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Karyn Brinkley: Australian asylum-seeker compromise may yet be scuttled by politics

10:35 | 23.08.2012 | Analytic

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23 August 2012. PenzaNews. The problem of asylum seekers in Australia is one of the most debated and controversial in the country. An independent commission headed up by former Defence Force Chief Angus Houston prepared a package of proposals to resolve the issue. In the meantime, the UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called on the government of Australia to rethink the country’s asylum policy expressing concern that the re-opening of offshore centers for migrants arriving in Australia by sea could result in violations of human rights and have a negative impact on the psychological state of refugees.

Sydney, Australia. Photo: Flickr.com

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However, Karyn Brinkley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Brisbane Institute, considers this package one of the most humane approach to the refugee problem, which yet runs the risk of getting bogged down in politics.

“Asylum-seekers arriving by boat on Australian shores have been pawns in the country’s national politics for decades. In August 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard refused permission for the Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa, carrying 438 Afghan refugees rescued from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters, to enter Australian waters,” Karyn Brinkley reminded.

According to her, this decision, and a subsequent order for Australian Special Forces to board the Tampa when it entered Australian waters, attracted international opprobrium. But it won Howard a closely-fought election a few months later when, in the wake of September 11, he campaigned heavily on the issue of asylum-seekers arriving by boat to a population unnerved by the recent terrorist attacks on the US.

“Since that time, the politics of border protection and the treatment of asylum-seekers arriving by boat have continued to dominate Australia’s national security priorities far beyond their apparent relative importance,” the expert said.

The CEO of the Brisbane Institute explained that in 2009–2010, the Australian government had committed 654 million dollars to stop the flow of asylum-seekers heading for Australian shores.

“Meanwhile, around 95% of asylum-seekers to Australia come, not by boat, but by plane and the number accepted by Australia is also very small compared to the number worldwide,” Karyn Brinkley emphasized.

Moreover, fuelled by political opportunism, the controversy in Australia is emotive and largely uninformed.

“Australians’ pride in the national ethos of “a fair go” puts them at odds with unauthorized asylum-seekers because they perceive boat people as queue-jumpers, cheating the official process. The fact that many asylum-seekers are escaping countries where there is no queue for them to jump is neither well known nor well publicized,” the analyst stated.

According to her, the political rhetoric leans heavily on questions of security risk, suggesting asylum-seekers arriving by boat may include terrorists. It also whips up anxiety that people-smugglers are increasingly targeting Australia for profit; that Australia is perceived as a soft target; that the country is being over-run by unauthorized and illegal immigrants.

“More recently, with the tragic loss of life of asylum-seekers off the Australian coast, the rhetoric has turned to saving lives, but the policy intent is the same: stop the boats,” the expert emphasized.

She added that the issue has continued to plague a federal government already in a precarious position going into the 2013 election.

“The government appointed an expert panel headed by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, hoping to break the political impasse following the parliament’s failure to pass offshore processing laws in the wake of two asylum-seeker boat disasters,” Karyn Brinkley reminded.

She explained that the Houston Panel made 22 recommendations, including the increasing Australia’s humanitarian program from around 14,000 to 20,000 places per annum, eventually rising to 27,000 in five years.

“It should be noted that the proposed plan also implies the removing family reunion provisions for successful asylum-seekers arriving by boat. Instead, they may only seek family reunion through the standard family migration program, to be increased to 4,000 places a year,” the analyst said.

The proposal to establish interim offshore processing capacity for boat arrivals on Nauru and Papua New Guinea is caused by the need to create equal conditions for “regular” asylum-seekers and “boat people” – there will be no faster resettlement for the latter. Meanwhile, “at risk” detainees would be transferred to Australia until their cases are resolved.

“One of the recommendations is to remove mandatory penalties for minors crewing unlawful boat voyages,” the CEO of the Brisbane Institute emphasized.

Furthermore, the Panel, according to the observer, has proposed significant changes to Australia’s existing agreement with the Malaysian government to strengthen protection for asylum-seekers.

“The emphasis of the Panel’s recommendations is on deterring unauthorized arrivals by boat. However, it rejected the federal Opposition’s proposal to turn boats back,” she said.

Moreover, its recommendations for expansion of the humanitarian program and an enhanced regional cooperation framework, in the expert’s opinion, reflect Houston’s “hard headed but not hard hearted” policy approach.

“The Australian government has endorsed all 22 recommendations in principle, and the task begins to map out their implementation. However, concerns have already been raised about the practicality of the interim arrangements for offshore processing, and whether the blanket restriction on family reunions will result in greater numbers of women and children, or entire family groups, seeking to arrive by boat,” Karyn Brinkley added.

According to her, the Houston Panel recommendations reflect both an encouraging long-term strategic regional approach to humanitarian resettlement, as well as a package of practical, reasonable and, hopefully, acceptable compromises for both the federal government and the Opposition. Evidence of the latter is seen in both parties already claiming credit for the policy breakthrough.

Nevertheless, the expert believes that some significant issues were not addressed, and significant opportunities were missed.

“The recommendations do not assist asylum-seekers in countries where Australia has no immigration staff. Asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of the largest sources of refugees, have no formal channels to seek asylum, no queues to jump. Immigration protocols in other countries also need overhauling, to provide streamlined assistance with clear criteria, priorities and timelines,” she said.

Furthermore, Karyn Brinkley stressed that at a time of essentially full employment in Australia and labor shortages in some sectors, many successful asylum-seekers are skilled and experienced workers, seeking a new life, safety and prosperity for themselves and their families.

“It seems shortsighted not to consider the skills and experience they can offer Australian employers and communities along with their need for asylum,” the expert added.

According to her, the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill is now before the Australian parliament and it is likely to pass, but not without political point-scoring and fierce rhetoric.

“Its passage will diminish a long-standing electoral wedge and take the wind out of the Leader of the Opposition’s sails. He will be reluctant to have the government appear to “solve” the problem of the boat people. Australia’s most humane approach to asylum-seekers may yet be scuttled by politics,” Karyn Brinkley concluded.

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