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Panel discusses Australia's asylum policy -

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ELEANOR HALL: So is the Rudd Government reprising the Howard government's Pacific solution but in a
different location, as the former immigration minister has suggested? Should Australians be
concerned about a flood of refugees and what are the options for the Australian Government in
dealing with the asylum seeker issue?

Joining me now to discuss this are three prominent players in immigration policy who come to this
from different perspectives.

Robert Manne is a Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne and was a critic of the
Howard government's approach to asylum seekers.

Barrister Julian Burnside QC is also a critic of the previous government's policy and is well known
for his pro-bono legal work for asylum seekers.

And Dr Bob Birrell is the co-director of Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban
Research and he was a supporter of many aspects of the Howard government's refugee deterrence
policy.

Welcome gentlemen and thanks for joining us.

ROBERT MANNE: Hi.

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Hello.

ELEANOR HALL: First to you Bob Birrell. We just heard the minister talk about international
instability driving this influx of asylum seekers. What do you think is behind this recent
increase?

BOB BIRRELL: I think we've seen a high demand from people wanting to reach affluent western
countries but what has changed in the past couple of years is the Australian Government's rules on
processing people who make claims once they get to Australia or try to get to Australia.

So I think it is reasonable to deduce that the Rudd Government changes to the Howard government's
rules and regulations have, are largely responsible for this latest influx.

ELEANOR HALL: And are we, as the Opposition says, just one boatload of asylum seekers away from
crisis point?

BOB BIRRELL: Clearly it becomes more and more difficult to deal with these people when the location
designated for them is full up. I mean this is a serious problem just as it was back in the year
2000 when all of the detention facilities in Australia were filling up as well.

So it is a major administrative problem and if it means that we have to locate them in Australia
then it will overturn an essential plank in what was the Howard government's, still the Rudd
Government's policy, which is not to allow them direct access to Australian courts when they make
their asylum claims.

ELEANOR HALL: And Julian Burnside, do you agree that we are seeing this increase in people
smuggling because the Federal Government has lifted the Howard deterrence policies?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: No. I accept that that is possibly one element of it but I think if you ask our
troops in Afghanistan, they would probably tell you that things are pretty bad there and that is a
very likely explanation for the increased arrival rate because most of the recent arrivals have
been coming from Afghanistan and from Sri Lanka and everyone knows that conditions there are
frightful at the moment.

Now you have got to bear in mind that the voyage that they undertake is a very dangerous one and
most people aren't going to undertake that voyage unless they are desperate. If you are a Hazara in
Afghanistan, the way the Taliban are behaving, you would be pretty desperate.

ELEANOR HALL: And Robert Manne, what is your view? Are we seeing this increase in asylum seekers
coming here by boat because there has been a change in the government?

ROBERT MANNE: Well, look I actually find myself in the odd position of agreeing in a way on this
issue with both Bob Birrell and Julian Burnside. That is, I think clearly in events in Afghanistan
and Sri Lanka have led to large outflows of people fleeing from dreadful situations.

I also think it is sort of undeniable that the Howard government's deterrent policy in one aspect
only worked - that was the Pacific solution. - the boats stopped coming after this sort of flurry
of military activity around the last couple of months after Tampa.

And so I think it is true that the Rudd Government policy was certain to lead to people arriving on
Christmas Island or trying to get there because they have a very good chance of being, if they are
refugees and most of the people certainly from Afghanistan are real refugees, they have now a good
chance of being selected and allowed to come to Australia because no other country would take
people from Christmas Island.

JULIAN BURNSIDE: I think it is worth saying though Robert that the boats sort of stopped coming
very shortly after 353 people drowned when the SIEV X went down, and very soon after that the
Taliban in Afghanistan fell.

ROBERT MANNE: Yeah, I suppose we won't know for sure but it seems to me if you look at the figures,
that there were boats coming right through the 1990s through to the decision to use military force
and to send people to Nauru into situations of, you know, horror which Julian and I agree about.

I think that all the deterrent measures before then didn't work - like temporary visas and
mandatory detention etcetera - but my reading of the evidence is that people smugglers no longer
brought people to Australia because Australia was virtually closed after the decision to open the
Pacific solution in Nauru.

