Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Labor all at sea on asylum seekers - but an opportunity presents itself.

The ongoing tragedy of desperate people prepared to put their lives at risk in small boats is being played out as I write. It seems up to 11 people have lost their life in the latest sinking in our maritime rescue area. The 78 refusing to leave the customs vessel in Indonesia are threatening self-harm rather than return to the Indonesian 'refugee warehouse', which was part of the Howard solution.

Rudd is between a rock and hard place, politically speaking, as the Coalition and its conga line of fear mongers in the media whip up the refugee issue yet again. Many people are very prone to xenophobic responses on 'boat people', choosing to believe the fear drum beaten relentlessly by Turnbull, Stone, Andrews and Ruddock et al. There appears to be something in a large slice of the collective psyche that responds negatively to people arriving on boats. It is a sad reflection on our maturity and self-assuredness as a nation state but there it is!

The drum beat of division and exclusion is coming from many quarters. Half-baked commentary and so-called 'straw polls' are the bread & butter of shock jocks, Sky News and commercial TV shows like ACA. Even the ABC is getting in on the act to whip up division and confusion.

The issues surrounding the Australian vessel in Indonesia are complex and almost parenthetical to the broader issues surrounding asylum seekers. This situation involves protocols surrounding the duty of care under the law of the sea etc etc.

In terms of the broader issues as they apply to refugees, I have worked in this area so I know a bit about the subject. I was a member of the previous Prime Minister's task force on 'illegal immigration'.

The Coalition Govt turned itself inside out to leverage Indonesian support for the process of 'warehousing' asylum seekers in various parts of Indonesia. Unfortunately for Labor our erstwhile government did not bother to properly resource the UNHCR, the IOM or the Indonesian authorities in order to manage the processing of refugee claims humanely, efficiently and expeditiously.

Now that PM Rudd is looking to build on the Howard government approach, taking a more systematic and humane approach to the processing problem, elements within the Indonesian establishment are unhappy at the prospect. They have seen Australia dump the problem on their laps before, with little compensation and support.

Rudd has an opportunity to change the construct through the provision of adequate resources to the lead agencies and the Indonesian authorities. It is vital that a compassionate approach is taken to detention, enabling asylum seekers to retain their dignity and well-being whilst awaiting decisions on their future.

Australia must model best practice in this area, ensuring the provisions of international legal instruments and human rights conventions are followed to the letter. This can be a win/win for asylum seekers, the respective processing authorities, and the countries in the firing line. Opening a regional dialogue and developing a well-resourced multilateral approach, empowering all parties with a stake in a solution to this growing human crisis, would be a good start.

The current Newspoll might suggest that the drum beat is working for the purveyors of fear and division but the Government must develop a long term strategy that gets the body politic past this boat driven psychosis.

I found this piece on The Piping Shrike well-reasoned and informed. The writer concludes:

"What both Prime Ministers had in common was not only the encouragement of setting up international camps, but making a secret of them and presenting border protection as a unilateral policy of the Australian government. That is no longer possible. The Liberals know it, which is why they agreed with Labor to drop the measures in the first place, which even now they can’t argue should be restored. The conditions that allowed Fraser and Howard to get away with such a ruse are no longer there and so this government needs to politically neutralise an issue that has been so useful for past ones. There is one final striking thing about the Rudd media tour. He is the only one doing it. Because at the end of the day, he is probably the only one in the government who knows how."

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