Refugees and offshore processing: a reply to Robert Manne

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By Jenny Haines

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s National Times section on December 22, Robert Manne, stated his opinion that the left got it wrong on boat people.

Manne notes the current stalemate between the political parties in parliament and does not resile from his opposition to John Howard’s Pacific Solution cruelties, but he criticises the left for not recognising the efficiency of the Pacific Solution in reducing the numbers of refugees arriving by boat.

No reference is given for the figures that he quotes on asylum seekers arriving by boat between 2002 and 2008. But how can you have it both ways — if you are horrified by the cruelties of the Pacitic Solution, you can’t then use that solution to justify the reduction in numbers arriving by boat.

And it may be useful for Robert Manne to take a look at the following figures:

Refugees as a proportion of migration to Australia
Year Migration program Refugees resettled Percentage of migration
2000-01 80,610 3997 5
2001-02 93,080 4160 4.5
2002-03 108,070 4376 4
2003-04 114,360 4134 3.6
2004-05 120,060 5511 4.6
2006-07 148,200 6003 4.1
2007-08 158,630 6004 3.8
2008-09 171,318 6499 3.8
2009-10 168,623 6003 3.6
2010-11 (planned) 168,700 5998 3.6

[Sources: Department of Immigration and Citizenship advice; Population flows: immigration aspects 2008–09, source data, chapter 4, 2010; and DIAC annual reports]

As a member of the Labor Party and a proud member of the left, I have always admired Robert Manne’s intellect and there comes a time in every movement when people change their views. The pain of the refugee issue can induce great shifts of opinion.

I do not subscribe to the view that current people smugglers are akin to Oskar Schindler. There is no doubt that crime syndicates operate in the business world of people smuggling and that those criminal elements should be dealt with by the processes of criminal investigation around the world, including Australia.

But people smuggling is a difficult business that draws into its whirlpool those who are refugees themselves, Indonesian fishermen who have been driven out of business by Australia’s policing of their former fishing grounds, and opportunists.

These latter people are often not fully aware, or choose not to be aware, of the criminal structure of the enterprise they are involved in, but are hoping to either make some money or get some family to a safe haven through their service on the boats.

If we are serious about stopping refugee deaths on the sea, we should bring people who are refugees from Indonesia by plane or safe boat. It is a very simple solution. No sending them back to Malaysia with all its human rights problems, no Nauru or Manus Island.

The problem here is the politicians on both sides won’t do this. They are all too afraid of voters in marginal seats, and focus group outcomes.

The great shift in Manne’s opinion is his conversion to offshore processing. Manne suggests in his article there are two solutions in the form of offshore processing: the Malaysia Solution which he appears to reject because it provides for 800 refugees being returned to Malaysia to an uncertain future, or the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island, but this time with “decent, health, accommodation, and education facilities”.

Given current government policy and practice on both sides of politics, of contracting out detention facilities to questionable international corporations, there do not seem to be any guarantees that facilities on faraway islands would meet these requirements.

Manne goes on to admit that:

“The obvious problem with such an offshore processing camp is that it might not succeed in its deterrent purpose. One solution here is to nominate in advance the number of those found to be refugees that Australia will accept each year from the camp, and to admit that number on the basis of date of arrival. The likelihood of a long wait should act as a powerful deterrent.”

But who goes to Nauru and Manus Island: those who arrive by boat and plane, given the government’s recent commitment to process both groups in the same way? Or is Manne suggesting some regional solution, with the Australian government bringing refugees from Indonesia to Nauru and Manus Island by plane or safe boat, thereby bypassing the need for them to use people smugglers’ boats to get to Australia?

If he is suggesting that refugees who land on Australian soil be sent back to Nauru and Manus Island , Australia is in breach of the UN Refugee Convention. Given his concerns about the dangers of refugees sailing to Australia by dangerous boat journey, is he suggesting that we continue to allow that to happen, and then send these people to Nauru or Manus Island, where they will linger in an Australian-created queue based on their date of arrival?

If he is suggesting the latter, there is a moral problem in his stated views. They seem to be contradictory.

Robert Manne goes on to suggest that once Nauru and Manus Island are reopened, mandatory detention could be abolished.

We don’t need the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island to abolish mandatory detention.

Manne then agrees with the current Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, that the annual refugee intake in Australia could be increased to 20,000. Minister Bowen will increase the annual intake on the condition that the opposition agrees to the Malaysia Solution.

Robert Manne agrees that the refugee intake could be increased on the basis that Nauru and Manus Island are reopened.

We don’t need the Malaysia Solution or the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island to increase the annual intake of refugees.

Given the hundreds of thousands being accepted annually by European countries, an increase to 20,000 by Australia would be a drop in the ocean. What we need in this country is a government that is prepared to act courageously and humanely, whatever uneducated parts of the voting public think, but what we have is a government pandering to the perceptions of voters in marginal seats, and participants in focus groups.

Until we have more education of these people about the realities of life for refugees and asylum seekers, there will never be a fair go for refugees and asylum seekers in a country that once prided itself on being the land of the fair go for all.

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