ELEANOR HALL: Staying with you then Robert Manne, what do you think of the Prime Minister making a
direct appeal to Indonesia? I mean should Australia be expecting Indonesia to take up the slack
when it has perhaps fewer resources than we do to deal with the problem?

ROBERT MANNE: Well, I wouldn't look at it exactly in that way. I think that there is both a
political and a moral dimension to this question and if one talks about the moral dimension then I
think Australia should be generous.

If one talks about the political dimension, which I don't think one can leave out of the
discussion, it is clearly a big problem for the Rudd Government because there is a strange thing in
Australian opinion, which I don't understand but I acknowledge, that 10,000 refugees brought in by
the Australian Government doesn't cause a problem for the Government. One thousand or even fewer
arriving without authorisation, particularly by boat, causes an incredible sort of ruckus and
political problems and I think we have, so I think somehow you have to balance the political and
the moral in this.

And I do think there is a precedent of successful action in this area which is to do with something
I followed very closely in the past - the Vietnamese refugee question - and maybe we could talk a
little bit about that.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, what is your solution there?

ROBERT MANNE: What the Fraser government discovered was that boats coming spontaneously to
Australia caused great problems but an orderly program of much larger numbers of Vietnamese
refugees coming from the camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on, an international program
where Australia was one of the key participants alongside Canada, France, United States and so on,
did not cause any ruckus in public opinion, was extremely successful and had bipartisan support and
it seems to me that that's the sort of solution if you want to use that word, that we should be
looking towards.

Something along the lines of what the Fraser government successfully managed with Vietnamese.

ELEANOR HALL: Let me get a response to that from our other participants. Julian Burnside, what do
you think of what Robert Manne is proposing, that Australia basically fund or support a system in
Indonesia to process asylum seekers there but ultimately bring them back to Australia?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Yeah, look, first of all what Fraser and Ian McPhee did was very successful and
they were bringing in about 20,000 or 25,000 Indo-Chinese refugees each year and as Robert said,
that didn't cause any particular fuss in the community.

I would be interested in looking at the idea of processing in Indonesia with a couple of
reservations though.

The first is that you would have to be really careful to make sure the conditions in which people
were held were acceptable by Australian standards. Now at the moment there are people being held
there and supported by Australian taxpayers' money but being held in frightful conditions by the
IOM (International Organisation for Migration).

The second thing that would concern me is that the processing would most likely be beyond the reach
of the Australian legal system and there is a real risk that it would degenerate into the sort of
vindictiveness that we saw with processing on Nauru.

Now, you know, both conditions and legal remedies to ensure the fairness of the process are
extremely important in solutions like this and it only takes a slight shift in the attitude of the
government for a solution like that to get out of hand utterly the way the Pacific solution did.

ELEANOR HALL: Bob Birrell, what is your view? Should the Government be appealing to Indonesia or
what other solution is there? Should we be bringing back the Howard government's deterrents?

BOB BIRRELL: Yes, certainly engaging Indonesia in this process is crucial. It was the inability to
get their support prior to Tampa that led to the desperate measures put in place by Howard.

Now, look there is a system in place to quote "manage" unquote asylum claims already and people
from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan who make it to Indonesia can apply to the UNHCR (United Nations Human
Rights Commission) and have their cases heard and if they are declared to be refugees then they
have to wait until places are available in countries like, that take them, like Australia and New
Zealand and I think that is an appropriate way to deal with the problem.

Now what happened with the Pacific solution is that it, in effect, turned Nauru into a similar
management location in the sense that people who were picked up on the seas by the Australian Navy
were taken to Nauru and they were able to pursue their asylum claims there and if they succeeded
then they had to wait like people have to wait in Indonesia at present to find a place.

Now that puts them on the same plain as all other claimants. It doesn't give an advantage to people
who can pay the $15,000 to make it to Australia.

So, true, as Julian said, there are all sorts of problems with the management of these claims in
Nauru but in principle, the Pacific solution just provided a venue for assessment pretty much like
we are suggesting now. That is, that they have their claims heard in Indonesia and have to wait
their turn to find a country to accept them.

ELEANOR HALL: It will be interesting to see which way the Government goes. Thank you gentlemen very
much for joining us.

That is Dr Bob Birrell from Monash University, barrister Julian Burnside and Robert Manne from La
Trobe University.