Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A brief note on Australia’s refugee policy

This post responds to discussion around two previous posts in particular, Response to the Syrian refugee crisis - Australia v Canada and Saturday Morning Musings - Australia's refugee mess. In that discussion, I was challenged to propose explicit policy changes to refugee policy that would not result in a resumption of the 23,000 annual arrivals (of boat people) recorded just before Mr Abbott's policy. I said that I though that that was not difficult and sketched some changes that I thought might be made. It was just a sketch and was challenged. This post extends the argument.

Statement of Problem

The Government has been successful in stopping the boats but this has come with costs.

Our international reputation has been damaged. We may or may not have breached UN conventions and our treaty obligations, but at the very least we have lost moral authority. I for one find it discomforting when Australia is quoted as a role model by European parties of the far right. We have also done some damage to our relations with our neighbours and especially Indonesia.

The policy and the rhetoric around the policy has fed into domestic division within Australia, encouraging the rise of groups with more extreme views.

The policy has cost and continues to cost large sums of money at a time of budget constraint. There has been a running sore of complaints and apparent cases of mistreatment and injustice, not aided by a lack of transparency. 

From a simple risk management perspective, the current refugee policy is structured in such a way that there are certain to be a stream of further cases of apparent injustice and unfairness, while the camps know frequently called Australia’s gulags will have to be maintained for the indefinite future. In all, we have an expensive mess.

I accept that these are judgements that can be challenged. However, on risk management grounds alone, consideration needs to be given to changes that may reduce risk.

Practically, the room for movement is limited. The Government is locked in, while there is apparent bipartisan support for tough policies. Refugee advocates outside the tent may campaign, but in the short term at least their efforts will have little effect. I say in the short term because Australian history suggests that that those advocating policies that come later to be seen as inhumane suffer tarnish as a consequence.

Proposed Changes

The changes that I am about to propose will satisfy few. They are set within a context of current policy. The Government will not like them, nor will refugee advocates who will see them as cosmetic. However, they are the best that I can come up with.

The first step is a reshaping of the rhetoric to shift the focus from stop the boats to refugees and Australia’s humanitarian role in this regard. Tough border protection remains, but it becomes a secondary element, part of a package. To be credible, this shift in language will probably need to be associated with an increase in the overall refugee quota. We are just so tarnished now.

The second step is the removal of the present restriction on those in the camps being offered settlement in Australia. This may or may not have made sense at the time stop the boats was introduced, but it’s starting to have some very perverse effects.

A case in point is the inability of the Australian Government to accept a New Zealand resettlement offer because those resettled might then be able to come to Australia at some point in the future and thus breach the rule. Instead, we are being forced into silly and expensive options such as Cambodia as a way of trying to resettle those classified as refugees.

Relaxing the Australian settlement rule does not mean providing preference to those who came by boat as actually happened before. Rather, it means treating someone on Manus in the same way as a refugee in Malaysia or one in a Syrian refugee camp, applying the same criteria within the overall refugee quota.

The third step is the introduction of greater transparency in the whole process, including the camps themselves. I am not talking about greater transparency for Border Force, although that may well be desirable. My focus is on the camps and the refugee process.

The absence of transparency breeds suspicion and aids injustice. My feeling is that the process requires an independent monitoring body. The Government’s problem is that few actually believe it any more. I am not talking here about the refugee partisans, just the ordinary citizen like myself with an interest in the matter. There have been so many inconsistencies, so many concealments, that I just don’t trust the Government any more.

The fourth and final step in my proposals is a shift in focus from policing to people assistance. I struggle a little to define this properly. I keep seeing anecdotal evidence that suggests that instead of really assisting people to resettle, we are actually making it harder. Putting it as crudely as I can, we take people who are already traumatised, subject them to further trauma, give them limited assistance and then expect them to settle into Australia or another country. That just builds in future costs. 


Anonymous said...

greater transparency in the whole process, including the camps themselves. I am not talking about greater transparency for Border Force, although that may well be desirable. My focus is on the camps and the refugee process

Is it ok to introduce some facts? Or does that risk clouding the issues?

Immigration and Border Protection produce monthly stats on (just about everything, but here) detainees:

See P4 of the Jan 31, 2016 PDF - totals onshore 31,000 incl. 4,300 children; totals for Nauru and Manus 1400 incl. 54 children. While 'onshore' does include Christmas Island, you will see that the great majority of present detainees are either community housed, or in capital cities detention centres.

What particular 'Lack of transparency' are we talking about?

Also, 'baby Asha' is Nepalese.


2 tanners said...

My problem with your proposals is that they have no support inside the Government, the opposition or the agents of execution, Defence and Border Force. Softening or movement of language will immediately open a party up to attack from the other, and a change in focus threatens the budgets of the two agencies. Having met many of the staff of Border Force, I think their personal attitudes are pretty hardline as well. No cooperation there.

I think yours is a plan to get out of an unwelcome situation that an unwilling Government might have found itself trapped in, but too many sitting MPs on both sides have contributed to the situation to back down now. Even at a cost of billions of dollars.

