Turning back boats – only by agreement

Turning back asylum seeker boats can only be done legally and ethically, in my view, with the agreement of transitional countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Unfortunately the form of the decision made at the ALP conference makes clear that the ALP would seek to act without such agreement.

The specific motion rejected by conference was:

    Labor rejects turning away boats of people seeking asylum. We believe it undermines the cooperation required to reach sustainable regional processing arrangements.

The full suite of policy measures includes the following (from the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and The AFR):

  • Work to establish and maintain regional refugee settlement frameworks.
  • Turnbacks will be used only “where it is safe to do so”.
  • Boats will only be turned back to transitional countries, not to source countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma.
  • For boats coming from source countries, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees will tick off all processing – whether it occurs on water or not.
  • Labor sources are adamant no one who comes by boat will ever be resettled in Australia under any circumstances.
  • Australia will double its annual humanitarian refugee intake to 27,000 by 2025.
  • Temporary Protection Visas will be abolished.
  • The United Nations Refugee Convention will be reinstated in the Migration Act.
  • A record $450 million will be contributed over three years to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to boost capacity in south-east Asia and the Pacific.
  • Implement more independent oversight of Australian-funded immigration facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. It is understood there is already an oversight body but its deliberations have not been made public under the current government.
  • Restore access to the Refugee Review Tribunal.
  • Appoint an independent children’s monitor, outside the immigration department and the ministry, who will have statutory powers to advocate and investigate on behalf of asylum seeker children in detention, community detention or on bridging visas. The monitor will be able to take legal action on behalf of children but the minister would remain guardian.
  • Labor will not adopt the government’s secretive approach to asylum boat arrivals and will instead make a public announcement whenever boats arrive or are turned around.

There are a few obvious problems. First, 27,000 by 2025 is not nearly enough. If we quadrupled our intake to 50,000 we would still be taking less than half what Germany takes on a per capita basis.

Second, we can expect large boatloads from Sri Lanka. If the UNHCR is involved many of these will, I think, be found to be refugees. Our international obligation is to process and settle them here. Moreover it will be simply impractical to shunt them off to Manus Island and Nauru.

Third, unilaterally turning back boats is surely incompatible with establishing regional co-operation.

Paul Power, Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), sees the Bali process as a dead end and recommends establishing bilateral arrangements with transition countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. If we took the majority of our humanitarian refugee quota from our regional area and assisted those countries through foreign aid in dealing with refugees, we could then and only then make arrangements to turn back boats. Anyone undertaking a boat crossing to Christmas Island could legitimately be put at the back end of the queues established in those countries.

Way back in the 1970s, we, along with mainly the US, France and Canada, established collection points in several countries in the region when were dealing with the mass exodus from Vietnam. The vast majority of Vietnamese refugees did not come here by boat.

Finally, they say the camera doesn’t lie. It does, of course, and can be cruel. Here are two images of Bill Shorten leaving the conference session:



From what I saw on TV, I’d say he was between the two, but leaning towards the latter – gutted, rather than victorious.

I listened to some of the speeches on NewsRadio. They were passionate, but super respectful of alternative views. There is little doubt, however, that as Katherine Murphy suggested, the issue broke Labor’s heart. Tanya Plibersek was genuinely conflicted. In the end she and Penny Wong stayed away and voted for the motion by proxy, that is, against Shorten. Albanese, as you would expect, was up front. Tony Burke spoke of the 33 people who died in less than four months when he was Minister, including a 10-week-old baby. He asked for the baby’s name and kept it on a post-it note on his desk.

Will the wounds heal? There will certainly be residual scar tissue. Not on the part of Anthony Albanese. On Insiders, he lauded the process the Party had used. Everyone had their say, everyone had one vote, you vote, accept the result and move on.

I think a Labor government could have its “full suite of measures” to combat people smugglers, but only if it proceeds co-operatively. There is no other way.

26 thoughts on “Turning back boats – only by agreement”

  1. At the moment Australia’s moral standing is not looking real good with respect to refugees. In particular:
    We don’t don’t accept enough refugees.
    Our treatment of the refugees we have dumped on Nauru and Manus is unconscionable, particularly given that these people have committed no crimes and are being treated with such bastardry to deter other desperate people from trying to get to Aus.
    I am not real happy with the way refugees who are accepted are treated either. Particularly the work restrictions placed on some refugees. I can see no point in pissing off people who will most likely become permanent citizens anyway.
    Im theory, Shorten is going to do something about the refugee problem. However, once Shorten gave himself ten years to double the refugee intake it makes him not much better than Abbott. If he wants to impress refugee supporters he has to do more and do it during his first term as prime minister.
    And while he is going to leave refugees rotting on Manus and Nauru his moral and crimes against humanity standing doesn’t look real good either.
    The positive thing to say about Shorten is that he has the grace to look unhappy with what he has done. Beats smug gloating anytime.

  2. John, I pretty much agree with all of that. Labor still hasn’t come up with a policy that is both ethical and practical. Unfortunately the same can be said of the Greens.

