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Refugees: the nexus between power and responsibility

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 19 December 2011

The shambolic and inhumane nature of Australia's refugee policy has again been underlined, this time with more foreseeable drowning deaths as desperate foreigners attempt to make the precarious boat trip to our opulent shores.

It is time for the government to put lives above politics and finally implement an orderly and humane solution to the refugee crises. Refugee policy standards apart from all other immigration practice because it is about what we can do for desperate foreigners, as opposed to how immigrants can enhance our nation. Accepting refugees should be celebrated as the ultimate expression of our collective national compassion.

Perversely, the debate on refugees has sunk to the appalling level of who is responsible for the current surge of boat numbers, which have seen about 2,000 arrivals in the three months since the High Court put an end to the Malaysia solution and the increasing number of deaths that continue to occur as asylum seekers target Australia. That this is the focus of our refugee policy is a sign of a warped politic. Yet there is an answer.


But first to douse the petty debate about responsibility for the current shambolic and tragic situation. Responsibility derives from power and requires an analysis of the relevant causal process. Julia Gillard is the most powerful person in the country. She has the power and authority to pass any law she desires, subject to the constitutional limits. Her failure to get the Greens backing for the Malaysia legislation displays an intellectual and strategic shortcoming on her behalf. Quite simply, she lacked the persuasive skills to convince Bob Brown to sign up to her project. For this she is accountable.

Moreover, her stated goal of the Malaysia legislation is to break the back of the people smuggling business and stop boats coming to our shore. But whichever way you cut and dice it, the incontestable fact is that when Labor got into power in 2007, there were virtually no boats coming to Australia.

From 2002 to 2006 a total of only 140 people arrived by boat. Last year there were about 7,000. When Gillard got into power, the people smugglers were already crushed. It was the abolition of the Howard/Ruddock refugee laws that introduced a new career path for people smugglers.

If Gillard was genuinely committed to preventing boats coming to our shores she could have reverted back to the tried and proven laws (which included temporary visas and Naru processing). She didn't. That's because she could not personally bare the humiliation of parroting the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott. She placed personal pride above the national interest.

Thus, Gillard caused the problem, she had the capacity to fix it, she didn't. Any political responsibility for unintended but foreseeable consequences from the failure of the Malaysia legislation falls on the government, and the government alone.

The current situation is more broken than most people realise. It is not only damaging the nation's psyche but also our economy, to the point where soon it will blow a bigger unexpected hole in the budget than cyclone Yasi. Each boat arrival costs the Australian taxpayer about $100,000 in processing and detention costs.


This year the cost of processing asylum seekers was over $1 billion. This was expected to reduce each year for the next three years, to about $370 million in 2014 due to the expected reduction in boat arrivals. The opposite will now happen. Boat arrivals will continue to surge and it now seems that over the next three years the government will have under-budgeted on the refugee front by at least $1 billion annually.

To salvage the wreck that is refugee processing, the government needs to step back for a moment and design an orderly, cost effective policy and humane policy based on the overarching objectives of refugee law and policy.

The solution is this: The first 13,750 people (Australia's entire annual refugee intake) from famine ravaged Somalia who are cleared of having a serious infectious disease should be a put on a plane and settled in Australia. In the destitution stakes they are the most desperate people on earth. If we don't accept them into Australia many of them will die. On a scale of need, theirs could not be higher.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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