Julia in a pickle

John Shakespeare-420x0

This cartoon tops a good article by Richard Ackland in today’s Sydney Morning Herald in which we are reminded of a few facts about the actual size of the “problem” that has exercised so many in recent years – for example: “This year Australia will provide 6000 places to refugees under the auspices of the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, and 7750 people under our special humanitarian program, who need sponsors or proposers. Under the humanitarian program, the government does not pay travel expenses. Uniquely among countries that take refugees, Australia says that for every asylum seeker (boat person) who succeeds in demonstrating refugee status, one less place is allocated under its special program. No one else links humanitarian entrants from overseas and asylum seekers from within the borders.” Whatever one might think of the fairness of this approach, the fact remains that the “boat people” – and the much more numerous “plane people” – make no net difference in the number of refugees Australia actually ends up accepting.

On the 7,30 Report last night Clarke and Dawe made much fun of the facts:

…BRYAN DAWE: Right. Now your special subject tonight is Australia’s immigration policy Iggy. Your questions start now best of luck. What is Australia’s policy on asylum seekers?
JOHN CLARKE: Well seek a view from the electorate, see what….
BRYAN DAWE: No, no, no, no Iggy, I’ll ask you that one again. What is the policy on refugees from other countries seeking asylum in Australia?
JOHN CLARKE: Well get a sense of what the electorate thinks and then say things that seem to address those anxieties in such a…
BRYAN DAWE: No, no, no, no, no,no. Listen to the question Iggy. What is the actual policy?
JOHN CLARKE: What today?
BRYAN DAWE: Well we might leave that one and move on I think. What percentage of the world’s asylum seekers applications were made last year to Australia?
JOHN CLARKE: 98 per cent.
BRYAN DAWE: No that is incorrect.
JOHN CLARKE: 87 per cent?
BRYAN DAWE: No it was 0.5 of one per cent, Iggy.
BRYAN DAWE: Where did this rank Australia amongst the world’s nations taking in refugees?
BRYAN DAWE: No, think about this Iggy, half of one per cent of the applications made in the world were made in applications to come Australia. So where did that rank us amongst world nations?
JOHN CLARKE: Yeah, Second!
BRYAN DAWE: No, 33rd…

Did Julia Gillard actually announce a settled position on the so-called East Timor solution at the Lowy Institute earlier this week? The answer is “no”, but she has allowed herself to be railroaded and generally carried off on the back of that in her anxiety to be seen to have a policy. What Julia said was:

…And so with the facts on the table and these uniting principles as our guide we move forward. We move forward to an effective, sustainable, long-term solution;

To stop the boats not at our shoreline but before they even leave those far away port;

To ensure people smugglers have nothing to sell and so ending the long and dangerous voyages.

That means building a regional approach to the processing of asylum seekers, with the involvement of the UNHCR, which effectively eliminates the on shore processing of unauthorised arrivals and ensures that anyone seeking asylum is subject to a consistent process of assessment in the same place.

A regional processing centre removing the incentive once and for all for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia. Why risk a dangerous journey if you will simply be returned to the regional processing centre?

To this end I can report today that I have already taken steps to achieve this goal.

Irregular migration is a global challenge, and like all global challenges it can only be tackled by nations working together.

That’s why we have put so much effort into regional co-operation in recent years. We co-chair the Bali Process with Indonesia, and through this process, we are working with our regional neighbours and key organisations like the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration, to manage irregular migration and stop people smuggling, and can I say how much we appreciate and value our co-operation with Indonesia as co-chair.

We do these things because we believe that building a sustainable regional protection framework is the most effective way to address irregular migration, including to Australia.

Building on the work already underway through the Bali Process, today I announce that we will begin a new initiative. In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing of the irregular entrants to the region…

That’s a long way from saying it is a sure thing. Not the way it has been received though.

It is also worth reflecting on the fact that some actually welcome the idea, even if it is still very unclear what it actually means. There is nothing per se wrong with the idea of a regional processing centre under the auspices of the UNHCR and in accordance with international protocol. One may well wonder, of course, why it should not be in Australia. (One of the first bits of shaming policy I would get rid of, I have to say, is that oh-so-tricky “excision” of some of our offshore islands as “not Australia” for immigration purposes.)

Among those welcoming the idea are some of those most concerned.

ALI, an ethnic Hazara who fled Afghanistan in fear of his life, has been stuck in Indonesia for more than two years and is desperate to come to Australia or another country where he will be safe.

He is also a strong supporter of Julia Gillard’s plan to throw up the barricades to boat people and send them packing to East Timor.

