The “Cambodia” solution (that elusive regional framework)

There are an increasing number of reports Australia is seeking to send asylum seekers from Nauru to Cambodia.

This move has been criticised by some human rights groups. The Guardian story includes a note from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees saying this policy is “not durable”.

I’m not for or against this proposal but I believe its unlikely to address core issues at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy.

I want more information on the agreement itself and more information about how this specific agreement would fit into a broader framework of regional processing.

Despite my skepticism, we should not be quick to dismiss policy options before they have been outlined. Thinking outside an ‘either/or framework’ will allow a more thoughtful consideration. An unrepresentative sample from my Twitter stream screams Cambodia is a bad idea. “Pro-refugee” politicians have decried it already. But what if the alternative is permanent settlement on Nauru? A country of 10,000 people without a future, surviving almost despite itself? A country where opportunity is restricted to those who can leave? This isn’t a future worth advocating.

I’m not saying the alternatives are simply Nauru or Cambodia. The policy scope should include Australia. Australia *should* settle the majority of people claiming asylum in our country. But burden sharing is the bedrock for any regional policy dealing with the movement of people, asylum or otherwise. To talk about “durable” solutions, as the UNHRC puts it, we must consider this. A regional solution demands it and a regional solution is required.

Yet the government cannot have its cake and eat it also. If the government is able to negotiate a trans-national agreement with Nauru and Cambodia, traversing jurisdiction and sovereignty with abandon, then the pretence of how Australian power stops at the border must be dropped. Offloading responsibility – as occurred in the aftermath of murder of Reza Berati – must not transpire again.

If the Australian government can dictate the transfer of people from the Christmas Island, to Nauru to Cambodia, then the dismissal of responsibility must cease as anything is seemingly possible. This relates to a wide variety of processes and procedures, including the processing of asylum claims.

In addition, a proper regional framework will only prosper with Indonesia as a partner equal to Australia. The government continues to make mistakes in this area, with the ‘on again, off again’ attendance of the Prime Minister at a Bali regional forum a sign this relationship is struggling mightily.

While we do not know the number of boats returned and towed-back, it is likely this still occurs. A sustainable regional framework requires Indonesia otherwise the phoney war will continue a la the war of drugs in the United States. This will be costly and stymie any ability for a bipartisan, long-term prescription for asylum policy.

The tragic events at Manus Island demonstrate ‘quick and dirty’ doesn’t work. The hard work on negotiation is yet to occur. You’ll know the government is serious when two countries see proper involvement – Indonesia and Malaysia.

Finally, the government’s rhetoric and bluster about no asylum seeker being resettled in Australia belies the entire notion of a regional framework. Why should Indonesia and Malaysia get involved if we aren’t willing to do our share? How can Australia play a more sustainable role when the humanitarian program was slashed from 20,000 under the ALP to 13,750 by the Coalition?

The government won’t admit this but this is the dilemma at the heart of its policy approach.

As I mentioned at the top, any Cambodian plan requires more detail and information. Resettling 100 people over time, with support, is likely possible. A small commitment over years, instead of a plan to be executed for the next news cycle. Simply transplanting an undetermined number of people, without the required support will have negative impacts for already vulnerable people and will not advance Australia’s asylum policy.

Interview Outtakes (V): Sam Dastyari and Tim Watts on asylum policy

Yesterday, I blogged some interview outtakes on asylum policy from Andrew Markus, Peter Lewis and Andrew Leigh. These interviews occurred to provide material for my series on Australian immigration in the 21st century yet not everything could be incorporated, including the following contributions on asylum policy.

Today’s contribution is from Sam Dastyari and Tim Watts, both new-ish ALP politicians. Both have substantial contributions to make.

Sam Dastyari:

“We have a terrible debate when it comes to asylum seekers. It’s all about inflamed passions, it’s all about playing politics and putting aside international obligations, there has to be a humanitarian angle about a progressive, wealthy, nation being able to take some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. This is the broad context.”

“At no point is there going to be a situation where people don’t want to come to this country. The modern era, the idea that people are going to want to stop coming to Australia is not going to happen. The push pressures are only going to increase as global instability, the impact of climate change in the Pacific, there is always going to be pressures that push and yes you need processes to deal with it. But to keep it in the context we are not actually talking about a huge number of people here.”

“You have got to be careful about not being disingenuous about the long-term impact of this. Some of these arrangements will exist for a period of time but it is hard to see how they are sustainable for 10, 15 years. This will be sustained for awhile and not forever.”

“Unless there is a proper regional based solutions that brings in all of our neighbours in the next 10-15 years, in how we are actually going to set up institutions to deal with this, it’s always going to be, and I think, always going to be playing catch up. If something happens, we react to it.

“The problem is that none of this can be done in an electoral cycle. Understandably, naturally we try and do everything in shorter and shorter cycles. You look at PNG, you look at turn back the boats. All of this is done in a political context, the politics are being played and this has been the case for years now and that is not a good thing.”

Tim Watts:

“It is inarguably true, an immigration policy that in any way prefers or gives advantage to people coming by boat benefits people by geographic luck or financial luck as they are able to take that journey compared to people who have been in Kenyan refugee camps for a decade and can’t get to the next country, let alone the next continent.”

