Courtesy of The Age, illustration by Matt Davidson
Courtesy of The Age, illustration by Matt Davidson

published in The Age, Comment, December 14, 2014
by Alastair Nicholson

It is time for all Australians to recognise that stopping the boats is not the answer to the refugee problem.

The issue of refugees is a global one deserving better than the shallow policies developed by successive Australian governments. History will not be any kinder to present Australians than to those of former eras in respect of their racist policies towards Aboriginal and Asian people.

Australian attitudes are curious since most of us, with the exception of the first Australians, are descended from refugees of one sort or another.

Unfortunately, most politicians think that stopping the boats resolves the matter.

The government's latest legislation makes superficial concessions that hide an outrageous scheme that shuts out the rule of law, confers worrying powers on the Immigration Minister, unilaterally amends the Refugee Convention and trashes Australia's former reputation as a good international citizen. Its passage was achieved by Scott Morrison using refugee children as hostages, offering a trivial increase in the number of humanitarian refugees accepted by Australia and making minor changes while leaving most asylum seekers in limbo with temporary protection visas or so-called safe haven visas.

At the end of 2013 an estimated 52 million people around the world were displaced, representing the greatest disruption of peoples since World War II. Overall, 50 percent of these refugees are children.



In 2013, 100,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, mainly to Italy and about 2000 drowned. This year 140,000 people have crossed from North Africa to Italy and while drownings have continued, they have been ameliorated by the magnificent rescue work of the Italian navy. At least 3 million refugees have come from Syria and more from Iraq.

Many have witnessed or suffered atrocities including the targeting of women and children and their use as human shields.

Getting closer to us, there are over three million refugees in the South East Asian region, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan who are in Malaysia/ Indonesia. Some 500,000 Rohingya are refugees from Myanmar, mainly in Thailand and Bangladesh. The latter have come by boat and many have been ransomed or killed in smuggler camps. Some have made it to Malaysia and Indonesia and a few to Christmas Island, where we continue their persecution.

Our government claims to save lives while the fact is that its policies and those of its predecessors created the situation where many other lives have been lost or damaged. The more successful we are in stopping boats and allegedly saving lives, increased numbers remain living in appalling conditions in countries where they are extremely vulnerable to disease and death or are killed attempting to escape to other places. Their conditions are bad because they are not able to work and cannot legally support themselves. They have no legal or political rights and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

If our government was to significantly increase its humanitarian intake and negotiate a regional solution with countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, there would be little need to stop the boats.

Since the Gillard Government's attempted Malaysian solution nothing has been done to achieve a regional solution. Our government treats Asian countries with arrogance as is evidenced by Morrison's recent announcement preventing further refugee applications from Indonesia. They also want solutions but to achieve them expect us to give as well as take. We must indicate a willingness to greatly increase our humanitarian intake and work with them towards compassionate and real solutions rather than attempting to fence off Australia.

The dreadful conditions in our overseas detention centres would not be tolerated in a prison in any civilised country and this is made worse in that children, some unaccompanied, are held there as well.

There are some myths about asylum seekers. Contrary to popular belief they represent a minor percentage of Australia's overall humanitarian intake of migrants.

There is no queue to jump and never has been. Applications to UNHCR are not dealt with in the order in which they are received but applications are assessed upon the basis of the urgency of need. In fact 1.1 million people have made these applications to UNHCR in South East Asia and it will probably take two generations before these applications are assessed and longer to be successful. Most asylum seekers come from countries where it is impossible to make an application in any event.

There are few economic migrants. The fact that people risk their lives and those of their children in dangerous boats on the open ocean is a mark of their desperation rather than their wealth. They are generally the poorest of the poor escaping terrifying situations.

No horde will descend upon Australia if our policy is relaxed. Most people want to remain close to their home country, hoping to return and any increase could easily be controlled. The reason why people resort to boats is because there is no other reasonable hope left to them.

The fact that many arrive without papers is no surprise. Under many regimes an application for travel documents would be suicidal.

Australia's position is despicable. No other country behaves as we do. We discriminate on the basis of their mode of arrival and target the poorest and most desperate.

We ignore important principles of international law and breach treaties we have ratified. We treat guiltless asylum seekers with cruelty that would be unacceptable if applied to criminals. We abuse children by depriving them of freedom, education and health care and frequently separate them from parents and relatives.

We hold them in secrecy, politicians incite prejudice against them, we send them to client states like Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia and wash our hands of them.

It is time for all Australians to recognise that we are a wealthy country that is not pulling its weight in dealing with a global problem. Otherwise our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers will be a further dark stain upon our history.

Alastair Nicholson is a former chief justice of the Family Court, a University of Melbourne law professor and chairman of Children's Rights International.