”It is about time they did something,” he said on Tuesday afternoon from the tiny apartment in Jakarta he shares with another asylum seeker. ”This policy of Kevin Rudd encouraged illegals. It was very bad. ”It is my personal opinion that if a country accepts refugees it should be a legal refugee, not the illegals.”

Under international law, asylum seekers who head to Australia by boat are breaking no laws, but Ali is one of the asylum seekers in Indonesia who either do not have the money, or the inclination, to engage a people smuggler. He is among those who wait for years for resettlement under the official United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees process, biding their time in very trying circumstances until a place comes up. As far as he is concerned, those who make it by boat to Australia – and he knows scores of people who have done so – are jumping ahead of him and others.

”[The Rudd policy] was not fair to the others,” he said. ”People have been here for more than 10 years waiting.”

Ali – who asked that his full name not be revealed to protect his security – has been found to be fleeing a genuine fear of persecution and granted refugee status. He left Afghanistan after being embroiled in a political dispute that saw colleagues killed or disappear, travelling as far as he could as he was scared his enemies would be able to reach him if he sought sanctuary in a neighbouring country. From his perspective, the consequences of Australia’s relaxed immigration policies had other effects. It encouraged the UNHCR to slow down processing in Jakarta, and fed the rampant corruption in Indonesia that saw people regularly paying off officials to get out of detention centres and on to boats.

”The UNHCR would openly tell people: ‘This is your life. The borders are open – why don’t you take this solution? … We can’t help the refugees here,’ ” he said. ”They would indirectly encourage people to go by boat.”

As for traffickers, he has met plenty, and regards them with disdain.

”Kevin Rudd was giving opportunities for human traffickers. These smugglers are not nice people and they co-operate with Indonesian officials. This kind of corruption, it’s not at a low level. It’s at a high level.”

This, among other reasons, is why I am resisting the “racist” knee-jerk on this issue. I agreed absolutely with Julia when she said:

..let me turn first to some remarks made in the last few days by a prominent Australian, Julian Burnside QC, an eminent lawyer, much respected in our community. Mr Burnside said: "I challenge Julia Gillard to point out to the public that at the current rate of arrivals it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with boat people."

He went on to refer to certain Australians as: "Rednecks in marginal seats".

On the first point Mr Burnside is very, very right and I’m happy to oblige. He is right because in the context of our migration program, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia is very, very minor. It is less than 1.5 per cent of permanent migrants each year; and indeed it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival. This is a point well made.

On the second point he is very, very wrong. It is wrong to label people who have concerns about unauthorised arrivals as "rednecks".

Of course, there are racists in every country but expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist…

I still agree with her on that.

On the other hand there is no doubt Julia has been rather undiplomatic about East Timor, and Xanana Gusmao’s one-liner “What plan?” will haunt Julia for some time to come. In fact Gusmao, and Jose Ramos-Horta, have emerged from this whole thing looking considerably wiser than either party in Australia.

TONY JONES: What was decided at your meeting today with prime minister Gusmao where you discussed the Australian Government proposal to set up a regional asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor?
JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, as I anticipated prime minister Xanana Gusmao share with me the same humanitarian convictions. He has delegated on me, he asked me manage this whole idea, this process Australia. Of course we agree, in principle, and I emphasise the word ‘in principle.’ We are sympathetic to the plight of all refugees, of boat people, asylum seekers and, therefore purely on humanitarian grounds we are prepared to listen to the details of the proposal on the part of Australia about what would be exactly this processing centre will be, how long it will be on our soil, how many people we would have to accommodate in this centre, who would shoulder the burden of the financial cost of it, all of that. We have to look at this in a formal tête-a-tête between our competent officials and Australian side, before we can make a final decision, whether for us, is a go ahead or not…

TONY JONES: OK one final question the general secretary of Mr Gusmao’s party says East Timor is not in a position to accept boat people. The deputy prime minister, Gutierrez, says this is not a good idea. Will this be a divisive issue in East Timor do you believe?
JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Not at all. Not at all. Our people have a great heart. Some of the leaders were caught by surprise, obviously, so they react on a practical level but when you ask deep down each of them ‘how we can assist in regional effort people who flee violence?’ Well each and every one of us will think of our own background, how only a few years ago Australia hosted us when we fled violence. How Portugal and other countries, you know, gave us asylum, gave us shelter, gave us food, gave us jobs. Today we are in a slightly better situation and we should open our doors to those who flee persecution or flee extreme poverty. So our people and my compatriots, my leaders, once I explain to them, I haven’t had a chance to explain to them, I have done to the prime minister. And as anticipated he reacted immediately positively. Of course now we await the details of how, what this means for Timor Leste in terms of burden for us, in terms of our responsibilities, et cetera, et cetera…