By JR on Monday, October 17, 2011
Not such a bad deal after all. Iranians and Burmese will be a lot less trouble than Africans, given the African crime-rate. And both the Iranians and the Burmese are genuine refugees from totalitarian governments
As refugee advocates and others applauded the demise of offshore processing last week, they may have missed what was a big backhander delivered in the process.
As a result of last week's events, 4000 poor wretches languishing in refugee camps in Africa and elsewhere will continue to do so, rather than be afforded a new life in Australia.
Under the Malaysian plan, Australia was to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia. In return, Australia would take 4000 people, already classified as refugees, from Malaysia - at a rate of 1000 a year.
The annual humanitarian intake would rise by 1000 - from 13,750 to 14,750 - to accommodate this.
Australia will still take those 4000 refugees from Malaysia but the humanitarian intake will not be increased, meaning Australia will take 4000 fewer refugees from elsewhere.
The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, gave notice of this on August 31, straight after the High Court ruled the Malaysia plan unlawful. "Malaysia has had no impact on today's decision, therefore I would be inclined to continue to take the 4000.
"We wanted to increase the intake. We wanted to take more refugees, but we wanted to do so as we broke the people smugglers' business model through this arrangement," he said. "The government is entitled now to consider its position."
On Thursday night, after a tumultuous day of two cabinet meetings and a caucus, Bowen and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, confirmed it.
Clearly, the victims in all of this are not just political. Putting aside the politics of the Malaysia plan, those who devised it felt it would work and be of net humanitarian benefit.
The opposition and other detractors made much of the fact that several hundred asylum seekers arrived in the months after the plan was announced, meaning it would not work.
But in the now much-publicised briefings to the Coalition and journalists, senior Immigration officials, including the departmental secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, argued that once a planeload of people was returned to Malaysia the influx would quickly change. They envisaged that only about 200 people would need to be returned before the message was clear.
Metcalfe called it "virtual tow-back", likening it to the dramatic effect on reducing people smuggling when the Howard government had about seven boats towed back to Indonesia.
It is a dangerous practice. Asylum seekers are loaded onto a navy or customs ship and their boat towed back to just outside Indonesian waters. They are then put back on their boat, with just enough fuel to make it to Indonesia.
Tony Abbott still reckons this will be a key element of Coalition policy, even though Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations' refugee convention that he claims is so important when ruling out Malaysia.
Metcalfe says the Indonesians will no longer accept tow-backs and, anyway, people smugglers learnt long ago to circumvent the prospect by sabotaging their boats.
He also said Nauru, in isolation, will not work because the uncertainty that once accompanied going there no longer exists. Asylum seekers know that once they are processed they will end up in Australia or New Zealand in any case. Nauru is no more a deterrent than Christmas Island.
When the cabinet canvassed Nauru last week, it was not proposed to be used in isolation but along with Malaysia and Manus Island - and in an effort to have Abbott change his mind and pass the legislation allowing Malaysia.
Gillard, understandably, was reluctant, given how strongly she and others had argued against Nauru.
The upshot of last week will be, as the department and the government acknowledges, a rise in boat numbers. Some people on these vessels will be genuine refugees, others will not.
The department talks about the Iranians who are arriving in increasing numbers as part of a racket that can enable someone to be transported from Tehran to Christmas Island in five days.
Iran does not take back anyone who leaves and the Iranians know it. They are "incredibly determined", one Australian official said.
"They tell us: 'We are Persian; we are strong. You are Australian; you are weak. We don't care. We are staying in your country.' That's the mindset we are trying to manage."
Inevitably, with a surge in the number of boats attempting to reach Australian shores people will die, and both sides of politics will blame the other. "Mr Abbott values his own political career more than human life," a Labor MP, Craig Emerson, warned on Friday.
There is a thin silver lining for Labor. One senior member said that as messy as last week was, the government resolved two vexed policy issues: a carbon price and asylum seekers.
A carbon policy is settled, and there will be no more damaging caucus debates on asylum. Should Abbott win the next election and meet legal resistance to sending asylum seekers to Nauru, he will get no help from Labor.