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While the Liberals gloat over stopping the boats, and Labor wrings its hands pretending concern about drownings, other more enlightened people are offering practical advice, if only our politicians would listen.Julian Burnside, who knows more than most about the plight of refugees, makes the following eminently sensible suggestions.“I suggest an alternative, genuine, form of offshore processing, which is for Australia to process asylum claims offshore (in Indonesia, before they get on a boat) and, for those assessed as refugees, promise resettlement in a finite, specified time.
The essential elements of this proposal include:
• Our annual refugee intake would need to be increased. It is presently set at 13,750. It should be increased to 30,000 per year.
• The processing has to be fair. Experience suggests that, when processing is not subject to judicial oversight, the result of the process owes more to political considerations than to the merits of the particular claims. Experience on Nauru from 2001 to 2005 threw up some notorious examples of grossly unfair processing.
• The increase in refugee places has to be sufficient to keep their waiting time in Indonesia to a reasonable length: one year at the most. A longer waiting time than that may prompt some to try a quicker route.
• We would have to enlist Indonesia’s cooperation so that the refugees could live without harassment while they waited in Indonesia for resettlement. In particular, it is desirable that they be allowed to work while in Indonesia awaiting resettlement.
• We would have to warn them about the risk of getting on a smuggler’s boat.
This sort of offshore processing would in fact solve the problem of people risking their lives at sea. By processing refugee claims in Indonesia, and increasing our refugee intake, we would create a system for safe, orderly resettlement. We can do it. But we won’t do it unless our concern about people drowning at sea is genuine.
A real regional solution
I do not advocate an open borders policy. Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is reasonable. But it should be limited to one month, for preliminary health and security checks. After that, release them on interim visas with four crucial conditions:
• they must stay in touch with the Department until their refugee status has been determined;
• they are allowed to work or study;
• they are allowed access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
• they are required to live in a regional town until their refugee status has been determined.
There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. The National Farmers Federation estimates that there are 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas. It is highly likely that many asylum seekers would get jobs.
How this would work can be tested by making some assumptions.
First: numbers. The average arrival rate of boat people over the past 20 years is about 2,000 per year. In 2001 (the year of the Tampa episode), just over 4,000 boat people arrived. (It is a striking thing how the arrival of 4,000 frightened people threw the country into a panic). In 2012, 25,000 boat people arrived. That is roughly equivalent to the annual arrival numbers in the late 1970s, as we resettled Indo-Chinese refugees, with no observable social difficulty. The arrival rate has fallen away again, but let us assume that the 2012 figure becomes the new normal.
And second, let us assume that all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits.
These are both highly unlikely assumptions.
It would cost us about $500 million a year. All that money would be spent in the economies of regional towns on rent, food and clothing, to the great benefit of the economy of the regional towns where they lived. It is not difficult to see the benefits to the economy of towns which are slowly losing population to the capitals.
By contrast, we are presently spending about $5 billion a year mistreating refugees. In other words, by treating them decently we could reduce the cost of the system by about $4.5 billion a year.
It is not hard to think of national infrastructure projects which might be funded from the savings. A billion dollars a year could be turned to creating more public housing for homeless Australians; another billion dollars a year could be applied to building schools or hospitals, or used to reduce the deficit or reverse tertiary education funding cuts.
There are many ways these ideas could be implemented. A few billion dollars a year can be used to damage asylum seekers profoundly, or it can be used for the benefit of the community in which asylum seekers live pending refugee status determination and for the benefit of the wider community. But it won’t happen until someone shows enough leadership that we are behaving badly because we have been misled about the character of the people who wash up on our shores.
Let us hope that, one day soon, Australia will show that it can return to its true character.”