Commentary on the Opposition border protection policy document
By Penelope Mathew
The Opposition’s border protection policy document ‘Restoring Sovereignty and Control to our Borders’ (‘Opposition document’) contains a raft of measures that would take fairness out of Australian refugee policy on the basis of a number of misconceptions about refugees.
The Opposition document says that the measures are aimed at people smugglers. Yet the plan is to do exactly what the people smugglers do – return people on leaky boats with all the safety risks that entails for the people on board and the Australian naval officers who would be required to implement the policy. A serious attempt to diminish the market for people smugglers would acknowledge that people smugglers are used because the formal legal channels for migration are difficult, if not impossible, for many asylum-seekers to negotiate.
The majority of asylum-seekers do arrive in Australia lawfully (eg on a tourist visa) and then apply for refugee status. But many are unable to do so. Australia, like many other countries, screens potential tourists from refugee-generating countries very carefully. In effect, Australia’s border control begins a long way from home – at our consulates and at airports abroad.
The vast majority of the world’s asylum-seekers only make it as far as the country next-door. The country of first asylum will generally be a developing country, or perhaps a newly industrialized country, and it may not be a party to the Refugee Convention. Pakistan, where many Afghan refugees are hosted, is a good example. The Australian humanitarian program, while comparatively generous, is but a drop in the ocean when compared with the numbers of people who need resettlement. The world offers a mere 79,000 odd resettlement places – less than one percent of the world’s refugee population – and UNHCR estimates that there are 203,000 acute cases requiring resettlement. In the uncertain situation in which refugees find themselves – at risk of return and denied the right to work to support themselves – it is not surprising that they seek to move on. Contrary to the neat assumptions in the Opposition document, there is no queue for refugees to join. Refugees don’t live in the world conjured up by the Opposition document where push factors such as denial of human rights can be ignored and ‘priorities and needs [are] determined by the Australian government’.
According to the Opposition document, the ‘Pacific Solution’ will be resurrected, and ‘while Australia would participate in resettlement, we will not take blanket responsibility’. This does not reflect the reality of the ‘Pacific Solution’ which saw the majority of those recognized as refugees on Nauru and Papua New Guinea resettled in Australia at the end of the day. The Opposition document is also short on costs, despite the fact that offshore processing, even on Christmas Island, is much more expensive than processing in large urban centres on the Australian mainland.
Finally, the Opposition document announces that the freeze on Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum claims would be lifted but temporary protection visas (TPVs) would be re-introduced. TPVs would not carry the right to family reunion or to re-enter Australia if the person leaves, putting the person at risk of return to a place of persecution.
It is clear, even in the graph concerning arrivals of boat people included in the Opposition document, that TPVs coincided with an increase in boat arrivals, proving that Australia cannot unilaterally control the forces that produce refugee flows. TPVs increase the likelihood that families will get on boats instead of male members of the family being the only ones to take the risks of being smuggled. The policy would enlarge, rather than diminish the market for people smugglers.
The Opposition document claims that the change from a freeze to TPVs would promote equality. The document is premised on a selective and simplistic understanding of equality. On the one hand, the proposed change recognizes that the freeze on processing claims may violate the right to equality. On the other hand, it fails to recognize the inequalities that TPVs produce. How many employers are going to give job training to refugees who are on a TPV that may last for only six months?
Having undercut the possibility of working, the Opposition document introduces an obligation to work for welfare in cases of refugees who are unable to work. It cites the idea of ‘mutual obligation’. There is nothing mutual about the precarious visa status proposed in the document which does not allow refugees basic rights such as family life and freedom of movement. The message is ‘we don’t want you’.
The Opposition document shows no understanding of the significant benefits that refugees bring to Australia when given the support they need and deserve. Indeed, there is evidence of remarkable contributions even in the absence of proper support. A recent report prepared by the Refugee Council of Australia documents the significant contributions made to Australia by refugees over the years. For example, the report reveals that that many refugees establish their own businesses, providing employment for others. Despite being on TPVs, the Afghan community in Young reportedly contributed between $2.4 and 2.7 million to the regional economy over 18 months.
Australia should be willing to provide the assistance that refugees need as an investment in the shared future of all Australian residents, no matter how they got here. That would be real equality – a fair go. It would also be real, evidence-based policy.
Penelope Mathew is the Freilich Foundation professor at The Australian National University.