Death at Sea

The recent sinking of several refugee boats is a tragedy. At least 90 people have died in an attempt to reach safety in Australia.  They were mostly Afghan Hazaras escaping Taliban persecution.

Our political response has been not only miserable, but embarrassing as well.

As well as an unseemly debate in the parliament, there has been a wave of media comment, allocating blame according to the commentator’s political or philosophical settings. 

In the meantime, there is a way forward.  In short: increase our refugee intake; process in Indonesia the asylum claims of people who arrive there; resettle them safely in Australia if they are assessed as refugees.

This would be genuine offshore processing, not the bogus “offshore processing” being put forward by the major parties.  Their idea of “offshore processing” means simply pushing people offshore (Malaysia, Nauru, wherever) and closing the door behind them.

Some blame the present impasse on the Gillard government’s policies.  Greg Sheridan pointed a week ago, and correctly, that the Gillard government’s Malaysian Solution would not have worked: at best, it might have handled “about 2 ½ weeks’ worth of arrivals”.  He might have added that Tony Abbott’s Nauru Solution would have failed in the same way and for the same reason.  Nauru has a population of about 10,000 people.  It does not have enough food or water for its own population.  It could resettle (at best) about one week’s arrivals.  Some solution!  Beyond that, it would merely have been an expensive exercise in warehousing human beings in order to persuade other people not to bother asking us for help.  How that purpose can be squared with Tony Abbott’s professed religious beliefs is something he has chosen not to share with us.

Sheridan argues that “It is because of the collapse and failure of all the Rudd-Gillard policies on border control that the people smuggling trade is now running out of control”.  This mirrors the Abbott line that each boat arrival is a “failure of border control”.

This deserves a closer look, in order to see past its superficial attractions.  First, the notion that border control has “failed” or “collapsed” is absurd. Each year, something like 6 million people enter Australia with our authority (they are mostly tourists, business people, students, etc). This year, if Sheridan’s predictions are right, something like 12,000 people might enter Australia without our permission.  That would represent border control which succeeds in 99.8% of cases.  To call this a failure of border control is to identify the frontier which the redefinition of language shares with dishonest propaganda.

It is true, as Sheridan says, that most boat people end up staying here.  That is because more than 90% of them are ultimately found to be refugees who are entitled to our protection.  This is worth noting, since some elements of the press thrill to tell us how many boat people are not really refugees, but are “economic migrants”.  The figures show that they are simply wrong.  The fact that we let them stay, when they are assessed as refugees says two things: we honour our obligations under the Refugees Convention; and we are, at heart, a decent and generous nation despite the impression our politicians try to give.

It is not surprising that such a high percentage of boat people turn out to be genuine refugees entitled to our protection: you have to be desperate to put your life and safety in the hands of a people smuggler.  Looking at it differently, I wonder how many Australians would do just what the boat people do, if they were in their shoes. Imagine yourself as an Afghan Hazara, fleeing the Taliban genocide: you get to Indonesia, you are assessed by UNHCR as a  refugee; you know that Indonesia has not signed the Refugees Convention, and does not offer you protection; you know that you will be jailed by Indonesia if they find you; you cannot work and you cannot send your kids to school.   UNHCR tell you that it will take between 10 and 30 years before another country will offer you resettlement and safety.  But you could take a chance, get on a boat and head for Australia.  What will you do? 

A question for Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard and Greg Sheridan: what would you do in those circumstances?

My guess is that most Australians would do exactly as the boat people do.  It is not easy to see why Australians are willing to criticize or punish boat people for doing exactly what we would do in the same circumstances.  It is a puzzle that many Australian politicians are willing to advocate harsh treatment for asylum seekers in order to deter others who might otherwise come asking for our help.

Rather than face tricky questions like this, both major parties attack people smugglers.  Their concern, ostensibly, is to prevent unscrupulous people smugglers from putting the lives of asylum seekers at risk.  But the Malaysian Solution and the Nauru Solution only cut in after people have got onto a people smuggler’s boat.

People smugglers have copped a bit of a punishing in the Australian press in recent years.  They are an easy target.  Kevin Rudd called them “the scum of the earth”.  He might not have noticed that Dietrich Bonhoeffer (his moral hero) was a people smuggler; so was Oskar Schindler; so was Gustav Schroeder, the captain of the MS St Louis, who in May 1939 tried to save 900 German Jews by sailing them from Hamburg to Cuba.  Schroeder tried every trick in the book to save the Jews in his care, and he did it for money. Eventually he was forced to put them ashore in Antwerp.  Half of them died in concentration camps. Many countries could be proud that their border controls succeeded.  I have trouble thinking ill of Captain Schroeder.

There is another thing about people smugglers: to the refugee, a people smuggler is the last line of escape.  To people who are desperate, the last line of escape is a precious thing; to remove it is not an act of kindness.

During the past two weeks, since the recent sinkings, I have spoken to several Afghan Hazaras who came here as boat people.  I asked them whether they had heard of boats sinking and people drowning before they set out to come here.  Yes, they had; No, it did not deter them, because the Taliban were an immediate and grave threat, but drowning at the hands of a mercenary people smuggler was seen as a more remote threat, and a lower risk.  Intelligent people generally choose the lesser of two risks, where no other choice is available.  Desperate people make whatever choice puts off foreseeable risks as long as possible.  It’s what human beings do in their attempts to survive.

The challenge for Australia is this: are we willing to understand the risks refugees face in order to survive, and give them a chance of a new life here if they manage to make it here?

The question for politicians is: are they concerned about saving lives at sea, or are they more concerned to prevent refugees getting here at all?

If politicians are, as they claim, concerned to save lives at sea, there is an available solution. With the cooperation of the Indonesian government, set up an Australian refugee processing centre in Indonesia. the process has to be genuinely fair. People arriving in Indonesia would be processed there and, if they are found to be refugees, they would be given an assurance of safe passage to Australia for resettlement.  They would be brought to Australia in order of acceptance in Indonesia.  In effect, this would create a genuine queue in Indonesia. They would be warned of the danger of getting on a people smuggler’s boat. They would be given an estimate of how long it would be before they could expect to be taken to Australia. The delay would depend on our willingness to establish a generous quota, but the quota should be set so as to ensure, as far as possible, that no-one had to wait more than, say, three years before resettlement.  There are three very important caveats on this suggestion:

·        the processing has to be demonstrably fair, unlike what happened during the Pacific Solution, when Australian officials assessing the asylum claims of people taken to Nauru seemed to regard themselves as part of the “send them back” crew;

·        Australia will have to increase its refugee intake for a few years.  This should not be too hard, given that our current intake runs at less than 10% of our annual migrant intake.  We should increase our annual refugee intake to, say, 20,000 people a year and assess progress a few years down the track;

·        Indonesia will have to be persuaded to treat them properly while they wait for resettlement.  This should not be difficult, given the advantages the scheme would hold for Indonesia.

We did this in the late 1970s with Indo-Chinese boat people fleeing after the end of the war in Vietnam. Back then, with bi-partisan support, we managed to absorb about 20,000 Indo-Chinese boat people a year over a few years. Malcolm Fraser persuaded Gough Whitlam that we owed something to people fleeing in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, given our involvement in it.  So it is today, with Hazaras fleeing Afghanistan: fleeing the Taliban, the very people we are fighting. 

We have done it before; we can do it now.  Don’t let Gillard or Abbott redefine us as a people – we are better than they think.