key recommendations from the CPD report?

We started by defining what criteria needs to be met by good refugee and asylum policy:

  1. Adheres to all international conventions that Australia has signed
  2. Quickly and correctly identifies who are refugees and grants them protection consistent with UNHCR ( and guidelines
  3. Protects Australians from any health or security concerns
  4. Discourages dangerous journeys, but treats fairly those who have made those journeys
  5. Affords all people in Australia their human rights, as well as access to the legal systems which deliver them,
  6. Rapidly returns home in safety and dignity those who are found not to be in need of Australia’s protection, and
  7. Does the above in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Our report calls for an independent commission to be established to facilitate informed public debate. There is currently a lot of misinformation around so no-one is forming opinions about this issue based on fact.

We should also establish another independent authority which will administer our refugee and asylum seeker programs.

At the moment, this function is embedded in the Department of Immigration, headed by Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. That makes it essentially political. Refugee issues are not an immigration or migration issue, they’re an international law and human rights issue.

Secondly, we recommend more active engagement in the region. That doesn’t mean bilateral agreements with countries like Malaysia; we need a unit to work with regional governments and civil society organisations to develop a regional cooperation framework.

Thirdly, at the moment Australia is the only nation which reduces our resettlement program by the number of asylum seekers who arrive on-shore and who are granted a visa.

So we have created ourselves this myth of a queue and the idea that one type of refugee disadvantages another type of refugee. We need to stop creating this competition between different refugees.

Fourthly, we need a detention policy based on risk, where people are only detained for health, identity and security checks.

It should have a 30 day time limit for adults and a 14 day time limit for children, there needs to be enforceable remedies and the system needs oversight. We also need to develop accomodation centres in urban locations with a range of security levels, as many people do not require high security detention during the initial checks.

Finally, it currently costs around $700 million per year to run our detention network which currently detains around for 5,300 people, only 300 of whom are not boat arrival asylum seekers.

So after health and security checks, you’ve only got around 300 to 500 people who actually need to be detained.

With the enormous cost savings that we would make, let’s re-direct that money towards refugee services - resettlement programs, English language training - programs that help refugees more quickly become productive members of the Australian community.

If there’s a better asylum seeker solution, what have been the barriers to implementing it?

There’s the politics of it and the way the media treats this issue.

A lot of the politics is media-driven. And in the media, you know if there’s no picture, there’s no story.

Some 24% of asylum seekers over the last ten years have arrived by boat; 75% arrive by plane but as there’s no vision for that story, it doesn’t work in the media.

It certainly hasn’t been a left/right issue, as we’ve seen with the Howard and Gillard government.

We found that politicians tend to pander to the swinging voters in marginal electorates, so again we have an issue that is being driven politically by a very small section of the voting public.

Is the problem that this cycle is feeding on itself?

It snowballs. You have this fear of boat arrivals, thinking they might be a security concern.

The government responds by putting them in detention and so the public says, “look they’re in detention centres, they must be a security problem”, rather than questioning the value of having that person in detention in the first place.

Depriving a person of their liberty is one of the strongest actions you can take against a person. If you are going to do that, you’ve got to make sure there’s a really good reason for it.

Are they a health or a security concern? Health concerns should be addressed by our existing quarantine system. Security screening should be done on arrival, and that screening can determine who needs to be detained during rigorous background checks and who can be moved into more flexible accomodation (with differing levels of security) while the lengthy background checks are conpleted.

Do asylum policies based on deterrence work?

One of the myths is that deterrent policies such as the Pacific Solution worked.

Firstly, the boats never actually stopped, they reduced. When you look at the data with a very narrow focus of just looking at boat numbers, you can think there’s a dip, it happened at around the same time as when those deterrent policies were put in place, so it might have had an effect.

But when you step back a bit, and look at a whole range of data you can see that that’s not the case.

When you look at the asylum flows to Australia, the peaks and troughs are very similar to the peaks and troughs that you find in the OECD averages.

So when they say there was a dip in Australia that was caused by John Howard’s policies, you need to look at the same dip which was experienced in France, United States, Ireland and Sweden.

So unless we’re going to claim that the Pacific Solution stopped asylum seekers going to Luxembourg, then we have to think maybe there’s something else going on.

In addition, although the deterrent policies were directed at boat arrivals, we saw very similar dips and peaks in our plane arrival asylum seekers. So we can conclude that something other than deterrent policies is causing most of the fluctuations.

There is a variation in Australian boat arrival numbers compared to both the OECD averages and the Australian plane arrivals. I have estimated that variation in peak arrival years to be in the region of 250-500 people at best.

So when you’re spending $700 million to $1 billion on your deterrent policies and the only amount of people you are possibly going to deter is 250 to 500 people, you have to start questioning whether this a rational way of spending taxpayer dollars in order to achieve the outcome that we want.

How do you change the Australian public perception of asylum seekers?

We do need to have that independent commission who would be tasked with that long-term goal. This is not something that is going to happen straight away, we need to slowly turn this ship around by putting the correct information being out there.

We need to start tackling our media organisations. The Press Council does have a ruling that says you should not use the term ‘illegal refugees’.

Yet we have print media constantly using that term. We need the same kind of ruling from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

When you call that activity illegal when it’s not, not only are you accusing people of a crime they didn’t commit, you are accusing people of a crime that doesn’t exist. So if we tackle that misinformation, over time, it will start to change public opinion.

What about better political communication and leadership on this issue?

Absolutely, but it is unlikely from some areas at a certain level. We know that there are key people who feel very strongly about this issue in both positive and negative ways.

In a way, we don’t need political leadership, we need policy leadership.

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