The politics surrounding what to do with 83 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, rescued by an Australian naval vessel in international waters recently, is depressingly familiar. The Howard Government plays hardball with the lives of vulnerable people, and the ALP is determined not to put its head above the parapet and stand up for a more principled approach.
Labor's spokesperson on immigration, Tony Burke, has now had a week to put some blue sky between his party and the coalition on policy towards asylum-seekers and refugees.
In fact, Labor's policy on asylum-seeker processing is something it should be proud to highlight, given that it abolishes detention for children and family groups, and limits detention to 90 days in most cases.
But instead, Labor's focus on this matter has been that it is a people-smuggling problem, which is a bit like expressing concern that a patient arrived at casualty in an unregistered car. This detracts attention from the real issues, which are (a) refoulement returning people to a place where they may face persecution, (b) that there is still no process for dealing with asylum claims swiftly and fairly, without a political crisis each time a boat arrives and (c), that we must destroy the myth that asylum-seekers and refugees are a threat to border security.
Burke rightly insists the asylum-seekers' claims should be determined before a decision is made on whether they should be deported. But what Burke and his colleagues need to do is to go further and argue that Australia needs to take a more realistic and humane approach to asylum-seekers and refugees.
In short, while Labor is today challenging the Howard Government by taking a morally robust stand on world issues like global warming and Iraq, it needs to have a principled position on the other great challenge: people movement and the need to respect the principles of international refugee conventions and laws.
There are a number of aspects to such a position.
First, Labor's policy must be informed always by the underlying principle of not returning people to places where they are likely to face persecution. This would mean Labor in government would refuse to compromise with countries from which people flee, or deal with other countries which are likely to send asylum-seekers back to their homeland.
Second, Labor should move asylum-seeker policy on to higher moral ground. It ought not to be spooked by suggestions that if it is seen to be compassionate towards asylum-seekers the Howard Government will attack it for being "soft on border security".
In this regard, Labor should be telling the Australian community that it is inevitable that there will from time to time, be boatloads of people approaching our vast coastline, who are seeking asylum. This is a consequence of the fact that there are anywhere between 15 million and 20 million displaced persons on the planet at any given moment, and a tiny fraction of them are seeking to find new lives in a prosperous developed country like Australia.
Labor might also like to point out that a few thousand asylum-seekers arriving in Australia on leaky boats, after journeying through treacherous waters, does not represent a threat to our border security. Without the political histrionics, we should be able to develop a system which separates genuine refugees from those who are just seeking a better life in a stronger economy; protect the former, return the latter, and not let both languish in detention for years.
When it comes to processing the claims of asylum-seekers, Labor has a real opportunity to inject fairness and compassion back into the system. It should be prepared to restore the rights, stripped away mercilessly by the Howard Government over the past decade, of asylum-seekers to have decisions made by bureaucrats held to account in a rapid system of competent and fair review on the merits and the law.
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