  3. Agree Brian. It is all very nice to be self righteous about turning the boats back but, unless things change dramatically (Including a general winding back of the current world refugee crisis)this self righteousness is just a waste of energy. Better to focus on a real increase in our refugee intake within the next few years, doing something about the bastardry and making sure that whatever we do is transparent and not hidden behind outrageous laws and a veil of secrecy.
    You are right, both the Greens and the Labor left are guilty of having a set of priorities that are not helping refugees.

  4. http://greens.org.au/safer-pathways
    Be sure to download and read the PDF at the bottom.
    If either of you still see some problem with the policy or that it is not helping refugees I would be happy to discuss it or pass it on to the Greens leadership team. Cheers.

  5. SG: I agree with the Greens policy SG. It is a question of practicalities. What should the Greens be doing now that will help achieve more for more refugees sooner?
    I don’t think that Labor will be pushed into unstopping the boats even though most Labor party members feel uncomfortable if not outraged about it. I do think this discomfort can be harnessed to push Labor into promising more sooner.

  6. Brian says:

    Way back in the 1970s, we, along with mainly the US, France and Canada, established collection points in several countries in the region when were dealing with the mass exodus from Vietnam.

    You rather conveniently failed to mention the pyramid of corpses that was a direct result of that policy:

    According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 [Vietnamese] boat people died at sea.

    I’m rather tired of the vacuous displays of conspicuous compassion we see on this issue from all the usual suspects.

    Another convenient contrivance is to forget that our neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, have a material interest in their countries not being used as stepping stones. While they might publicly oppose Australia turning back boats to their shores, we cannot always be sure that public statements aren’t theatre for their own citizens. From Bob Carr’s comments about his time as foreign minister and numerous other tales of diplomacy, we should all be well aware that what happens behind that scenes doesn’t always equate with the public theatre.

    Abbott’s policy is the correct one. It has saved countless lives. The Greens’ policy would encourage a new boat exodus, it would seriously peeve Indonesia and Malaysia, revitalise the pirate industry that raped and murdered the Vietnamese boat people in their droves and results in many thousands of deaths. In essence, it is a policy written in blood by a bunch of happy clapper do-gooders.

  7. I’m rather tired of the vacuous claims that we care about the lives of people who are already on the seas (the topic is ‘turning boats back’). If we were serious about saving them from the danger of drowning we’d be flying them in.
    This BS about caring whether they drown or not is just an unconvincing figleaf to try and cover up the fact that we really, really don’t want them in Australia and we’ll do anything, even imitate the third reich, to stop them from getting here. (Yeah, I know, Godwin’s)

  8. Zoot,

    If we were serious about saving them from the danger of drowning we’d be flying them in.


    According to annual figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, released on Thursday, in 2014 there were almost 60 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) around the globe right now.

    Maybe Barbara Streisand and the Team America crew could borrow John Travolta’s 707 to pick them all up . Here are the sums:

    60,000,000/180 = 333,333 trips.

    Minor details like landing strips and safety could be sorted out by The Wiggles.

    Good to know your mother raised no fool 😉

  9. Karen, I was well aware of the mayhem and carnage associated with the Vietnam exodus. Anecdotally one hears about incidents in current times, but my impression is that the journey to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand is safer now. In any case there is little we can do about that.

  10. It’s safer now for the obvious reason that we have not set up a honey trap. You and the Greens want to reset the trap. I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone could think that is a good idea.

    BTW, Zoot is right about most of the Coalition not genuinely caring. But so what? Bleeding hearts don’t fix problems. There is no solution to the fact that most countries outside the West are dysfunctional and uncouth, nor is civilising the uncivilised our problem. Eventually they’ll grow tired of killing each other just like our European ancestors did.

  11. SG, thanks for the link to the Greens policy. I was only aware of their policies from Senator Hanson-Young’s public comments.

    My impression is quite favourable. I like the idea of ‘regular pathways’ which is what I was advocating. I also like the notion of taking refugees directly from Pakistan, if that could be organised, of allowing arrival by air, and of allowing asylum seekers into the community after initial identity, health and security checks.

    My concerns are twofold. Firstly, I doubt 30,000 is enough. Karen is right about the 60 million refugees and internally displaced people around the globe. For many of these their first preference would be to go home when it’s safe, but the numbers showing up in southern Europe indicate high numbers who would wish to go elsewhere.

    I mentioned Germany in the post. If you take their population at 82 million and ours at 24 million and their intake at roughly half a million pa, that rough figuring would indicate an intake for us of around 147,000 pa. An intake of 30,000 still falls well short of us doing our share.

    I’m surprised that there are only 7288 UNHCR registered refugees in Indonesia, and suspect that is low because of a lack of UNHCR capacity and other factors. If memory serves there were said to be 100,000 in Malaysia when the ‘Malaysian solution’ was being considered.

    I appreciate that the Greens are using Houston Panel recommendations, but suspect they are now out of date.

