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Is offshore policy fair? Just ask the migrants

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14 July 2012


The recent tragedies at sea that have seen so many people die in their attempt to get to Australia have led to a quantum shift in Australia's debate on refugee policy.

People who have been passionate advocates for onshore processing as the most compassionate approach have changed their view as they recognise there is nothing compassionate or humanitarian about a policy which tells people that they should risk their lives to maximise their chance of a new life in Australia.

But there is also another good reason for supporting offshore processing as the most compassionate approach: fairness.

Sitting in my Fairfield electorate office in Sydney’s West, I am constantly reminded of the inherent unfairness of a situation that leads to these tragedies at sea. In the most multicultural area of Australia, where many refugees have made their home, there is very strong support for policies that deter boat journeys and give more places to people sitting in desperate and prolonged circumstances around the world.

The constituents I speak to every day - who came to Australia as refugees and who still have relatives in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, patiently but desperately waiting for the chance of a new life in Australia - are to me a pretty good guide as to whether our refugee policy is operating fairly.

And it is from these people that I get the strongest feedback that a policy like the Malaysia agreement, which removes the incentive to come to Australia by boat but which gives more people the chance of resettlement in Australia, is a good one.

This is not to say that people who come to Australia by boat are doing something illegitimate, or something that most of us in the same position and with the same means would not do. They should never be demonised. But all of the hundreds of thousands of people who applied for permanent migration to Australia last year had legitimate hopes and aspirations of a better life. The task of governments is to develop a fair system for assessing these claims.

It often occurs to me that people who argue that the only reason for governments to embrace offshore processing is to appeal to the ‘racist and redneck’ voters of the outer suburbs and regions should actually come out to the multicultural heart of Australia and see what people here really think. They could sit with me and do some constituent interviews and see if they still think support for offshore processing equates with racism.

They could meet the people who are trying to get their sister and her family resettled from Syria, where they fled from Iraq after having a family member kidnapped and receiving

regular death threats from local fundamentalists. Barely a day goes by when, as a local member, I don't hear a story like this, tearfully told by a local resident worried about the plight of their relatives.

The more than one million people who fled Iraq to neighbouring countries after the fall of Saddam Hussein actually worsened their human rights situation and this led to unbearable persecution.

Or they could take a few moments to talk to some of the relatives of the 1.6 million refugees in and around the Horn of Africa who wonder if there is any chance, after years of waiting, that they might have the chance of a new life in Australia.

Or they could talk to a member of the vibrant Vietnamese community, perhaps our greatest example of a successful refugee community. It's easy to forget now that only around 2,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Australia by boat in the years immediately after the war. More than 100,000 Indochinese were resettled out of camps. Many attempted a boat journey but perished. The majority of Australians of Vietnamese heritage I speak to clearly say we need offshore processing policies and strong regional resettlement programs.

The majority of boat arrivals to Australia come from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Some will be refugees and others will not. But it is legitimate to ask, if we were designing a refugee intake with a blank canvas, would we have a program dominated by these three countries? We would not. Rather, our humanitarian intake would more closely reflect UNHCR’s priorities, including populations of concern in Africa and elsewhere.

Some would argue that we should break the link between our offshore resettlement program and onshore arrivals. That is, they argue that the rules should be changed so that every boat arrival does not mean one less person from a camp. But this is not the answer. Australia is almost unique in providing significant chances at resettlement (with the third highest resettlement program in the world) and also having not insignificant irregular arrivals. We have what the United Nations has recognised as the best settlement services in the world, which means our refugee intake comes at a large, but justified cost.

Removing the link between offshore and onshore arrivals would put unsustainable pressure on our settlement support and mean that either the Federal Government would have no control over its asylum budget or our comprehensive assistance to help new refugees settle in Australia would need to be massively pared back. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable.

There are no moral absolutes in this debate. There are plenty of people who argue for onshore processing because they see it as a more compassionate approach. I respect that. But there are plenty of other people who have argued for offshore processing because we have come to see it as the fairest, most compassionate approach that gives the most people the fairest shot at a new life in our society. That's why I successfully argued at last year's ALP National Conference that Australia can and should take more refugees, but that we should explicitly embrace offshore processing as the fairest and safest way of dealing with boat arrivals.

This debate must be tackled with a hard head and a soft heart.

That's something that the many thousands of refugees and migrants in Western Sydney and elsewhere understand intuitively based on their real-world, lived experiences.