The Centre for Policy Development has just released a new report on Australia’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers, entitled A New Approach: Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees & Asylum Seekers (pdf).
The report has been endorsed by 34 prominent Australians (their statement is here).
The report itself is very thorough and thoughtful, and a bonanza of facts and human stories – both welcome in a policy debate that largely ignores facts, and dismisses the human dimension of “border control” or mandatory detention.
They call for change in the public and political debate in Australia, renewed regional cooperation, better post-arrival support for asylum-seekers, an end to offshore processing and a move from mandatory to risk-based detention, with firm time limits (30 days for adults and 14 days for children) on how long someone can be detained unless they are deemed a security or health risk.
From a policy angle, everything they’ve written seems pretty sensible and would be substantially more humane and cost-effective than our current policies.
My big concern, though, is that the authors really present no plausible road-map for how we get there from here. What and who needs to change and how could that change come about for Australia to achieve a facts-based, non-hysterical, compassionate set of policies towards asylum-seekers and refugees? Apart from calling for more “national leadership”, what actually do the authors think can happen that will get us from where we are to where they want us to be?
In short, it seems like great policy, but not enough politics.
For example, the two recommendations for changing the public and political debate in Australia are to develop an independent commission to facilitate informed political and public debate and also an Independent Refugee Asylum and Humanitarian Assistance Authority to administer all aspects of policy. “What we need,” the report reads,
is a small independent and professional commission to promote informed debate about refugees.
Now, informed debates faciliated by independent and professional commissions are bound to be great. And I’m sure it would be wonderful if all public policy was formed after sober debates facilitated by independent and professional commissions.
But how is that independent and professional commission supposed to get traction in the public debate when every boat arrival is breathlessly reported on by media outlets? How is its supposedly informed debate meant to trump the political advantage which is there to be seized by whoever can most relentlessly stoke fear and portray refugees and asylum-seekers as threats to national security and sovereignty?
Because I think we have two rival views at work here. On the one hand we have a view (perfectly encapsulated in the slogan, “Stopping the boats”) which places “border protection” and “national sovereignty” higher than any other value. The appeal to national security and border protection, and its rhetoric exploits notions of boundaries and the prevention of bodily contamination or defilement (in this case, the defilement of the body politic by the unwanted, and potentially threatening, other).
Like an airborne virus or an invasive parasite attacking the body, asylum-seekers have transgressed certain physical and metaphorical boundaries and our response, or at least the response of many, is revulsion. I think the (at least partially) metaphorical nature of Australia’s borders is readily seen in the ease with which vast swathes of Australia can be legislatively removed from our “migration zone”.
And when asylum-seekers are viewed in this light, it is inevitable that they will also be subject to negative moral judgements. “Queue-jumpers.” “Illegals”. The kind of people who would throw their children overboard (except they didn’t).
It is also inevitable that our revulsion will be used to justify harsh responses (mandatory detention, removal of family reunion rights, towing boats back to sea, and so on).
The other view, that taken by the report’s authors, is that asylum-seekers are people. People who, because of certain traumas, have undertaken difficult and dangerous journeys to reach a place where they hope they might find safety and security. People who should be treated with, at a minimum, respect and, perhaps, even with a modicum of compassion and hospitality.
I’m completely with the report’s authors on this. And the facts, of course, are on their side. The tiny numbers of boat arrivals poses no meaningful threat to Australia’s “sovereignty”. Most people who arrive by boat are found to be refugees who are genuinely in need of a safe haven in Australia. Very few pose any kind of health or security threat to Australia, and a short period of detention for the purposes of security and health checks is entirely justifiable.
But my question is, how do we make it politically possible for Australia’s politicians and immigration system to treat asylum seekers differently?
How can we shape the national conversation and responses so that human rights and values trump abstractions of “border security” and “sending messages to people smugglers”?
How will we ensure that politicians flourish electorally by standing on principles of compassion and inclusion, rather than fear and exclusion?
How will we ensure that mercy wins out over sacrifice?
For a take on the politics of this, David Marr’s article is good.