Heartbreak amid Labor's policy flotsam

The disastrous outcome of Labor's asylum seeker strategy makes it clear only claims processing in Indonesia or Malaysia will stop a desperate rush of boats – no matter who's in government.

It was fiendishly clever strategy of the Labor government to fully adopt the Coalition’s policies on asylum seekers to demonstrate that they won’t work any more.
The tired and poor, the huddled masses of boat people yearning to breathe free, have been bunged onto Nauru and Manus Island until those places are full and seething, and now they will be let loose in Australia with a new version of temporary protection visas (bridging visas with no right to work or seek family reunion). Still the boats come.
Unhappily for the ALP, if this is a demonstration that the Howard government policies of 1999-2007 would no longer stop the boats, then it’s a cannon that fires both ways, blowing up the gunner more than the target.
Then again, maybe the Labor brains trust have been listening to Tony Abbott’s and Scott Morrison’s ravings for so long, they actually thought offshore processing and TPVs would still work, even though it is clear that things have changed in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan since 2007.
It’s true that the Expert Panel appointed by Julia Gillard earlier this year to provide cover for a return to offshore processing argued that it would work, but as part of a broader set of policies including bilateral agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia.
You’ll recall that the panel, led by Angus Houston, was appointed as a result of the disastrous High Court decision that struck down the so-called Malaysian Solution – the deal for 800 asylum seekers to be housed in Malaysia in return for Australia taking 4000 refugees from there.
That probably wouldn’t have taken enough people either, but at least it involved a deal with Malaysia, which might have been built on over time.
I don’t claim to understand what’s going on in Sri Lanka, but it would seem that the end of the civil war there in 2009 has either freed or encouraged a lot of people to get out of the place. Likewise the still-going war in Afghanistan. Quite a few of those who need or want to leave have enough money for a fare on a fishing boat from Indonesia, arranged by a shady character.
Now the people smugglers will be able to explain to potential customers from Sri Lanka that once you get to Australia you won’t have to work, in fact they won’t even let you work, and the government will give you 30,000 Sri Lankan rupees a week ($220) for doing nothing.
That is exactly twice the average weekly wage in Sri Lanka. They’ll soon be queuing in long lines to the jetties in Java where the boats are having their holes filled with window putty. The fact that that money will go entirely on rent, with nothing left for food, won’t be mentioned, only that 30,000 rupees a week is waiting for you after short and relaxing cruise.
This idea that the solution to boat arrivals lies in "breaking the business model” of people smugglers – like John Howard did – is almost certainly wrong. It’s beginning to look like the Coalition government benefitted from the coincidental fact that Sri Lankan Tamils and Afghanis couldn’t leave, and that if Tony Abbott were elected next year all the tough policies in the world won’t stop him being swamped by boat arrivals as well.
The one trick that hasn’t been properly tried is getting the Navy to tow the boats back to Indonesia, and that hasn’t been tried because it would be a complete disaster – for Navy morale and for our relations with Indonesia.
It is increasingly obvious that any successful strategy for stopping, or slowing the number of, asylum seekers arriving by boat must involve paying Indonesia and Malaysia to keep them there while their claims for refugee status are assessed.
To set up an efficient and humane system of processing refugee claims in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, as opposed to the grossly inhumane and inefficient one that now exists, would be horrendously expensive.
And even then it requires the claimants to risk their lives on an over-crowded fishing boat. They need to be assessed before the trip, not after.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter

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