    Secondly, if and when regional arrangements as suggested by the Greens are in place, we should either turn back boats by arrangement, or fly them back to collection points in the region. I think if we are serious about preventing death in the final crossing that must be a feature.

    On the whole, though, the Greens policy is far more coherent than Labor’s which I think will fall apart in practice.

  12. Karen, you are essentially suggesting that the UN should tear up its Convention. While it’s there and we are signatories we need to honour our obligations.

    Abbott’s way is to ignore our obligations and make up our own rules, while pretending otherwise.

  13. Australia should withdraw from the UN Refugee Convention.

    Why would you want to e pick up refugees in Pakistan and fly them here? I would’ve thought the closer Rohingya have the most pressing need, as they are now stateless, having been forced into closely guarded isolation camps in what was their own country, Myanmar.

    Did you see the Dateline show on the Rohingya? Maybe you shouldn’t watch it because the blood curdling racism of the Asian Myanmar people, many of whom would happily slit the throats of the Rohingya, cannot easily be blamed on us or the Americans. But maybe that’s just me being all White Privileged 😉

    But no, I wouldn’t accept any Rohingya either. The Muslim world and the UN can sort it out, or it can just go unsorted. We are already paying too heavy a price for bringing in people who do not wish to integrate, including the winding back of our civil liberties in the war on terror . Enough is enough.

  14. Most of Europe will be under sharia law in 20 years time.
    We’ll see some asylum seekers then.

  15. Karen: Australia is a second level country.
    Smart second level countries support world order because it allows them to get on with their business in peace.
    World order includes things like the UN and its various charters and various treaties. They might be an irritation at times they provide protection.
    You are talking like an arrogant major power that doesn’t have to give a stuff about encouraging world order.

  16. It pains me to say it but Jumpy isn’t far off the mark. There are now hundreds of white people in Europe as well as former Muslims like Hirsi Ali, who have been given a death sentence by various Islamic groups and imams. Many perfectly innocent and decent folk have to be given 24/7 body guard protection. Many innocent folk, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, have been shot dead or bombed in London and Madrid. Others have had their heads lopped off with a sword.

    When we do something righteous, like knock off the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam in Iraq, the locals spit in our faces and start slaughtering each other rather than availing themselves of the opportunity to build a safe, prosperous and democratic society.

    I was thinking about the irony of the whole asylum seeker saga while watching Send Them Back to Where They Came From tonight, The show was trying to manipulate us into sympathising with Muslims who escaped other Muslims in their Muslim country of birth and who now feel unwelcome after having fled to Muslim Indonesia. Now they demand that we white Christian or post-Christian (I’m an atheist) Australians relinquish our liberty to say what we want so they can bring a little bit of their own culture over here. Sorry, I’m not that gullible or silly. Sort out the mess you and your community and ancestors have created.

  17. John Davidson:

    Smart second level countries support world order because it allows them to get on with their business in peace.

    The Refugee Convention isn’t contributing anything to world order. Withdrawing from the Convention will make our important local neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia happy because they will no longer be stepping stones.

  18. Withdrawing from the Convention will make our important local neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia happy because they will no longer be stepping stones.

    One does not follow from the other. Logic fail.

  19. One does not follow from the other. Logic fail.

    One does follow from the other. Common sense fail.

  20. Karen: You say:

    The Refugee Convention isn’t contributing anything to world order. Withdrawing from the Convention will make our important local neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia happy because they will no longer be stepping stones.

    You are missing the point. Once you start cherry picking the parts of the world order you do and don’t like world order is weakened and this can come to bite second level countries like us.
    It is something like a hypothetical government of Australia removing particular freedoms that we used to take for granted on the excuse that we must do something about the small number of refugees who were coming here on boats instead of flying.

  21. Karen, The UN Convention, I think, is based on the notion that human life has intrinsic value, and every human being has the right to a dignified life. If we depart from that we lose our moral compass, it seems to me, or we need to construct a very different, conditional value system

  22. Brian, our ASEAN neighbours are not part of the UN Convention. We are the odd one out.

    It should not be the white man’s burden to ensure everyone gets to lead a dignified life and even if it was we would fail because we can’t extract the poison that is in the hearts of those that deny that dignity, such as ISIS .

    Your proposed solution is also worse or at least no better than the problem since it would cause of massive leaky boat exodus and revitalize the pirate problem.

    I seem to recall you recently complaining about new tax and pension arrangements for older Australians couples with only a million dollars. Obviously you could liquidate your own assets and do much to bring dignity to the suffering, yet you chose not to. You only want to do something with OPM (other people’s money).

    My husband and I are not rich but we give considerable money and labor to a charity in his poor home country. Remember Brian, it is your actions not your words that define you.

  23. Karen, our Asian neighbours are more honest than we are.

    I’m not going to engage in a pissing contest about what I have and do!

  24. Perhaps I should say, they are less hypocritical. We pretend to accept the values of the UN Convention.

Comments are closed.