In early April 2014, Scott Morrison was crowing about the fact that, for 100 days, no refugee boats had arrived in Australia.

He did not mention that a number of boats had tried to get here, and that their occupants were sent back to Indonesia in orange lifeboats. The fact that they tried to get here is significant, because we can be confident, on the evidence of the past 15 years, that a high proportion of them were genuine refugees legally entitled to protection. But that is not something that engages Morrison’s Christian spirit.

Neither is he concerned, it seems, that the people we pushed back will make landfall in Indonesia, a country which has not signed the Refugees Convention and that they risk being sent from Indonesia back to their country of origin, where they face persecution.

So that is the source of Morrison’s delight: we are indirectly sending people back to a place of persecution, in plain defiance of our central obligation under the Refugees Convention.

But he is also pleased with himself because he can say he has saved them from drowning.

Let’s be very clear about this: every death at sea is a tragedy. No-one wants to see refugees die in their attempt to escape persecution, but the often-recited concern about refugees drowning is just hypocritical propaganda.

People like Abbott and Morrison express their concern about refugees who drown. They are not sincere, but it provides a vaguely respectable excuse for harsh policies. Let me be plain about this: when Abbott and Morrison say they are worried about refugees drowning on their way to Australia, they are lying: they are deceiving the public. It opens the way to mistreat asylum seekers who have not drowned, and helps them pursue the darker purpose of keeping refugees out.

The explanation for a policy of deterrence has gone through three major phases.


From the time of the Tampa episode in 2001, refugees were disparaged as “illegals”, “queue-jumpers” and people who had thrown their “Children Overboard”. Each of those tags is false. I mention this because, apart from anything else, it shows that the party which calls itself “Liberal” is perfectly happy to lie to the public in order to pursue policy objectives.

It is a lie to call refugees “illegals”. The word suggests plainly that the person has committed an offence. But it is not an offence to come to Australia, without papers, without a visa, without an invitation, and ask for protection.

This should not be mistaken as a partisan attack on the Coalition: the Labor party has been conspicuously silent on the subject. Both in opposition and in government, Labor has ducked the opportunity to correct the public debate by telling the truth: that boat people are not illegal, that there is no queue. It is a painful irony that Labor has failed to make the very simple point that Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives every human being the right to seek asylum in any territory they can reach, and that Australia played a leading role in the creation of the UDHR, and that a Labor icon, Doc Evatt, presided over the General Assembly of the UN when the UDHR was entered into force.

But that was a time when Labor values were more than just a marketing campaign formulated by reference to populism, and completely untroubled by humanitarian considerations.

People smugglers

Next, the rhetoric swung to an attack on people smugglers.

Soon after Tony Abbott won the leadership of the coalition, he started criticising the Rudd government for the fact that boat people were arriving in Australia. Rudd, who had introduced some well-designed reforms in July 2008, responded swiftly: he attacked the people smugglers. In April 2009, Rudd said people smugglers were the “absolute scum of the earth” and should “rot in hell”. He said that “People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail…”

Rudd’s venom was a response to visible deaths of asylum seekers after an explosion sank a boat carrying asylum seekers off Australia’s north west coast. Rudd apparently recognised that abusing asylum seekers was no longer a good look, but people smugglers were fair game. He had overlooked that not all people smugglers can be conveniently fitted into the same miserable moral category. He seems to have forgotten temporarily that his great moral hero, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, was a people smuggler. So too were Oskar Schindler and Gustav Schroeder.

Schindler’s activities are well-known, from Tom Keneally’s book and the film based on it.

It is worth recalling here what Schroeder did. In May 1939, just months before the start of World War II, a ship called the St Louis left Hamburg, carrying 900 Jewish refugees. Gustav Schroeder was its captain. The St Louis was denied access to every port it approached, despite Schroeder’s efforts. It got as far as Cuba, and was warned off the coast of Florida at gunpoint. Schroeder took the St Louis back to Europe and put his cargo ashore in Antwerp. After the low countries were occupied by the Nazis, more than half the refugees on the St Louis were captured and ultimately perished in concentration camps.

In light of the current political attitudes in Australia, it is worth noting that Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler. Those countries who denied the St Louis the right to land might look back now and ask whether their decision was a policy success or a humanitarian tragedy.

The ferocity of attacks on people smugglers increased when Australians watched, on television, the terrible wreck of an asylum seeker boat on 15 December 2010. It was a shocking sight, and significantly increased the political impact of attacking people smugglers.