You may as well suggest a bold new initiative, rather than a subtle undermining. It has the same zero chance of success. kvd, this is not a case of hand wringing, but of head shaking atthe sight of a Government (including main Opposition) that has put itself in a no-win situation and has pandered to or manipulated public opinion to make sure it's locked there.

Side note: Jim, I've finally decided that 'Boarder Force' is not an ironic spelling on your part, but a persistent typo.

2 tanners said...

kvd, my comment crossed with yours. I'd like to see the cost of operations fully publicised, including Defence supplementation. I'd like to see on-water operations fully explained including whether or not Australia is paying people smugglers, and if so, how much? I'd like to see summary medical reports from the camps. Obviously the Human Rights Commissioner's report is inaccurate since it was castigated by the then Prime Minister as a political exercise, so perhaps a report on camp conditions from an independent international body instead. There is in fact quite a lot I'd like to see, that is not being made public.

Anonymous said...

tanners, I hope you realise in all this that to some extent I am attempting to play Devil's Advocate here? - hoping that you, or Jim, might come up with some concrete proposals which we could support. I do share your (both of your) concerns; but that is not to say I would support proposals which would encourage a recommencement of the out of control situation we were in at the end of Labor's last government.

Jim's proposals are now 4; they were (back when he suggested it was 'not complicated') five - so I assume it is even less complicated than he then thought :)

However, he has yet to supply his estimation of what he meant by "a decent refugee quota". How is it possible to evaluate the remainder of his proposals without that? Of his now four heads of discussion, I disagree with #2 'relaxing resettlement rule' mainly because that seems to put us back where this began, without a clear understanding as why this time might result in a different outcome.

Your above requests for more transparency (@ 11.53) might be answered thus:

'Cost of operations': they should be available via departmental budgets, and Defense supplementation likewise, but even if not.... Question: is 'cost' per se a decisive factor?

'Onwater operations', incl 'paying smugglers': assume the worst case for both - i.e. our border force is required to commit what basically amounts to piracy on the high seas, and are also actually paying boat captains to turn away. Questions: what specific alternative/s do you propose? what has the specific cost got to do with it?

Camp medical reports and conditions: assume the worst, because that will probably be more accurate than what we are now being fed. Question (about which I have absolutely no facts): do you believe it is the staff who are causing the majority of such worst-case problems, or the detainees themselves, or the overcrowding and lack of information as to the future? Who benefits from such further publicity?

I assume your comment re the HRC reporting is ironic. I also assume such reporting is pretty accurate. Let's go from there - but 'to where'? remains the question.


ps to tanners: this is not a simple or clear cut in my mind as the current impasse between Australia and Timor Leste re our common border. In that case, I think our actions are shameful and should be resolved as soon as possible, complete with restitution and apology.

2 tanners said...

The cancellation of budgetary "blue books" in Mr Abbott's first budget means that the cost of Defence and Border Control operations cannot be linked to individual programs. However, Sovereign Borders is an operation, so all of its costs are a supplement to the original Defence budget.

The cost is important because it might turn out that it would be cheaper to give refugee a ticket to any country (like Thailand) that accepted economic migrants, along with a cheque for $300,000. It might even be consistent with our human rights and refugee conventions, I don't know.

As I said before, I didn't have a problem with the number of migrants coming. If they are not diseased or known criminals. Let them work. Pay for themselves, and for the ageing Australia.

I don't know have a solid opinion re guards v inmates. The one piece of evidence I have is that the Government has clamped down on reporting (not a proof of guilt) while Dutton's recent unmistakeable implication that 'Asha's' mother deliberately scalded her flew in the face of a medical report already in his possession. There's definitely an attempt to demonise going on.

On the HRC, sorry, that irony was rather heavy handed. Where to? Well, how about starting with the recommendations of the report?

Because of my starting position, it's a lot easier for me than Timor Gap, upon which I keep myself carefully uninformed. My only desire there is that an agreement be reached, soon, so that the fields can be exploited and funds flow to Timor.

Jim Belshaw said...

Useful contributions.

kvd, in my first list I outlined general principles including areas where, arguably, no change was required. This post focused on changes. Turning now to comments.

Dealing first with statistics.

I struggled to understand the meaning of the statistics in the link you supplied. Just focusing in the January statistical report -

My focus was on refugees and refugee policy. The statistics apply to all those in immigration detention. Interestingly, following the recent rule changes, New Zealanders are now the second biggest national group in detention. Further, of those arriving “illegally” and who are now held in detention, boat people - illegal maritime arrivals - totalled 800. By contrast, there were 924 people (about 51 per cent of the total in detention) who arrived in Australia lawfully and were subsequently taken into immigration detention and had visa cancellations for either over staying or breaching their visa conditions.

As at 31 January, there were 1,807 people in detention on Christmas Island or the mainland. A further 1,400 were in the camps on Nauru or Manus. There is a statistical discrepancy here. My feeling is that the 800 boat people exclude those held on Nauru or Manus, but I just don’t know.

