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We need a real solution for asylum seekers: an Australian solution

By Andrew Hewett - posted Monday, 19 September 2011

Australia stands at a critical juncture in relation to our asylum seeker policy, as we await the next steps that the Coalition and Government take in this fraught arena. 

As the Labor Caucus meets tomorrow to deliberate its next steps, it needs to recall its own words and the lessons from our past. There is a great deal at stake for all concerned. For asylum seekers, for politicians, for Australia’s international reputation, for our U.N. Security Council bid, for international refugee protection, and for the rule of law.

That the High Court judgment relating to the ‘Malaysia Solution’ appears to rule out offshore processing of asylum seekers’ claims means that the choices for our political leaders are stark.


The option chosen by the Government last week, despite serious internal party reservations, was to seek the support of the Opposition to circumvent the authority of the High Court. This has involved pursuing amendments to domestic legislation that vest extraordinary powers in the Minister for Immigration, and appear to not only weaken, but also rather dispense with human rights safeguards for asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children. The amendments specify that natural justice does not apply and are clearly designed to mitigate the prospects of legal challenges being mounted. 

If passed, the amendments would provide for the Minister to conclude and declare that it was in the public interest for Australia to send asylum seekers to any willing country in the world. To Malaysia, to Nauru, to Somalia, to Afghanistan. They could take us to scenarios never previously envisaged or experienced.

As demonstrated in a report released by Oxfam and A Just Australia in 2007, the Pacific Solution wrought devastating harm on both adult and child asylum seekers, cost more than a billion dollars, significantly distorted our aid budget and tarnished our international reputation. As noted by Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, the Pacific Solution did not break the people smuggling business but rather the will and spirit of asylum seekers, almost all of who were ultimately resettled in Australia.

The other available option would be to chart a different but also familiar course that honors the rule of law and engages humanely and maturely with the complex regional challenges of forced displacement. This would involve processing the claims of asylum seekers here in Australia, as we have done for many years under successive governments.

Australia’s long-standing and human rights obligations, which we entered into voluntarily, must form the foundation for our thinking about asylum seeker policy.

They are sound and time-honoured commitments, which serve our national interests as well as those of humanity as a whole.


In addition to honouring our laws, values and obligations, our public policy must reflect a considered understanding of the problem to be addressed, and measure the strengths and failures of previous approaches.

No one wants to see vulnerable asylum seekers, especially unaccompanied children, risking their lives and safety by embarking on hazardous sea journeys in an effort to reach Australia. But of course these desperate measures, sometimes associated with tragic loss of lives, are a symptom of a far more complex and far-reaching problem that must be addressed.

Vulnerable displaced people have extremely limited access to lasting safety anywhere else within our region. It is important to remember that asylum seekers who reach Australia’s territory by boat are overwhelmingly found to be refugees. Without prospects for a fair assessment of their claims and lasting safety elsewhere, they are in genuine need of our help.

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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