Of course it is tragic when asylum seekers die in a desperate attempt to reach protection. It is also tragic when they stay behind and are slaughtered. The key difference is that, when they stay behind and become another statistic in the grim arithmetic of ethnic cleansing, we do not empathise with them; our conscience remains untouched. When we learn that they have perished in an attempt to seek safety here, it seems different.

Why is that? Is it because they have tried to engage us? Is it because the ethics of proximity has begun to operate, so that we feel a heightened sense of responsibility for them? Is it because, seeing their last moments on the TV news, we understand their agonies, although perhaps not the desperation which drove them? Is it simply because, in the unhealthy environment of current domestic politics, their fate is automatically drawn to our attention by politicians trying to exploit the occasion for their own political advantage?

If you had been a Jew in Germany in 1939, would it have been better to chance your arm with a people smuggler (Schindler, Bonnhoeffer, Schroeder…) or stay put and face a different risk? And which is more tragic: to die passively or die in an attempt to escape? One thing is certain: if the Taliban get you, you are just as dead as if you drown.

Most Australians have trouble understanding what it means to put your life in the hands of a people smuggler, or why anyone would do it. Try to imagine that you are a refugee: you are part of an ethnic minority in Afghanistan. Your people are the target of ethnic cleansing. You have friends and family members who have been killed by Taliban snipers and suicide bombers. You know children who were blown to bits when the Taliban used them as mine-sweepers. You know of the teenager who was forced back to Afghanistan from Nauru in 2002 and who was hunted down by the Taliban: when they found him in his village, they dragged him out of his house and threw him down the village well … then dropped a hand grenade in after him.

You have borrowed enough money to get to Australia: it is cheaper than getting to Europe or America. With your family you make your way to Indonesia, passing through Muslim countries which allow free passage to Muslims, but do not offer protection because they have not signed the Refugees’ Convention.

In Indonesia you can go to the UNHCR and get a card which vouches that you are a refugee, but it doesn’t mean much because the Indonesian government will jail you if they find you, and you aren’t allowed to work, and you can’t send your kids to school. You will wait in the shadows until some country offers to resettle you. It could take 20 or 30 years.

There is one line of escape: you can pay a people smuggler who will take you to Australia by boat. It is dangerous, but it is a chance for freedom and safety, for you and for your kids.

Imagine yourself there. What would you do?

What would most Australians do? What would our political leaders do, if they were in that position? I challenge Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott to say plainly what they would do in that situation.

I know I would take the risk, and I suspect most Australians would do the same. You know that if your luck runs out you could die trying to reach safety.

Of course it is tragic that people drown trying to get here to safety. But it happens, and it will keep happening. Our compassion for the drowned should be harnessed to a genuine rethink of our refugee policy. One thing is sure enough: if the risk of drowning is not a deterrent, then shipping them off to PNG or Nauru won’t be.

The Drowning excuse

By small degrees, sections of the public began to realise that people smugglers were not necessarily quite as wicked as the politicians had made out. The prosecution of Ali al Jenabi, so well retold in Robin de Crespigny’s book the People Smuggler, drew attention to the simple, central fact that people smugglers service a need. The existence of people smugglers does not create a demand for them. When you are running for your life, you will take whatever services are available.

And the graphic scenes of horror as a boat smashed to bits on the coast of Christmas Island gave the Gillard government a new line of attack: the drowning excuse. An expert panel was commissioned to devise policy options which would prevent people from risking their lives at sea while seeking asylum in Australia.

The terms of Reference asked the Panel to provide advice and recommendations to the Government on policy options available to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia. It might be thought that one policy setting suggested itself as pretty obvious: a genuine processing centre in Indonesia, with swift, safe resettlement for those found to be refugees. But that would involve co-operating with Indonesia.

The following facts are uncontroversial:

Boat-people come here principally from Afghanistan, where the Hazaras are the target of Taliban genocide, and from Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are being persecuted in the wake of their failed liberation movement. Those two groups have dominated boat-people numbers in the last few years.

Hazaras and Tamils are really desperate in their bid for freedom. Apart from any other consideration, a person has to be desperate to take the risks they in fact take in their attempt to reach safety.

Most boat-people who arrive in Australia end up being assessed as genuine refugees, legally entitled to our protection: over 90% of them are ultimately successful in their asylum claims. This compares with a success rate of about 40% among asylum claims of people who arrive here by air on short term visas, such as business, tourist or student visas. The different success rates are readily explained: the boat trip is dangerous: it is a mark of sincerity that a person takes the risks it involves.

