Sunday, September 2, 2012

a new solution; onshore or offshore?

Part V

For a very long time I held that offshore processing was wrong, if only because we should not, in principle, ask another nation to do that which we are not prepared to do ourselves – i.e. house detainees awaiting processing for asylum.

Detention, regardless of where it takes place, has its negatives. No matter where we hold asylum seekers in detention, there will be a psychological toll and, because children will be involved, the toll will be higher than we might want to find acceptable. Nonetheless, detention is necessary – not because we are supposedly terrified that all asylum seekers arriving by boat are terrorists, but, at least, for health reasons. Asylum seekers arriving with a visa presumably have already satisfied some quarantine requirements.

Some of the downsides of offshore processing are a given: Jobs and money are sent offshore, detainees living in conditions better than those available to citizens of the host country, and distance. Distance, in turn, means a great deal of expense sending experts such as interpreters and legal eagles offshore to do the processing.

The downsides of onshore processing are not dissimilar: Jobs and money are sent to detention centre operators whose “wage costs” are relatively high, and the living conditions and considerations given to detainees are gleefully tut-tutted by right wing media factions in order to raise the resentment of locals. Detainees have greater and quicker access to experts and legal advice which should, ideally, reduce the length of stay. On the other hand, onshore processing provides an accessible location for targeted protests.

The disruption and unhappiness rife in detention centres – whether onshore or offshore – is exacerbated by the fact that a handful of troublemakers are invariably housed with newbies. Quite often, the tribal, religious or other antagonisms which drive people to seek asylum in Australia give rise to internal gossip and accusations of favouritism – another source of riots and other expressions of discontent.

What often gets lost in discussions of whether people should be processed offshore or onshore is the detail of what happens once people are processed.

Part of the coalition’s ‘solution’ was to provide people with temporary visas. In other wards you can stay here temporarily but sooner or later you are going back.
The Labor government’s announcement that it will put an end to family re-union visas smacks of much the same thing, but with less effect.

Hundreds of years ago, the British Government instituted a window tax. Theoretically, anyone rich enough to even have a window could afford the tax and, the bigger the palace, the greater the number of windows.

The difficulty in framing any law – indeed, the stupidity of trying to control humans with endlessly detailed laws – is that human beings are endlessly creative in looking after their own best interests.

As a result of the window tax, the rich folk in England simply bricked up their windows. This made the inside of many buildings darker. People used more candles. The number of fires skyrocketed.

Something similar happened when Stalin took over in Russia. He instituted a tax on fruit trees. People quite logically and sanely went on a tree-felling frenzy – an absolutely disastrous outcome in a country where millions were starving.

In legislating this way or that to limit the numbers of people arriving by boats, little thought is being given to human nature. Much is made of the need to legislate disincentives, but the consequences of this or that decision are not thought through.

The kindest thing we can say about temporary visas is that they give people hope as well as some respite from struggle. Countries have been known to issue a general amnesty to people already residing within their borders, giving them an opportunity to apply for permanency simply because they are already here.

The announcement that family re-union visas will not be granted to people who successfully apply for asylum will have disastrous consequences. No one is going to leave their children behind and send for them later if the only chance of them living here is to travel by boat themselves. Duh.

Kevin Rudd, before he was deposed, announced that Sri Lankans with temporary protection visas were to be repatriated. This decision was based on UN Advice that there was no longer any internal threat to Sri Lankans and it was safe for them to go home.
Yet still, Sri Lankans are coming by the boat load.
The UN believes and states repeatedly that we are cruel, and that we have ridiculous obligations, but some of the applicants are people who have already been rejected OR sent to camps by the UN. As Malcolm Fraser himself acknowledged – there IS a queue.

Somewhere – the source eludes me – a Labor government spokesman pointed out that the latest changes meant limits to the rights of applicants to appeal decisions made. This was such an untrumpeted change that it is hard to decide what sort of thinking was behind it. Reduce the length of detention by not letting the legal stuff drag on and on? Create a quicker turnover in what will invariably be overcrowded centres? Reduce the cost to government, or pacify people who think detention can never be justified?

In truth, offshore detention smacks of an attempt by both major parties to physically distance themselves from causes and consequences. The outcome of applications will be the same, regardless of where people are processed.

The most recent deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan is a related issue. To suggest someone might not need asylum if they come from a country where we have soldiers openly taking sides in a civil war is the most blatant piece of spin ever uttered by a politician.

Guns can kill people, but not ideas. No one, but no one, regardless of money experience or sophisticated weaponry, can defeat an enemy with a stronger personal commitment to winning than outsiders. Whether we quit Afghanistan now or in twenty years, the outcome will be the same [except in terms of Diggers dying] – once we leave, the majority will take control of the country.

Afghanistan is a country at war with itself. Nobody knows who the enemy is, and I suspect that has a great deal to do with Australian reluctance to open the gates willy-nilly to a great clump of people whose real values or intentions are unassessable.

The only appropriate deterrent which will guarantee a balanced intake of refugees – numbers do not phase me that much – is to ensure everyone who arrives seeking asylum, by whatever means, is sent to the back of a queue in an existing camp.

And get the hell out of Afghanistan.

End of whinge.

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