“This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working very hard on the processing centres in our region to give options to people. But it’s a longer conversation saying these are not bad people however I don’t want attention on boat arrivals to deflect from attention on people who are just as desperate and have been waiting for literally decades.”

“This is a policy area where you are forced to play God. I say to people, I joined the ALP because I believed in a notion of fairness and social justice. I don’t want luck to determine who we are taking. I want there to be at least be an attempt to have a system based on fairness and values. Start from the proposition that there are 40 million refugees in the world and we clearly cannot take everyone. As soon as you say that we are playing God.”

“Frankly, the line that we an enormous country and we can take everyone is utter bullshit. I don’t want to see an Australia that is like Italy, where all the government gives to arrivals is fresh air. You don’t have detention centres but you have these slums around cities, on the outskirts, with no government services, no support. That’s not the Australia I want to live in. With an under-class of non-citizens, I refuse to live in a country like that.”

Interview Outtakes (IV): Andrew Markus, Peter Lewis and Andrew Leigh on asylum policy

In February, I interviewed a range of politicians and other figures mostly about immigration, population and social cohesion (see Part 1 here).

However, in many of the discussions, the topic turned to asylum seekers. I don’t plan to write about asylum policy in this particular series of articles, but I think whenever you get considered comment on contentious policy, it is better to make such contributions public than kept hidden.

Below are some comments from Andrew Markus (Professor, social research Monash), Peter Lewis (Executive Director at Essential Media) and Andrew Leigh (Shadow Assistant Treasurer). Tomorrow I’ll post Tim Watts and Sam Dastyari.

Andrew Markus:

“There is a notion that the public is easily swayed by whatever gets reported. Asylum seeker advocates tend to run the line that the media misreports and demonises asylum seekers, people don’t understand what is going on and if they did then there would be a more sensible and compassionate response to the asylum seeker crisis.”

(Me: Do you believe that?)

“No, I don’t believe that, because I think that on issues like asylum and border protection it’s values that drive attitudes rather than facts, people seek out the facts which are consistent with their outlook. A good example is a program like ‘Go Back to Where you Came From’ on SBS which challenged stereotypes. It was a brilliant program, but I do not see any evidence that it had a sustained impact on public opinion.”

Peter Lewis:

“I don’t think this is a moral issue anymore. Boats sinking and people drowning muddied the moral high ground. I think this is a complex policy, where the need for deterrence of people smugglers is a legitimate objective. My view has changed on this over the last 18 months.”

“What sickens me is the politics around the policy – Morrison and generals, a constructed moral panic feeding a public whose engagement with the issue has been manipulated in order to avoid tough conversations on population growth. That is what I find immoral, not the policy.”

Andrew Leigh:

The asylum seeker debate has been ugly, but there is something to the notion we ought to appreciate the fact we are debating the migrant intake which is typically less than 5 per cent of the total intake in any particular year.”

“Small l liberalism is important in how we do refugee resettlement, in how we have strong migrant intakes in Australia, about the importance of a humane asylum seeker debate. I don’t think it’s small l liberal to talk about peaceful invasion and illegals. That doesn’t recognise the other as equal to ourselves. You must never change the notion that they are as an important human being as you are.”

There are a few other outtakes from these interviews, which can be found here.

“Raising further concerns…”

One thing I have noticed since leaving the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (nee Citizenship?). I’m not sure how to put this, but there seems to be a perception the Department should operate flawlessly.

This Guardian piece on the asylum data breach states the following:

More than a thousand people in the department would have had access to information of similar sensitivity to that which was released, a former department manager says, raising further concerns about its handling of personal information.

I saw my share of dodgy dealings inside the department but wide availability of data should not be a concern. Some thoughts:

  • The divisions of staff looking after offshore facilities, onshore detention, community detention and compliance would a substantial proportion of all departmental staff, a population currently around ~9500. Why should it raise “further concerns” that staff have access to data which is required for their jobs? Names, visa status and country of origin are basic demographic data. All staff fall under the APS Code of Conduct and are required to follow protocols re: the Privacy Act. These people don’t grab data and try and sell it to nefarious foreign governments.
  • Isn’t the fact this many staff have access also an indication of the complexity and scale of the policy and operational resources being directed to asylum seekers? To me, this is comforting, knowing many people are working to best deal in an environment of national importance. 
  • The flip side is, something serious happened that shouldn’t have happened. Does this mean the Executive should go into lock down and restrict everyone’s access to required operational data? Hopefully not or a range of other issues will quickly arise. Restricting this type of access would cripple information flows and lead to unknown delays and mistakes.

As a policy officer in two divisions, I saw multiple files and had access to multiple databases with “personal information”. Names, visa class, salaries, occupations, locations. This data helped to inform policy direction for the government and research to improve visa programs. The more you lock up matters within organisations, the harder it becomes to respond quickly and learn from what should be viewed as a vital source of information.

This is a massive bureaucracy. It is responsible for government policy which has changed basically overnight last September. I’m not trying to apologise for the department and this is not an excuse for the data breach – something which has placed lives at risk – but some context for how matters are perceived outside of the department against what the likely opinion is within the department. The fact people have access to this data should not be a surprise and it should not be viewed as a negative or contributory factor.

Endnote: The Guardian’s coverage has been excellent on asylum policy and operations. This is not a reflection on them so much as a broader sense I get from various writing within the media and conversations with people I respect. That particular paragraph symbolises this sentiment well.