Some of the boats carrying asylum seekers sink, and some of the refugees drown. The number who have drowned is not clear, but it looks like about 2-3 per cent of them since 2000.

A person facing death or torture is not likely to be deterred by the prospect of being locked up in a detention centre, or even by the risk of drowning. Desperate people will take desperate measures. The experience of the Jews in the 1930s and the Vietnamese in the late 1970s tells us that. Common sense and ordinary experience tell us that. Over the years I have asked Hazaras I know personally, and who came here as boat-people, whether they had been aware of the risks before setting out. Some did. I asked them why they took the risk: they said that the Taliban represented a greater risk. Others did not: they did not know where they were being taken. For that group, deterrence is not a relevant consideration.

It is also significant that, at present, asylum seekers who get to Indonesia face the real prospect of being mistreated and jailed by the Indonesian authorities if they are caught. In addition, they are not permitted to work or to send their children to school. I suspect that most Australians faced with the same problem would choose the same solution: take a risk and get on a boat.

One of the strangest phenomena in Australian politics over the past decade is that we are apparently willing to revile and mistreat people who act exactly as we would if we had the misfortune to be in their shoes.


Are the politicians sincere about the drowning excuse? In my opinion they are not. Members of the coalition do not care if people drown in their attempts to reach Australia. Their expressed concern for the drowned is base hypocrisy. This is easily demonstrated.

First, if we started cooperating with Indonesia and established a genuine regional processing centre there, we would put an end to boat arrivals in an instant. If asylum claims were processed fairly in Indonesia, and those found to be refugees were offered swift, safe resettlement, the incentive to get on a people smuggler’s boat would disappear.

Second, the Coalition have said that they will reintroduce temporary protection visas (TPVs). TPVs create a substantial incentive to use a people smuggler. It is often the case that one member of a family will “blaze a trail” to Australia. Once he (it is usually the husband or the oldest son) reaches Australia and is accepted as a refugee, he naturally wants to be reunited with his family. In the ordinary way of things, if the man of the family is a refugee, then it is almost certain that his wife and children are also refugees. TPVs have a condition that prohibits family reunion. The only way the family of a TPV holder can be reunited is by the family using a people smuggler. On 19 October 2001 a refugee boat later designated the Siev-X sank on its way to Australia. By the time a rescue vessel arrived nearly 24 hours later, 353 people had drowned. Most of them were women and children whose husbands and fathers were living in Australia on TPVs.

It is clear that TPVs are an active inducement to use a people smuggler. Abbott and Morrison intend to re-introduce TPVs. When they say they are concerned about people drowning in an attempt to reach Australia they are lying.

Of course, this is not the least of their hypocrisy. Abbott and Morrison are conspicuous Christians. That is a fine thing, but it is irreconcilable with their policy of deterrence. They express concern about people who might drown seeking protection, and they then wilfully mistreat those who do not drown. They mistreat them deliberately, not least by sending them to Nauru (where the rule of law has broken down) or to Manus island (where the guards are unable to protect them from murderous attacks). The theory of the deterrent policy is that, if the Australian government treats asylum seekers badly enough, then asylum seekers will prefer to face down heir persecutors than ask for our help. That is a position which finds no support in the religion which both Abbott and Morrison (and Rudd before them) embrace so conspicuously. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison might do well to recall the response of Pope Francis when a group of Eritrean asylum seekers perished off the coast of Lampedusa in July 2013. He said: ” The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.”

He could have been speaking of Australia, although he had not reckoned on deliberate cruelty as a deterrent.

Offshore processing

Both major parties have suggested “offshore processing”. The difficulty with this is first to decide what it means, and then to see whether it is workable.

If it means processing asylum claims and resettling those found to be refugees, then the choice of an offshore processing place is a reasonably straight-forward practical and political problem. However the major parties do not appear to mean this. Rather, they would send boat-people offshore (to Nauru or PNG) for processing, but it is not part of their proposals that those accepted as refugees be resettled in Australia, and there is no definite plan about where or when they will be resettled.

Calling this “offshore processing” is not accurate: it is a fig-leaf to cover the fact that we are trying to push refugees away permanently.