At 31 January, 28,705 were living in the community after grant of a Bridging Visa E. I quote - “A Bridging visa E (BVE) is a temporary visa that allows you to stay in Australia while you finalise your immigration matter or make arrangements to leave Australia”. So some of the previous boat people before the rules were changed are included in this group.

I’m not sure what conclusions I draw from this. My feeling is that we have a bigger and broader mess than I realised. But, for the present, just thinking.

Anonymous said...

in my first list I outlined general principles including areas where, arguably, no change was required. This post focused on changes

Your first list (general principles):

1. a decent refugee quota, desirably larger than now.
2. set criteria for erfugee selection from around the world.
3. refugees coming by any means are processed on/at Christmas Island, Nauru or Manus
4. genuine refugees are eligible for resettlement in Australia within the global quota and subject to the global selection criteria, For those who cannot immediately gain entry to Australia, Australia will work to find a place for them. Meantime, they can stay in the refugee centres
5. economic refugees will be returned to country of origin unless they meet the general Australian migration criteria.

Your now list (proposed changes):

1 reshape rhetoric - emphasise humanitarian aims not stop boats
2 (conditionally) allow those in camps to resettle in Aus
3 greater transparency
4 shift focus from policing to assistance

Please correct me if my cut down edits change the essence of any point; also please accept that I'm not really au fait with current 'code words' of policy discussion. But with those caveats:

a) your 1 and 4 seem restatements of essentially the same thing?
b) your 3 is a 'motherhood'; and also, (yet another) independent overseeing body? The landscape is littered with such bodies afaics.
c) your 2 is what generated all this community angst in the first place. See "we will decide who comes here" and "queue jumping" as examples.

Would appreciate your assistance if I am wrongly interpreting any point.


Anonymous said...

tanners, somewhere you suggested Australia withdraw from international treaties if we don't wholly abide by them. "Be honest", I think you said.

Maybe it would help all our understanding if those treaties were always read with "provided always that it is in our national interest to comply" appended to each and every one?

Just a thought; might help with that bitter taste, which I mostly share.


Jim Belshaw said...

Do you know, kvd, I don't want to play anymore!

My analysis focused on refugees and refugee policy. The discussion including those stats has convinced me that Australia does not have a refugee policy. We only have a border (a not inserted 2t) control policy. Within that policy, one class - "illegal maritime arrivals" is treated differently. That difference lies at the heart of current debate.

Since we no longer have a refugee policy, there is not much point in discussing it in those terms. Instead, we need to focus on the border control policy. Here the differential treatment of boat people is creating major policy distortions and has set up a mess that is unsustainable in the longer term. I am happy to discuss this.

Anonymous said...

Accept what you say Jim. But if we ever do revisit this topic I'd like to set down my own thoughts - which I hope will remain my starting point, subject to others' views of any errors they see in what briefly follows:

1. There are migrants, refugees, and a subset of the latter referred to by many names - but I will use 'unauthorised arrivals'.
2. Immigration has served us very well for all of our existence as a nation.
3. Our public service has served us exceedingly well in pursuing the policies of the day of any of our governments.
4. Immigration is largely bi-partisan with the only policy differences being a) the numbers at any one period, and b) the 'mix' of the arrivals (for example skills or family).
5. Debate on such differences was marginal in the area of political point-scoring. Australia was well served and satisfied (exception being removal of 'white Australia' policy) with the results.
6. I don't think anyone wishes much change to either migrant or refugee policy; it is just the 'subset' mentioned in 1. which is at issue.
7. That subset has two components: genuine refugees and economic refugees.
8. I believe that the genuine among them should be processed exactly as the wider refugee intake has been handled. I don't hold it against them that they arrived here 'unauthorised'.
9. Point 8 runs the huge risk of restarting the mass boat arrivals which we saw. I have no answer for this.
10. I think the 'economic refugees' should be returned home; they are free to apply through our normal migration process. It would seem that 'baby Asha' and her family are in this category - but I will stand corrected.
11. I think, having for now reduced the sheer number of 'unauthorised arrivals', we should concentrate our efforts on speeding up the resolution process. I have no idea why someone can sit in a camp for years waiting on a decision?
12. Politics: re the subset is now largely bi-partisan, with both major parties flipping around over the years, but now seemingly speaking as one.
13.The Greens are the only party who have remained resolute. It is easy to claim the moral heights when you will never be tested as the governing party.
14. Lastly, I think there has been a significant 'bleeding' of our policy approach in the area of control of visa overstays, criminals, etc. whereby what used to be handled within our bipartisan immigration and refugee apparatus is now being moved into our response to said 'unauthorised arrivals'. I think this is wrong.

Thanks Jim. 'ave a good one!


Jim Belshaw said...

I wasn't in any way cranky with you kvd, dissatisfied with myself.It's not often I conclude that my baisc policy settings have been mispecified.Will try to explain later