The plight of asylum seekers is what first piqued my interest in politics when I was a young teenager. I was eleven at the time of Tampa and Children Overboard. I did not watch the news or read the papers back then but enough of the Howard/Hanson rhetoric still filtered through to imbue me with the vague notion that asylum seekers – whatever they were – were a problem. When my father explained to me what an asylum seeker was, perhaps aged 12 or 13 I was floored. As a boy raised in the Catholic tradition it seemed to me that there was no ambiguity about it: if we were to act in accordance with the values of Christ, our saviour, than we must welcome asylum seekers and show them our generosity and good will.
Shortly after this my father, through his involvement with Saint Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of Mercy, began taking me along to Villawood detention centre where he would meet with refugees inside. The purpose of these visits was largely social, it was about providing some friendly companionship to the refugees and alerting them to the fact that they had supporters on the outside. I used to play chess with a man called Benem. Often our games would attract the attention of others and soon, instead of one-on-one, our chess games were fought between councils of four or five who would vigorously debate what our next move was.
It was during this visits that my affinity with refugees and asylum seekers was crystalized. As an idealistic young teenager everything about Villawood seemed wrong. These were good people and yet they were living in gaol. Gaol was a method of last resort for managing the behaviour of bad people, not for good people fleeing persecution. To this day I have no time for people who seek to demonize and vilify refugees and asylum seekers. The portrayal of them as threats to national security by John Howard and Tony Abbott was grotesque.
In subsequent years I became what is sometimes known as a “political junkie”. I developed passions for a wide range of issues: climate change, public education, reconciliation, the republic, same sex marriage, third world debt relief, the war in Iraq, you name it. But it was always asylum seekers first. The vilifying of the weakest and most vulnerable people on earth infuriated me. I supported the change of tone that Kevin Rudd brought with him in 2006, I supported his policy of abolishing offshore detention, temporary protection visas and detention debt. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted Bob Brown. I wanted a Prime Minister who would pledge to tear down the walls of Villawood Detention Centre just as Ronald Reagan had called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. To me the walls of Villawood symbolised something much more sinister than the Berlin Wall ever would.
Then Rudd abolished offshore detention and the boats started coming. And then Christmas Island started filling up. And then the boats started sinking. And so let slip the dogs of academic war. The Liberals produced academics claiming that the boats were coming because the Pacific Solution had been abolished. Labor produced their own academics claiming that push factors were what drove the increase in arrivals. I wanted the latter to be true. I was bellicose in my denunciations of anyone who claimed the former to be true.
Internally for the first time cracks of doubt begun to emerge. I reasoned that everyone I had heard speak about the need to “stop the boats” spoke of the national security risks they posed. Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Andrew Bolt etc, they were all maliciously vilifying the asylum seekers. I therefore would not trust their occasional comments about stopping deaths at sea. I believed they were motivated by a hostility towards migrants and a jingoistic pride in the ability to control one’s own borders. I believed they wanted to open up Nauru so they could punish the asylum seekers for whom they exhibited such naked contempt. Inevitably I would conclude that offshore processing was evil and that my initial instincts as a young teenager were correct.
Time pressed on. Some months the push factors (global number of asylum applications) would go up and some months they’d go down. But the boats kept coming and the boats kept sinking and the asylum seekers kept drowning. The academic war begun drawing to a close, fewer and fewer academics maintained the line that pull factors made negligible difference. Still I could not abide this conservative rhetoric that said the boats must be stopped because the boats were a threat. I grew quiet on the issue as I grew increasingly conflicted and uncomfortable.
It struck me that others who had so proudly aligned themselves with the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees did not seem to share my conflict. No amount of deaths at sea seemed so inhibit their moral certainty. How could this be? How could you be for the refugees and be for a suite of policies that may well be killing them? I did not, and never have, doubted the sincerity of their intentions but for some time now have been unable to share their moral certainty.
