Our refugee policy continues to be in permanent crisis. Not that long ago minister Bowen announced that he will start placing boat people in the community on bridging visas to ease Australia's overcrowded detention centres. Although we are yet to see how the new policy will work, the decision was welcomed by human rights advocates, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pollay. More recently it was reported that Labor is prepared to accept asylum-seekers to Nauru as part of a deal with the coalition to legislate its Malaysia Solution and reinstate offshore processing.
Both decisions, however, are likely to be only short term stop gap measures temporarily easing stress in the overcrowded immigration detention centres and inflow of asylum seekers by boats. In my view the measures would buy the government only a very limited time as they do not address the long term structural pull-in factors.
Let us start with people released from immigration detention on bridging visas. Looking back at the inherent inability of immigration authorities to process refugee visas in decent timeframes, we can confidently predict that many people released from detention will have to endure a long wait before their status is finally determined. The membership of the Refugee Review Tribunal is yet to be rapidly increased if it is to be able to handle this additional workload. Most likely the people on bridging visas will simply become forgotten people in the long immigration queue. I can easily imagine people waiting 3, 5 or maybe even 10 years to gain permanent residency.
This means that they will have to wait that long for family reunion and access to many services including Medicare, Centrelink, public housing, tertiary education and so on. This will result in cost shifting to the states (mainly NSW and Victoria where the majority will settle), additional competition for cheap accommodation and growth in poverty and associated crime. Just imagine how many human rights violations and complaints this could generate.
In addition, the winding back of mandatory detention will certainly create a pull factor for refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other places. For example, on the 2nd December The Australian reported the arrival of two boats – one carrying 103 people, the other 110. The previous month, a total of 892 people arrived on 11 boats, representing an increase of around 300% in comparison with earlier months. If this trend continues, boat arrivals for 2012 will be well over 10,000. The recent announcement that Australia will increase its refugee quota from some 13,000 to 20,000 people per annum suggests our government knows numbers will rise. The increased boat people arrivals almost certainly will result in hundreds or thousands of people drowning on the way to Australia. And this statement is not alarmist – this will happen. And the right to life is one of the most basic human rights of all.
The reopening of Nauru and reintroduction of offshore processing will put again Australia's human rights record at risk, but is unlikely to stop boats departing Indonesia as by now everyone knows that the vast majority of past "guests" of Nauru and Manus Island ended up in Australia. To be effective and humanitarian, any future immigration control system must include two new elements: first, it must establish a legitimate and transparent queue for processing of refugee claims in our region and second, the ability to return failed asylum seekers.
The proposed refugee processing framework must be based on the Refugee Convention and involve all the refugee transit countries of Asia Pacific Region (in particular Indonesia and Malaysia), as well as the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. Its key principle should be ensuring the refugee intake is shared evenly across the whole region, rather than the system of buck passing and blame we currently operate under.
Australia is in a good position to provide the leadership and initial investment to get a new framework started. For example, we could propose to Indonesia that, in exchange for Indonesia signing the Refugee Convention and establishing a UNHCR compliant refugee processing system, Australia will help clean up the refugee bottleneck in Indonesia. For example, over the next two years we could accept 30-40,000 UNHCR determined refugees who are awaiting resettlement in Indonesia. The precedent for such a surge was established by the former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's decision to admit over 80,000 Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
And what would Australia receive in return? For starters, a regional cooperation framework, if skilfully established and implemented, would help prevent most of the boats departing Indonesia for Australia by establishing a queue for the orderly processing of refugees in the region. In addition, even if people take boats to Australia and destroy their documents, their identity would be easily available to our immigration officials, as asylum seekers who arrive in Indonesia by air go through identity checks on their arrival.
Following the creation of a regional framework for refugees, there should be consequences for people who choose not to join the queue in Indonesia. Any asylum seekers who arrive on boat without proper travel documents should not be given a right to permanent residency – instead they may be offered Temporary Protection Visas only if they are found to be genuine refugees.
Finally, the new system must be based on the principle that people who do not secure refugee status will be removed from the country. At present, many refugees cannot be simply returned home, as they have destroyed their identification documents. Often our officials, without the cooperation of asylum seekers or the countries they transited, are not able to establish their country of origin, meaning they are unable to provide them with the documentary evidence they need to be readmitted. We must create a system that allows us to remove people who are not found to be refugees quickly and efficiently.
The system based on the above principles should deliver much better protection of refugee rights and remove key initiatives for jumping on a leaky boat to Australia. It is also likely to improve Australia's international standing in the region.