Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 01:25 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 01:25 | SYDNEY

The Pacific Solution was a fraud

13 September 2011 13:27

Michael Clarke is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

The current 'debate' over asylum-seeker policy in this country has reached new levels of absurdity on both sides of federal politics.

On one hand we have a Labor-led minority government that has pushed for 'offshore' processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia, only to be stymied and politically humiliated by the decision of the High Court that such a course of action was unlawful. On the other we have an Opposition clamouring for a return to its particular 'offshore' processing preference — the so-called 'Pacific Solution' where asylum seekers are processed in detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

From the statements of prominent members of both the Government and the Opposition in recent weeks, it would appear the Australian public is being offered two alternative positions to resolve this issue. But leaving aside for the moment that it is debatable whether asylum-seeker policy is in fact 'the' issue of our time, the Australian public is being offered nothing of any real substance by both parties.

'Offshore' processing of asylum seekers, whether in Malaysia, Nauru, Manus Island or another regional state or island does not, contrary to the claims of both the Government and the Opposition, deter people smugglers nor the asylum seekers themselves from undertaking dangerous boat journeys to our shores.

The reason, as noted by Graham Richardson in The Australian, is that 'The original Nauru solution was arguably the greatest and most successful fraud committed by the Howard regime'.

By sending asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island to be detained and processed, the Howard Government was able to strike the pose of being 'tough' on people that it had characterised as 'queue jumpers' and as potential threats to Australia's national security.

Given the rhetoric of the Howard years, such as the oft-quoted 'we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come', many would assume that the majority of those detained under the 'Pacific Solution' would in fact have been refused asylum in Australia. Greg Sheridan, for example, has peddled this line, claiming that 'The majority of people who went to Nauru and Manus Island under John Howard's Pacific Solution did not come to Australia...Some 30% went home, 30% were resettled in other countries and only 40% ultimately came to Australia'.

The implication is that the Pacific Solution worked by 'filtering out' over half of those detained and thus acting as a 'deterrent' to other potential asylum seekers — if you come to Australia by boat there is over 50% chance that you will be either sent home or to a country other than Australia.

The reality, however, is not so clear. Between 2001 and 2008, 1637 people were detained on Nauru and Manus Island. Of those, 1153 (ie. 70%) were resettled in Australia or other countries. Of this group, 705 (i.e. 61%) were ultimately resettled in Australia with the remaining 448 resettled in third countries. The deterrent value of such an exercise, as Richardson suggests, is far from clear:

Your average people-smuggler would not have to be all that bright to be able to sell to a potential client that there was a 70% chance of success in finishing up in an acceptable Western nation, most probably Australia, after spending a year on a Pacific island. Asylum-seekers will hand over the money and risk their lives when the odds are as high as 70%.

However, is the alternative of onshore processing, as Richardson argues, a viable one? Practically 'yes', but politically 'no'. Certainly it may seem more cost-effective, given that the cost of housing detainees on Nauru and Manus Island between 2001 and 2006 came to approximately $1 billion. The Gillard Government could nip the prospect of further humiliation (Tony Abbott's offer of a 'bipartisan approach' — ie. offshore processing) in the bud if it was to change course and adopt onshore processing as its preferred option. This could silence rumblings from the Greens and some within the ALP, and actually present the public with a clear and distinct choice as opposed to the bland and ineffective Coke and Diet Coke options we now have.

However, this may be too 'courageous' a decision (in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense) for the Gillard Government to stomach. Indeed, as Richardson somewhat ruefully concludes, 'Australians apparently will revolt at the prospect of releasing a trickle of aliens into our midst. A few thousand a year really shouldn't trouble 20 million but they do'.

This, as Matt MacDonald has recently argued, is largely the result of the deployment of 'the language of security and threat regarding asylum seekers' by both major political parties over the past decade, which has placed policy-makers in something of a self-imposed straitjacket on this issue. One is reminded of the late and great Joe Strummer's lament with respect to the plight of Vietnam War refugees:

Can you really cough it up loud and strong
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man's land, and there ain't no asylum here
King Solomon, he never lived round here
Go straight to hell

Has the language of security and threat poisoned policy so much that, as far as Australians are concerned, there really is no asylum here?

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.