Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 03:38 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 03:38 | SYDNEY

Too many are drowning in search of sanctuary

22 December 2011 08:31

Dr Khalid Koser is Head of the New Issues in Security Program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

While I'm pleased that the lunchtime talk I delivered last week at the Lowy Institute has been cited in the past few days, I deeply regret the circumstances that have brought it to the attention of the political class, namely the tragedy unfolding in the seas off Indonesia.

Unnervingly, the last time I addressed the issue of unauthorised boat arrivals at Lowy, when a briefing paper on the topic was published, was also four days before another boat disaster, the SIEV 221 sinking last December. Then as now some of my comments were cited out of context, and so I think it is important to be clear what my message was at Lowy, and at whom it was directed.

I tried to convey four main messages to the Lowy audience. First, and while clearly acknowledging the particularities of the Australian context and the limited value of global comparisons, I did not consider unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia as a crisis, despite increasing numbers in recent months. It is worth noting, for example, that around 65,000 people arrived by boat on the small Italian island of Lampedusa in just 60 days this summer, as a result of the Arab Spring.

Neither did I consider this to be a challenge that was insurmountable, and I expressed the opinion that the outside world was quite surprised — even frustrated — that the Australian Government has seemed unable to deal with it effectively, and that the Opposition appears to be more preoccupied with political point-scoring than working constructively towards a solution.

Second, I was clear that unauthorised boat arrivals do matter, and must be addressed, but not for the reason most usually cited, which is rising numbers (and they have been rising quickly towards the end of the year). I felt that a much more pressing reason to stop the boats was the humanitarian impulse to prevent tragedies such as this weekend's, but more generally to provide a safer and more dignified way for desperate people to find sanctuary.

I suggested that shifting the focus from numbers to humanitarianism might reduce the scope for politicking over this issue, and perhaps pave the way for a concerted effort to find a solution. The other reason I felt it was important to find a solution was because a relatively small problem has begun, in my opinion, to do lasting damage to the political and policy arena.

It has driven a wedge between the main political parties, strained relations between the executive and judiciary, poisoned the relationship between government and civil society, and threatens to reduce public confidence in the Government's ability to manage migration and control borders. In such a toxic environment, it will become difficult for the Government to enact any innovative policies on boats, asylum and refugees, and migration more generally.

Third, I said that I felt it was a mistake to pin too many hopes on the so-called Malaysia deal. Provocatively, I described the proposal as a 'Hail Mary' rather than evidence-based policy making. By which I meant that I know of no comparable policy ever enacted anywhere else in the world, and thus there is no evidence that the policy would actually work.

It might, but it might not, and that seemed to me to be an unnecessarily high-risk strategy, particularly as it was inevitable that the proposal would do just the sort of damage to the political and policy arena I described above, as well as raise eyebrows among the global humanitarian and human rights community. Specifically, I felt that the policy was based on two assumptions that current research evidence is at best ambiguous on, namely that it would deter both migrant smugglers and potential asylum seekers.

I concluded my talk by laying out ten policies that I felt would be more effective in the long-term than the Malaysia deal, and together would represent a comprehensive approach, based on tried and tested policies, and that respect both Australia's commitment to international law and the human rights of those concerned.

Probably the most controversial point I made in this context was that in my opinion the Government should consider all possible policy options, including if necessary a return to Nauru. It is hard to argue with the evidence that the so-called Pacific Solution coincided with a significant reduction in unauthorised boat arrivals, and that since it was lifted numbers have risen significantly, although it is also important to acknowledge the damage that the policy did to Australia's international reputation. And even if the policy worked once does not necessarily mean it would work again. Nevertheless, to discount policies simply because of their political label seemed to me be irresponsible.

I may have also ruffled some feathers by saying that I felt that a regional processing centre was a good policy to pursue, that a review of the current asylum appeals system would be legitimate, that I was surprised that the Government has not found the political will or technical capacity to reduce the number of people for whom applications or appeals are pending, that the Government would need to tackle head on the difficult policy decisions around deportation, and that, for the longer-term, development aid might be targeted on those countries that are the main sources of unauthorised boat arrivals. I was also clear that the Government should consult as widely as possible in developing a comprehensive approach.

I am not an Australian citizen, and I have no affiliation whatsoever with any political party in Australia. My intention at Lowy was deliberately to provide an outside perspective, to try to help place the Australian challenge in a global context, and to consider to what extent policies that have been adopted elsewhere might work in Australia. I don't mind who wins the next election in Australia, but I do mind that people are drowning in search of sanctuary.

Photo by Flickr user isawasi.