Nauru has a land area of 21 square kilometres and a population of around 10,000 people; it does not have a sufficient supply of food or water for its own citizens. Its ability to receive and resettle refugees is necessarily very limited: in theory, it may be able to accommodate an additional 10 or 20 people a year, although its willingness to do that is uncertain. It is unthinkable that Nauru could receive thousands of refugees on a permanent basis. Using Nauru is, at best, a warehousing operation.

The use of Nauru to warehouse people leaves unanswered the question of resettlement. Other countries were reluctant to help Australia resettle refugees caught up in the Pacific Solution 10 years ago. Those who were not returned to their country of origin were eventually resettled in Australia, despite Mr Howard’s fervent promise in 2001 that none of them would be resettled here.

Nauru has recently signed the Refugees Convention, but it has virtually no capacity to process their asylum claims or look after their welfare: in 18 months, just one asylum claim has been processed. The balance of the task will all be done by Australia and at Australia’s expense. Convention countries which accept a person’s asylum claim are required not to send the person back (directly or indirectly) to a place where they face the risk of persecution. It is difficult to see what Nauru will do, because it is tiny and bankrupt and not able to look after its own population adequately without external support. Other countries are not showing any enthusiasm to resettle refugees to help Australia. After all, Australia gets a modest enough number of refugees, and we are showing ourselves to be cruel and selfish in our dealings with boat people. We will not get far in an attempt to persuade other nations to set aside the “globalisation of indifference” on our behalf, because we are among the greatest offenders.

There is another difficulty with Nauru. Late in 2013, Nauru’s only magistrate made a decision which did not please the Nauruan government. It moved to deport him. The Chief Justice of Nauru (who, like the magistrate, lives in Australia) issued an injunction to restrain Nauru from deporting the magistrate. The government ignored the injunction and deported the magistrate anyway.

The Chief Justice decided to go to Nauru to sort things out. The government of Nauru cancelled his visa.

Nauru has just one magistrate, and just one Supreme Court judge. Nauru made their judicial functions impossible to perform.

The rule of law has collapsed in Nauru. The Abbott government has said virtually nothing about the situation, because it suits Australia very well if the rule of law fails in Nauru. If eventually Nauru starts processing refugee claims of the people we have trafficked there, people who receive adverse decisions will have a right to challenge those decisions in the courts. And if their constitutionally guaranteed human rights are not respected, they can seek redress in the courts. But when the rule of law has failed, there can be no confidence that legal challenges by asylum seekers will be heard and determined according to law. If history is any guide, the judiciary will be in the sway of the government, and decisions will meet the government’s wishes.

The former magistrate and the former Chief Justice were honest people who acted independently. There is no reason to be confident that their replacements will be equally independent.

And it is obvious from the silence of Abbott and Morrison that they do not want asylum seekers to be accorded the rights which, on paper, Nauruan law offers them. Australia is pursuing a policy of deterrence, and it is an element of that deterrence to think that, if you arrive safely in Australia, you will be sent off to a lawless place where neither your rights nor your safety are certain.

Manus Island, PNG

Manus is the other place of offshore processing. It is an island north of Port Moresby. It is significantly infested with malarial mosquitos. A recent description of conditions there says:

“I live in a container with four people. The room is too small. It is crowded. I have no privacy. There are many mosquitos. I have been bitten a lot, many times. I have a fever. The officers gave me tablets and an injection for malaria. But I was not tested for malaria.

It is very hot and humid as well. When it rains, then after rain, it is very humid and it is smelly as well. The toilets are disgusting. They do not work. They smell. Sometimes the water stops. Some toilets don’t have doors or locks.

The showers are dirty and do not work properly. There is no hot water. The water pressure is low. Sometimes the water stops and doesn’t turn back on again and we cannot rinse ourselves.

The food is very bad. The food goes off very quickly. There are always insects and cockroaches in the food. “

During the day on 16 and 17 February 2014, the locals had been shouting abuse at the detainees and threatening to kill them. On the evening of 17 February, locals stormed the detention centre. Among them were guards employed by G4S. They attacked the asylum seekers. About 90 asylum seekers were seriously injured. One of them, Reza Barati, was killed: a local hit him savagely with a plank which had two long nails through it. Barati fell to the ground bleeding profusely. Another local then picked up a large rock and brought it down on Barati’s head, killing him.

There has been no effective investigation by PNG police or Australian police. A PNG Supreme Court judge, David Cannings, instituted an enquiry of his own motion. The PNG government shut it down. Australia did not protest. He instituted a new enquiry: the PNG government shut that down. Again, Australia did not protest. As in the case of Nauru, the Abbott government remained largely silent, other than uttering a few platitudes about its willingness to co-operate with PNG.

