Aussies-in-a-Tizz, I: “Finger in the dyke can hold only so long”

Cameron Stewart, in The Australian, 18 August 2012

 A crowded asylum-seeker boat arrives at Christmas Island last month. The desire to stop the relentless flow of boats has elevated pragmatism over principle, utility over law and head over hearts. Picture: Stephen Cooper Source: The Australian .. note the name = Ineshgey Putha

THE initial euphoria in some quarters about a breakthrough in asylum-seeker policy is being tempered by the realisation that the grand plan unveiled this week by the Houston panel faces a series of potentially fatal obstacles.The devil in the detail is always less compelling than the grand vision, but it is the detail of the Houston plan that poses the greatest threat to its ambition of providing a historic circuit-breaker to the asylum-seeker crisis. The immediate risk to the plan – now enshrined as Labor policy – is that it was conceived as a complete package but only parts of it have any hope of being implemented in the short term.

While the new offshore asylum-seeker holding centres of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea will be reopened quickly to provide an instant deterrent to boat arrivals, the second key plank of the plan – the pursuit of a rejigged Malaysia Solution, along with greater regional co-operation on asylum-seekers – is only a diplomatic dream.

In the absence of any immediately achievable regional outcomes to help slow the flow of boats, the government faces a grave danger that Nauru and Manus will fail to provide anything more than a short-term deterrent in the coming months. Consider the maths. More than 7500 asylum-seekers have arrived by boat so far this year. Since the panel released its findings on Monday, more than 200 people have arrived on three boats.

What if asylum-seekers continue to arrive at the present rate of more than 1000 a month? The government of Nauru says it will accommodate only 1500 asylum-seekers when its facilities are restored, while Manus Island can accommodate only up to 600. If the boats keep coming at their present rate and the Gillard government follows through on its threat to send the new arrivals to Nauru and Manus, then both centres will be full by October’s end.

Once these islands are full, there will be no movement in their populations for years because the central aim of the proposals is to ensure that asylum-seekers languish in Nauru and Manus for as long as they would have in refugee centres in Southeast Asia.

Unless the government can quickly cobble together a revised Malaysia Solution and convince the Malaysian government and Tony Abbott’s Coalition to support it – both unlikely short-term prospects – it will run out of offshore options well before the end of this year. This would force the government – which has already been humbled by its wholesale political retreat on asylum-seekers – to resume the onshore processing of asylum-seekers.

The government would then have no choice but to consider a second wave of tougher measures to deter asylum-seekers, potentially including the re-establishment of Howard era temporary protection visas.

The government is acutely aware that this humiliating scenario could easily become reality. So is the Coalition, which is why it continued to argue this week that TPVs must be a part of any successful deterrent strategy.

The government’s only hope in the short term is that relocating people to Nauru and Manus will cause an instant slowdown in boat arrivals. It is ascenario that even the authors of the expert report, former defence chief Angus Houston, refugee expert Paris Aristotle and former diplomat Michael L’Estrange, do not believe likely. They have warned that the use of Nauru and Manus Island in isolation of other regional solutions is unlikely to provide sufficient deterrent to asylum-seekers.

With the boats still coming, the government knows that time is its enemy. This week it dispatched the military to Nauru before legislation was even passed to prepare for a tent city while more permanent accommodation is prepared.

It is equally anxious to spread word of its new policy to people-smugglers and their clients throughout the region. As part of the government’s propaganda blitz, a film crew is in Nauru to make a clip to warn asylum-seekers that they will languish on the island under the new policy.

But the people-smuggler industry is far more sophisticated, politically savvy and connected than it was a decade ago. The big-time smugglers will be watching events in Canberra carefully, probing every utterance by the Gillard government to assess whether its new position is politically tenable and whether it will be backed by actions. The government’s haste to reopen Nauru and Manus Island has already led it to make some diplomatic missteps.

On Wednesday the PNG government accused Julia Gillard of acting prematurely in announcing plans to start rebuilding the facility on Manus Island, warning that PNG did not want to be seen as “a little brother of Australia”. The PNG government is considered likely to demand compensation for reopening the facility. “The national government and the Manus provincial government will enter into discussions about what is required (compensation) before anything is agreed to,” PNG high commissioner to Australia Charles Lepani said.

Nauru has been more accommodating, but even its Foreign Minister, Kieren Keke, said this week his country wanted to impose limits on the length of time asylum-seekers could stay on Nauru. “If we look at past experience, when people were here for periods we felt were getting too long, we worked very closely with the Australian government and found a way around that and moved on,” Keke said.

