14 July 2010

East Timor or Nauru? What's the difference?

There are of course lots of differences between East Timor and Nauru. Geography, size, history, language, politics, economy, etc. Then there are two differences which, according to the Government and the Opposition, make all the difference (though for different reasons).

The first is that East Timor is a signatory to the International Convention Relation to the Status of Refugees, and Nauru is not (or not yet). This is what the Government says makes all the difference.

The second is that Nauru has an Australian-built detention centre which it is happy to fill, at a price, with asylum seekers delivered there by the Australian Navy, while East Timor does not and does not appear to want one, either. This is the difference that the Oppostion says is the one that matters.

Exactly what difference it would make if the country where the camp was located was a signatory to the Convention is not entirely clear. Arguably, an inmate of such a camp could call upon the host country to honour its obligations, which include Article 26: "Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances." But that would make it a disadvantage (from Australia's point of view at least) if the camp was in a signatory State, because the detainees could then petition the Court's of the country to release them. The signatory State would, in fact, find itself compelled by its own laws to accept the asylum seekers for resettlement. Hardly an attractive prospect for a poor country struggling to feed and house its own population.

The one big difference between and unwilling East Timor and a more-than-eager Nauru, as far as the Government is concerned at least, is that it is politically unacceptable for them to adopt the exact same policy they were so critical of in Oppostion.

It is not possible to understand whether either of these differences really makes a difference without looking first at what the issue is. Why would Australia want a processing centre for asylum seekers in either country?

To stop them coming here? To stop them being seen on the evening news coming here, more likely, since the Nauru experience showed that most of them ended up here anyway.

To stop them jumping the queue? Please explain just where that queue starts. In fact, even the Minister accepts that there is no queue.

To protect our borders? Against what?

There is however one legitimate argument for trying to stop people getting into overcrowded, unseaworthy boats with insufficient food, water and fuel and no navigational gear -- to stop them drowning on the way as many hundreds have already done.

Did Howard's use of the non-signatory Republic of Nauru stop the boats coming? Almost certainly it did. Sure there may have been some coincidental decrease in the push factors, but there can be no doubt that Howard's policy knocked the wheels off the boat trade out of Indonesia. Why wouldn't it? The prospect of indefinite detention on a pile of dry bird droppings was even less attractive than indefinite abandonment in the squalor of Indonesia's camps and doss houses from where the boats departed. The fact that a large majority of the Nauru detainees eventually made it to Australia may have somewhat spoiled the effect for the next time round, however.

If you think that stopping the boats means the asylum seeker problem is solved, then deterrence is the simple answer. Make it clear that they will either be towed out to sea or sent to a concentration camp somewhere, and before long they will stop coming.

If you think that there is a bit more to it than that, then what about providing genuine, fast, objective processing in Indonesia and then bringing those found to be genuine refugees straight here by plane?

It would probably keep them off the evening news, too.

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