A few months ago, while a group of Parliamentarians got together in Canberra to discuss the then policy impasse on asylum seekers, another boat capsized off the coast of Christmas Island. While politicians argued back and forth, people were drowning – and the nation shook its head in disgust.
I have struggled with the issue of asylum seeker policy since I was elected in 2010. This contentious debate raged throughout the Howard years and it challenged us to apply our values – and our humanity – to a broiling public policy argument. When I saw children locked in remote detention centres, I thought of my own children. When I heard the stories of people who were trying to save their families from persecution, I thought that there would not be much that I wouldn’t try to do if I was in the same situation. But, equally I can see nothing fair or humane in the knowledge that 900 people have drowned at sea while attempting the boat journey to Australia and that this torment is unbounded.
We all seek the view from the high moral ground. But, in this area – there simply isn’t one. There are no moral absolutes. The facts and statistics dictate it so. 42 million displaced people in the world – and a large number of them in our region. We cannot take all of those who would seek haven or resettlement in Australia – but we can do more. So while this heated – sometimes vicious – debate has raged, it has been too easy to lose sight of the real objective of our refugee program.
The single objective for a progressive political party should be to maximise the number of people that we can lift from persecution by providing protection and safe haven. This is the central objective of Australia’s refugee policy – and everything else is subsidiary to that.
In pursuing this objective, we need to understand there are limitations. Australia can do much more but we cannot provide protection for all. That means that we need to have a capped program. Traditionally this has been achieved by setting quotas for different categories of immigration – including our humanitarian and refugee intake.
This is a key difference between Labor and the Greens – although they don’t clearly state it, they propose an uncapped program – where we fill the quota and then on top of that, we accept anyone else who can get here.
Leaving aside the contradiction between this policy and their statements about population policy – it is clearly unsustainable. The reason for this is simple – there is a cost. Labor has always taken the view that we have an obligation to assist refugees and other immigrants settle and become part of the community – and this obligation entails the provision of basic health, welfare, education and employment services. These should not be begrudged but it is also true that the cost for these services has to be budgeted and accounted for.
I welcome the Houston Report recommendation that we immediately increase our Humanitarian intake from 13,500 to 20,000 places per annum, with a further increase to 27,000 over the next five years. This doubling of our intake will not be easy to achieve but it is the right thing to do. It is right because it lifts the burden which is currently borne by some of the poorest countries in our region. For example, in Pakistan the average monthly income is around $250 a month. Around 22% of the population live below the poverty line – yet they host 1.7 million refugees – the largest of any country in the world. In Kenya, where the average monthly income is around $680, there is a single city, Dadaab, that houses more than 560,000 refugees.
Recently the Malaysian Government wrote to all Australian MPs reminding us that there are more than 99,000 refugees and asylum seekers in their country as well as 1,303,126 foreign workers. Every day the governments of these countries and the UNHCR deal with this immense humanitarian challenge.
As a relatively wealthy country in the region we can do more – not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will help in securing a greater level of regional cooperation which is essential to dealing authoritatively with people smuggling operations in the Asia-Pacific.
Any politician who has spent time door-knocking their electorate recently would also realise that if we are to increase the number of people we resettle in Australia, then we need to do more to win community acceptance. I know a bit about this – coming from a region where more than 1 in 4 people were born overseas. And I know that we won’t win this community acceptance when refugees are marshalled as political ordinance in the battles between the flaky and the opportunistic elements of Australian politics.
Despite the vitriol of the political debate on this issue in which the dog whistle has been replaced with a megaphone, we do have some reason to be confident: that’s because Australia has the best settlement record of any country in the world when it comes to migration.
But, to maintain this high standing we must continue to convince people that our immigration process is fair and reasonable, and that our levels of intake are determined by the Australian people – through their elected representatives – and not through the activities of profiteers in the people smuggling trade.
I support the recommendations of the Houston report – if they are taken as a whole. That means, increasing our humanitarian intake, improving the mechanisms for assessment and approval (including enhanced regional cooperation) and establishing a policy that means that people who take the irregular path – by boat or otherwise – will receive no net benefit when it comes to resettlement or family reunion.
This may seem harsh to those who have chanced their arm (I am not critical of them) but it is fair to those who seek asylum here while waiting in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Africa.
One final word – I refuse to attach the word ‘solution’ in reference to these measures. The historical connotations render that offensive. And it is operationally impossible . If we have learnt anything about this area over the last three decades – it is that we will need to continually adjust our approach to meet the changing circumstances. But at every step in the process we should not let go of the central aim of Australia’s refugee policy – to maximise the number of people that we can assist by providing a haven from persecution.