In this issue of the Brisbane Line we examine views about those who travel to Australia by boat seeking asylum. It’s a complex issue with strong emotional and political dimensions and an expert panel has recently provided advice on how to move forward in a way that addresses the policy dilemmas and humanitarian challenges.

Chaired by the former chief of Australia’s defence force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the expert panel’s report was compiled over a six-week period and released in early August. You can find it here.

The report highlights the massive international scale of the refugee and asylum seeker issue. In 2011, there were:

  • 26.4 million internally displaced persons (individuals that have left their homes to avoid armed conflict or natural/other disasters, but have not crossed their national border);
  • 15.2 million refugees (individuals with a well-founded fear of being persecuted that have left their country of nationality. About a quarter of these refugees are Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran);
  • 900,000 UNHCR registered asylum seekers (individuals whose claims for refugee status has not been determined) and many more who have not yet registered claims (with at least 1.6 million Iraqi asylum seekers in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon).

Brisbane Institute CEO Karyn Brinkley writes for Brisbane Line on this issue: Australian asylum-seeker compromise may yet be scuttled by politics

Australia has been involved in the settlement of refugees and displaced persons since the end of World War II, with 700,000 people settled under humanitarian programs since that time. A paper prepared by the Australian Parliament House Library highlights the history of such programs, including the initial settlement of displaced people after the war, subsequent humanitarian intakes following the Hungarian Uprising (1956), Czech unrest (1968), overthrow of the Allende government in Chile (1973), end of the Vietnam War (1975) and declaration of martial law in Poland (1981). You can read the report here.

Concerns about asylum seeker and refugee arrivals by boat are not a recent issue. Read these 1947 press releases from the Minister for Immigration regarding apprehension about boatloads of displaced persons heading for Australia.

Also well worth reading are the submissions to the Houston panel. We’ve identified a range of them we think present a diversity of views.

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser calls for the political leadership, generosity and diplomacy that addressed the Indo-Chinese and Vietnamese refugee problems of the late 70s and early 80s to again be used to address the current situation.

The Secretary General of the Indo-China Ethnic Chinese Associations of Australia Stan Chang supports Fraser’s call and says no refugee wants to suffer the humiliation of being treated like a criminal and locked up in detention.

For 11 years former Queensland Senator Andrew Bartlett was the Australian Democrats’ immigration spokesperson. Now a Research Fellow on migration matters at the Australian National University, Bartlett offers detailed advice on policies he believes would be effective in preventing asylum seekers risking their lives travelling to Australia by boat.

The UNHCR submitted a lengthy and detailed submission to the expert panel that identifies a way forward ‘through comprehensive and genuine engagement of cooperation with other states in the region through the Regional Cooperation Framework.’

The Australian Federal Police Association conducted a survey of members that provided a range of ideas and opinions. The Association believes the focus should be on the organised crime syndicates masterminding the people smuggling.

A defence lawyer that has worked in Indonesia on issues of people smuggling and illegal fishing, Anthony Sheldon suggests that ‘the mandatory sentencing provisions for people smuggling are actually providing an incentive for Indonesian crew members to come to Australia.’

The call for submissions also brought a number of responses from members of the public interested in the issue.

Greg Hogan suggests that we should work more closely with Indonesia to manage fisheries and redirect some of our border protection funds towards ‘improving the lot in life of Indonesian small-boat fishermen.’

Dr Asoka Perera says the UNHCR Group Basis assessment practice has contributed to some of the current problems.

Margaret Logan believes ‘our permanent residency with its generous social security and welfare system is the pull factor for them so it must be stopped!’

Chris Ottaway presents a ‘shameful chronology of government ineptitude’ that asks why do ‘they persist with such anti-Australian policies which endanger human lives?’

Janet Spann wants  the Government to  ‘start listening to what the Australia people want and we want the boats to stop completely”.

The Refugee Council of Australia says that the ‘pursuit of ‘deterrence’ measures to discourage asylum seekers from directly approaching Australia for protection may be popular with some segments of Australian society but any deterrence Australia can develop is unlikely to compare to the threats faced by many refugees in their countries of origin or the impact of living in very difficult situations without legal status in some countries of asylum.’

Prominent human rights advocate Julian Burnside offers his thoughts on why Afghan and Sri Lankan boat people are seeking asylum here and offers an ‘offshore processing’ alternative.

And finally, the UNHCR, critical of our national approach, points to Brisbane’s example of more effective ways to resettle asylum seekers within our community.