At least doubling our refugee intake is just the start.
By Alex Reilly
Given its poor handling of refugee policy when it came to power in 2007, the Labor Party will need to tread very carefully when it formulates a new policy at its upcoming national conference. It has little to gain politically from deviating from the Coalition’s harsh asylum seeker policy, and yet there is urgent need for reform.
Australia’s current policy on asylum seekers has lost all sense of proportion. Stopping the boats is the only policy goal – it is an end for which almost any means are justified. The cost to asylum seekers has been unspeakable. There has been little regard for their humanity, and no concern for establishing durable solutions to their plight.
There can be no doubting the manifest benefits of stopping the boats. These include undermining the “people smuggling” industry that developed around securing unauthorised entry to Australia by boat; preventing loss of life at sea; and preventing an uncontrollable flow of asylum seekers reaching our shores.
Having stopped the boats, at great cost, it is inconceivable that Australia would allow the movement of people by this means to start again. Its capacity to control movement across its borders is the envy of the world. All nations, no matter their level of generosity to asylum seekers, wish to be able to control the movement of people across their borders.
There are obvious reforms that Labor should have no hesitation in adopting.
First, as is already contained in its draft national platform, Labor should significantly increase Australia’s annual refugee intake. Given the scale of Australia’s current migration program and its relative international contribution, the number of 13,500 should at least be doubled.
Second, the raft of amendments to the Migration Act that the Coalition introduced in November 2014 with the support of crossbench senators should be repealed. Those amendments focused on processing asylum seekers who arrived in Australia up to 2013 and are now either living in the community or in immigration detention. The amendments replaced permanent with temporary protection, restricted review rights in the Refugee Review Tribunal and incorporated more onerous requirements for satisfying the definition of a refugee.
These changes created a greater chance of genuine refugees being returned to their country of origin where they face the risk of death or persecution.
The regional processing problem
Regional processing is a central plank in the Coalition’s policy platform. However, it has been an abject failure. Thousands of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island reside in sub-standard living conditions with growing mental health problems under the supervision of private centre operators with broad and unreviewable powers to use force against them to maintain order.