Seven pointers for stopping the boats

Ethical solution needed

Is there any ethical discussion to be had about stopping the boats, or is it just a matter of whatever it takes? Fr Frank Brennan SJ sets out his recommendations for a way forward.

- Eureka Street

There is no doubt that the 2008 reforms instituted by the Rudd Government contributed to a sharp increase in the arrival of boat people. The annual arrivals continued to spiral upwards — from 2856, to 6689, a brief drop to 4730, then up to 17,271, and then up again to 25,145. By the time Kevin Rudd had become prime minister for the second time in June 2013 the boat arrivals were running at 3300 per month (40,000 per annum).

There was intelligence available that the people smuggling networks were now so adept at plying their trade in Indonesia that the numbers could escalate even further. These increases were not related to increased global refugee flows nor to new refugee-producing situations in the region. There had been at least 900 deaths at sea since the 2008 reforms. Something had to be done — not just for crass political gain but for sound ethical reasons.

Having supported most of the 2008 reforms and having been a critic of the Malaysia Solution because of its unethical or unworkable treatment of unaccompanied minors, I had been trying since the Houston Panel reported in August 2012 to formulate a workable and ethical proposal for stopping, or at least, slowing the boats. The focus needed to be on Indonesia, the main transit country.

The day after Rudd was re-elected prime minister I spoke at a long-arranged National Asylum Summit. I proposed the need for a regional agreement involving at least Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia which, with UNHCR backing, could provide basic protection and processing for asylum seekers transiting Malaysia and Indonesia. Asylum seekers headed for Australia could then be intercepted and screened to determine that none was in direct flight from persecution in Indonesia. They could then be flown back safely to Indonesia and placed at the end of a real queue.

I conceded that such an agreement would take many months, if not years, to negotiate and implement. Admittedly, it did not provide a short term solution to stopping the boats. Provided the necessary screening was done, I would not rule out the suggestion put by former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on Monday: 'Australia would fly back to Indonesia anyone who arrived here by boat without a visa. In exchange, Australia would take, one for one, UNHCR approved refugees from refugee camps in Indonesia.'

Rudd's pre-election agreements negotiated with PNG and Nauru and first announced on 19 July 2013 were aimed at stopping the boats. It was the equivalent of a 'shock and awe' measure, threatening dreadful outcomes for people, hopefully deterring them from even considering getting on a boat. During the election campaign, both major parties tried to convince the electors they would be able to design policies which stopped the boats.

During its last year in office, Labor had increased the humanitarian component of our migration program from 13,750 to 20,000 places — with 12,000 of those places being allocated to refugees offshore, 8000 being available for refugees onshore and the special humanitarian program. The Coalition initially supported the increase but reversed this commitment during the campaign. The Abbott Government says it will provide only 2750 places for onshore applicants.

During the election campaign, I set out six recommendations for the way forward, trying to give the 'shock and awe' response greater ethical coherence following upon some parliamentary scrutiny. These recommendations now need to be considered in the cold light of post-election day.

First, Tony Abbott should open discussions in Jakarta this week with an eye to a negotiated agreement with both Indonesia and Malaysia aimed at upstream improvement of processing and protection.

Second, the Abbott Government should return to its previous commitment to increase the humanitarian quota to 20,000.

FULL STORY Seven pointers for stopping the boats

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