In 2013 Kevin Rudd implemented the only major reform of his second Premiership. No asylum seekers who arrived by sea would be resettled in Australia. If they were found to be genuine refugees they were to be resettled in Papua New Guinea. And then the boats slowing. And the boats stopped sinking. And the asylum seekers stopped drowning.
I am not so naïve as to think that because boats stopped travelling from Indonesia to Christmas Island that the problem is fixed. Many if not all of the asylum seekers would continue to lead lives in peril, if indeed they continued living. But, after years of soul searching, I now believe that the abolition of offshore detention and the promise of permanent resettlement in Australia to asylum seekers who arrive by boat, are policies that will harm more asylum seekers than it will aid. I desperately want to believe otherwise. I will eagerly listen to anyone who thinks they have evidence that suggests otherwise. But on the weight of evidence I have examined it is the only honest conclusion I can draw.
My affinity with the cause of aiding refugees remains. If we must detain refugees offshore and I so desperately hope we don’t but if we must than the standards in which they live must be higher than what they currently experience on Nauru and Manus Island. Nobody has ever explained why the government cannot keep Nauru and Manus open but drastically upgrade the facilities in which the asylum seekers live. And they should not be kept secret from the public and the press.
The fact that I now grudgingly concede some merit in offshore processing should not be taken to mean an unqualified support for the government’s policies. I consider it a disgrace bordering upon corruption that the only journalist which has been allowed to inspect the detention facilities is the belligerent hard right columnist and TV presenter Chris Kenny. The extortionate price of a press pass with no guarantee of success is contemptible and every minister who accepted collective cabinet responsibility for the policy is likewise worth of contempt.
And of course, the catchcry of Labor ever since the failed attempt at the Malaysia Solution is absolutely true. The best thing we can do by refugees and asylum seekers is to increase the humanitarian intake. At present it’s not nearly enough. The Greens nominate a figure of 30,000 per year as an appropriate number, I’m more than happy to adopt that as my own.
There are those who would read this and say that despite all I have just said, the suffering caused by offshore detention is still too great. And I would respect that. But I would ask them what they would propose be done to stop the drownings at sea. If they have nothing to say on this matter they have nothing of any worth to say on the on the broader issue of waterborne asylum seekers.
The sheer quantity of evidence is now difficult to ignore. People smugglers do follow Australian politics and they do look for some evidence that the Australian government is prepared to soften its stance on asylum seekers. Malcolm Turnbull’s reputation is, at present, weak. There is a prevailing view that he lacks the unyielding harshness of his predecessor and people smugglers are scrutinising him closely, hoping to detect some sign that they would be about to transport asylum seekers to Australia where they would receive residency. It is against this backdrop that the Prime Minister is faced with the decision of whether or not to deport 267 asylum seekers, 37 of whom were born in Australia, to Nauru.
Turnbull has no stomach for these things. What does he gain by deporting them? This is the sort of circumstance in which the government might quietly have granted them residency with minimal fanfare. As Phil Coorey said on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, if the government can divert attention away from the issue they will allow the asylum seekers to stay here. The problem now is that with such a sensational public campaign, any such action will be bugled back to Indonesia and distorted into evidence that the Australian government is once again allowing boat arrivals to settle as permanent residents in Australia.
Perhaps I, and Philip Coorey and Laura Tingle are wrong. Perhaps the government is driven by motives of punishment and malice and the asylum seekers will be sent to Nauru come what may. None of us can truly know what goes on in Malcolm Turnbull’s head except Malcolm. What is clear however given the government’s actions so far is that an attempt to bludgeon them into a back down with big rallies, with open letter stunts from state Premiers and the like will in no way benefit the asylum seekers currently facing deportation. It is for these reasons I have until now said little on Let Them Stay. I have silently hoped that the issue would die down and away from the public gaze, away from the range of the people smugglers the government would quietly resettle the refugees in Australia.
It has been 15 years since Tampa. One of these days refugee advocates are going to need to become more strategic and less histrionic. But at present their hubristic stunts are doing a disservice to the very people they purport to help.