But this time it may not be so easy to find a way around that issue. Under the Houston plan, the effectiveness of Nauru as a deterrent for asylum-seekers is dependent on it not offering them a faster route to Australia than would have been the case if they had waited for resettlement in Malaysia or Indonesia under established UNHCR procedures.

This has been the most contentious of the panel’s proposals, with refugee groups and the Greens warning that this could allow asylum-seekers to languish on Nauru and Manus for five or more years, creating debilitating mental scars on those trapped there.

The government has done little to ease such fears because to do so would undermine the central philosophy of the Houston report, that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat must not get favourable treatment over those who apply offshore.

There is devil in this detail also. When asked how long asylum-seekers might stay on Nauru and Manus, the government says it will rely on advice from the UNHCR about the waiting times for refugees in Asia who apply to come to Australia. But when UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle meets the government early next week, he will tell it that there is no accurate benchmark for waiting times in Asia.

“Resettlement is based on individual protection needs,” he says. “It is not a mathematical formula … it is not time spent in a queue.”For example, Towle says a single woman who is considered to be in immediate danger will gain much faster resettlement than a family that qualifies for refugee status but is in no immediate danger. Which would be the standard adopted for Nauru?

The reality is that the Australian government will struggle to outsource this sensitive decision to the UNHCR and will probably have to make its own call. But the political mood means any such judgment is likely to give priority to deterrence over legal or humanitarian concerns.

The Houston panel’s findings and Labor’s embrace of them have enshrined a national “lurch to the Right” on asylum-seeker policy, which prime minister Kevin Rudd promised in 2007 would never happen under Labor.

The desire to stop the relentless flow of boats has elevated pragmatism over principle, utility over law and head over hearts. As such, the Left of Australian politics – especially refugee groups and the Greens – has found itself increasingly isolated as the political mainstream moves to the right.

The direction of refugee policy will now be dictated between the two main parties, which are busy trying to outflank each other on the Right, rather than by the political Left, which has all but lost its power base on refugee policy.

Nothing illustrates this shift better than the call by the Houston panel for Australia to consider asylum-seeker deals with countries in the region that have not signed the UN Refugees Convention, and therefore are not bound by internationally accepted protection standards. This once would have been frowned upon, but in the present climate the panel has sought to deal with the region as it is, not how it should be.

“The fact is that the countries in our region with most refugees and asylum-seekers within their borders, or which are transit routes for them, are not parties to the Refugee Convention or its protocol,” the panel’s report says. “The challenge of regional co-operation is to find effective mechanisms for responding to the realities of asylum flows.”

Despite this, the hopes of the Houston panel for a stronger, more co-ordinated regional approach to slow the flow of asylum-seeker boats looms as the achilles heel of its plan. It assumes a level of co-ordination, political will and diplomatic dexterity that is alien to countries in the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to people-smuggling. The panel effectively admits this when it says in the report: “Going beyond principle to addressing how regional co-operation would work in practice is less travelled territory.”

The report’s proposed means of reviving the so-called Malaysia Solution – by pursuing it with greater safeguards for asylum-seekers in that country – appear to be a neat compromise. Yet there remain serious doubts as to whether Malaysia would accept such Australian meddling.

Only a day before the Houston plan was released, Malaysia’s high commissioner to Australia slammed the “widespread mis-characterisation” of his country in the debate over the people-swap plan. Salman Ahmad wrote to parliamentarians complaining about the accusations made about Malaysia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. “(Parliament’s) actions in bringing down and tarnishing the good name of another country is uncalled for,” he wrote.

The government will be hoping that its promised increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake will also help slow the flow of boats. The panel’s proposal to lift Australia’s overall humanitarian quota from 13,750 to 20,000 immediately is the only main plank of the report that has received the backing of all three main political parties.

This, coupled with a 4000 one-off boost in family reunion visas under the Special Humanitarian Program, is overdue and should theoretically give people less reason to jump on a boat. But it remains unclear to what extent this message will resonate with the thousands of people who have already waited for years in refugee camps to come to Australia.

It is too early to know how effective the Houston plan will be in the longer term, but we already know that large chunks of it are little more than a wish list.

The government can only hope that those parts that can be introduced immediately can slow the momentum of the boats for long enough to allow the bigger picture of the Houston plan to ripen. It’s a gamble of the highest order and the odds are not good. But this government, having comprehensively misread the asylum-seeker issue for the past five years, has little choice now but to roll the dice.

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