It suits Australia that detention on Manus Island is so dangerous: it is another element in the logic of deterrence. Not only must asylum seekers face the perils of the sea, they face the risk of detention in a place where they may be attacked, beaten and possibly killed. In short, they face risks which, for some, may seem equivalent to the risks which persecution in their home country represents.

“Offshore processing” as practised by the Gillard Labor government and by the Abbott Coalition government is a cruel fraud. It is not about processing at all. It is not about saving lives at sea. Both schemes only come into operation after asylum seekers have arrived safely in Australia. In short, it operates only after they have survived the risk from which we want to protect them.

Thus, the Pacific Solution (Mark I or Mark II) is not a solution to the identified problem. In effect, it is a device to push asylum seekers away if they set sail for Australia. It has nothing to do with processing, and it has nothing to do with saving people from drowning.

”Solutions” which are misleadingly described, and which do not solve the problem at which they are directed, should be abandoned.

A couple of alternatives

Real offshore processing

I suggest an alternative, genuine, form of offshore processing, which is for Australia to process asylum claim offshore (in Indonesia, before they get on a boat) and, for those assessed as refugees, promise resettlement in a finite, specified time.

The essential elements of this proposal include:

• Our annual refugee intake would need to be increased. It is presently set at 13,750. It should be increased to 30,000 per year.

• The processing has to be fair. Experience suggests that, when processing is not subject to judicial oversight, the result of the process owes more to political considerations than to the merits of the particular claims. Experience on Nauru from 2001 to 2005 threw up some notorious examples of grossly unfair processing.

• The increase in refugee places has to be sufficient to keep their waiting time in Indonesia to a reasonable length: one year at the most. A longer waiting time than that may prompt some to try a quicker route.

• We would have to enlist Indonesia’s cooperation so that the refugees could live without harassment while they waited in Indonesia for resettlement. In particular, it is desirable that they be allowed to work while in Indonesia awaiting resettlement.

• We would have to warn them about the risk of getting on a smuggler’s boat.

This sort of offshore processing would in fact solve the problem of people risking their lives at sea. By processing refugee claims in Indonesia, and increasing our refugee intake, we would create a system for safe, orderly resettlement. We can do it. But we won’t do it unless our concern about people drowning at sea is genuine.

A real regional solution

I do not advocate an open borders policy. Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is reasonable. But it should be limited to one month, for preliminary health and security checks. After that, release them on interim visas with four crucial conditions:

• they must stay in touch with the Department until their refugee status has been determined;

• they are allowed to work or study;

• they are allowed access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;

• they are required to live in a regional towns until their refugee status has been determined.

There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. The National Farmers Federation estimates that there are 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas. It is highly likely that many asylum seekers would get jobs.

How this would work can be tested by making some assumptions.

First: numbers. The average arrival rate of boat people over the past 20 years is about 2,000 per year. In 2001 (the year of the Tampa episode), just over 4,000 boat people arrived. (It is a striking thing how the arrival of 4,000 frightened people threw the country into a panic). In 2012, 25,000 boat people arrived. That is roughly equivalent to the annual arrival numbers in the late 1970s, as we resettled Indo-Chinese refugees, with not observable social difficulty. The arrival rate has fallen away again, but let us assume that the 2012 figure becomes the new normal.

And second, let us assume that all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits.

These are both highly unlikely assumptions.

It would cost us about $500 million a year. All that money would be spent in the economies of regional towns on rent, food and clothing, to the great benefit of the economy of the regional towns where they lived. It is not difficult to see the benefits to the economy of towns which are slowly losing population to the capitals.

By contrast, we are presently spending about $5 billion a year mistreating refugees. In other words, by treating them decently we could reduce the cost of the system by about $4.5 billion a year.

It is not hard to think of national infrastructure projects which might be funded from the savings. A billion dollars a year could be turned to creating more public housing for homeless Australians; another billion dollars a year could be applied to building schools or hospitals, or used to reduce the deficit or reverse tertiary education funding cuts.

There are many ways these ideas could be implemented. A few billion dollars a year can be used to damage asylum seekers profoundly, or it can be used for the benefit of the community in which asylum seekers live pending refugee status determination and for the benefit of the wider community. But it won’t happen until someone shows enough leadership that we are behaving badly because we have been misled about the character of the people who wash up on our shores.

Let us hope that, one day soon, Australia will show that it can return to its true character.