21 December 2011

The Great Offshore Processing Con

(This entry was amended after reading Robert Manne's views in The Monthly)

Christmas may be the silly season for television programming, but Australia is experiencing a long silly, or rather plain stupid, season in the politics of asylum seeker processing.

Both major parties appear to support something called "offshore processing" as opposed to "onshore processing". However, neither will accept the other's plan for how to go about it, so they have snookered each other. This allows each to claim the high (pseudo-)moral ground and blame the other for everything from the spectre of rioting in the streets to the tragedy of people drowning in unseaworthy boats.

Besides the politicians, the media and practically everybody else takes one side or the other on the onshore-offshore debate, without questioning the basic assumption that there is a real alternative on offer. Onshore processing is clear enough, though whether people should be locked up for the duration is another question. But what is this offshore processing that both sides are proposing as the dyke that will protect our fair land from being flooded?

Labor's "Malaysian solution" certainly doesn't offer anything in the way of offshore processing, as opposed to offshore dumping. Sure, the idea is that we would take a tiny increase in our overall refugee intake in return, but that would not involve any more processing of claims than is already being undertaken by agencies such as the UNHCR.

The Coalition's "Nauru option" might technically involve processing asylum seekers in another country, but apart from the flag flying over the detention camps there would be no difference between Nauru and Christmas Island. The only place they can go from there is the Australian mainland. The Coalition's real plan is to return to the Howard era of towing boats back to Indonesia (which, interestingly, Labor says its plan would achieve in a "virtual" manner) and the moral dead-end of temporary protection visas (which if anything led to more people taking boats because family reunion was not allowed).

Political scientist Robert Manne suggests that an amended version of the Nauru plan would be "the least bad asylum seeker policy". He suggests an annual quota designed to result in a "two or three year wait" which, he says, "should act as a powerful deterrent".

Prof. Manne does not appear to appreciate that almost every single one of these people will be found to be genuinely fleeing life-and-death situations in their home countries. They have acted out of desperation to save themselves and their families, and have cut off all avenues of return. To make a two to three year stay in a detention camp such a powerful deterrent that they would prefer the indefinite squalor of life as an illegal immigrant in Indonesia would take some effort, though perhaps it would not be beyond the capabilities of the architects of places like the Baxter and Scherger concentration camps in Australia.

What both sides really want is to stop the boats, or perhaps from the Coalition's perspective to stop Labor stopping the boats while trying to convince the electorate that they would stop the boats if elected. The aim is not to solve the refugee problem, it's to solve our refugee problem. It's like convincing yourself that you can end poverty by locking up beggars.

Stopping the boats is not about stopping people drowning. A genuine intention to dissuade people from risking their lives on the high seas would involve real offshore processing, in the places where the asylum seekers get on the boats. After all, why send people to other countries for processing if they are already there?

A recent study from the Centre for Policy Development points out that the Scandinavian countries, with roughly the same total population as Australia, process six times as many asylum seekers as we do, and they are nowhere near any third-world transit countries.

Instead of real offshore processing, what we have is a confidence trick being played by both sides to cover up their cowardice and ineptitude in the face of the threat of losing votes by confronting the old visceral fear of white Australia: that other people will come on boats and take our land away, just as we did.

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