'No Advantage': Australia takes a humanitarian step backwards

This article was originally written for the International Political Forum, read the article here.

The Federal Government of Australia has announced changes to its policies that will see Australia take a huge leap backwards in the humanity of its processing of refugees and asylum seekers.

Allow me a moment here for honest disbelief and disappointment in the handling of this unnecessarily controversial issue.

The Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced that asylum seekers that arrive by boat will no longer be detained in Nauru or Manus (PNG) as the the offshore processing facilities have reached their capacity.  Instead, they will be allocated "temporary bridging visas", meaning they will be allowed to live outside detention centers without the right to work or bring their families to Australia.  The bridging visas will allow for welfare and assistance of up to 89% of unemployment benefits ($270) a week, a sum below the Australian poverty line.  [More after the jump]

The policy is eerily similar to the Howard era's draconian Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) but manages to make matters worse.

Individuals under TPVs were allowed to work and contribute to the community, thus culturally preparing them for the eventual transition to full Australian citizens once their processing was complete.

The policy, quite frankly, is a recipe for disaster.  Introducing potentially thousands of asylum seekers into a community, living in poverty and with no legal way to earn money or improve their standard of living is not only inhumane, it is short sighted and irresponsible.  Charities will be overwhelmed by the demand on their resources, communities can turn into ghettos and by disenfranchising and isolating truly vulnerable individuals, the policy has the potential to become the birthplace of a new underclass.

Asylum seekers and refugees are often eager to work, diligent and dedicated to beginning a new life.  Stripped of their opportunity to do so, where will they turn? How will they properly adapt to their new culture?  Looking internally, why would the community accept them if they don't see them contributing to the community?

There is no doubt that this is a difficult and complex issue with no easy solution.  However, the solution cannot lay in essentially reinvigorating a decade old policy, in flaunting international law and creating inevitable problems for the future of Australia's social fabric.

Michelle Grattan made the following comment, challenging people to come up with better options.

It is easy to find holes in what the government has done this week. But it's another matter to say what policy adjustment would best meet the three criteria of humanity, effectiveness and community acceptability.

I tend to disagree.  Australians (perhaps reluctantly) elected this government to lead the nation, not pander to every whim, ensuring every solution is "acceptable to the community" before it is implemented.  It is their job as leaders and governors of the nation to provide solutions that are in the best interests of the country and its citizens, not simply in the interests of providing short term solutions that may work up until the election date.

Unfortunately however, this isn't how the system seems to work.

The public discussion on this issue has been clouded with political agendas, biased language, emotional manipulation and pure exploitation of fear of the unknown from both sides of the house.  Unfortunately, it seems our very humanity as a responsible nation has been caught in the crossfire.  There is very little public understanding of what will 'stop the boats' - advertisements such as the below are incredibly ineffective.  Where is a potential asylum seeker going to access a computer and the Internet in order to even view the video?  In two months it has had a total of 8.927 views...I think that speaks for itself.

Caption provided: "We're working regionally to stop people smugglers. There's no advantage taking a boat when it's safer, cheaper and just as quick to use orderly migration options." They have got to be kidding. (via)

It is no wonder that Australia is developing a reputation as 'extremely harsh'.

In a time where the nation is attempting to build its reputation in the region and globally through initiatives such as the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper and the seat on the Security Council, this is an embarrassment.  Neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia, who deal with much larger numbers, are hardly likely to be impressed - or understanding.

The unfortunate result is that this issue has become unnecessarily politicised and used as a manipulator of the public sentiment by both parties.  Simplistic statements such as "stop the boats" dehumanise individuals and create a political football that completely distorts the true nature of the discussion. 'The conversation has been poisoned' suggests Professor Burnside, and that poison is what feeds the inexorable decent in this debate.

Almost everything that has happened in refugee policy over the past 11 years has been informed and supported by dishonest rhetoric. Specifically, calling boat people “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” is not only false, it is calculated to prejudice the public against a tiny group of weak, vulnerable people who deserve our help, not our hatred. (via)

In the grand scheme of things, these traumatised men, women and children are less than 10% of our annual migration intake and are just looking for a new, peaceful place to call home.

I doubt that they expected that when they eventually arrived in Australia they would be treated worse than our criminals.

Budget implications should be enough to convince your average Australian that there is a better solution.  Detention onshore costs around $150, 000 per person, per year and offshore costs about $500, 000 per person, per year.  Surely, there are better options.

For a fantastic article that looks at a possible alternative, check out Professor Julian Burnside's thoughts.  There are many other humane solutions out there

Lastly, for those who claim that these initiatives stop the boat, Professor James Hathaway (an expert on international refugee law) states:

The whole people-smuggling problem is a false issue. We created the market for human smuggling. If asylum seekers could lawfully come to Australia and make a refugee claim without the need of sneaking in by boat, they would do it.  But we make it illegal and create the market that smugglers thrive on.

We are extremely lucky to live in Australia and call this land home.  Is it too much to show some humanity and share?