Compassion cut adrift by coalition of unwilling

Articles and op-ed

Published in The Australian

7 July 2012

Refugee advocates have long sought onshore processing of asylum-seekers. That's what the High Court decision delivered. Since the decision, hundreds of asylum-seekers have died at sea, among them children who have no say in the matter.

Onshore processing is labelled compassionate and offshore processing inhumane. But what is compassionate about allowing asylum-seekers to drown?

Refugee advocates are not alone in claiming the Labor government lacks compassion. They are joined by the Coalition which, like Labor, supports offshore processing as a deterrent to people-smuggling.

But the Coalition opposes Malaysia as a processing location on the grounds that Malaysia is not a signatory to the refugee convention, that it would be cruel to process asylum applications in a non-signatory country.

Yet, as is made clear in the Coalition's amendments to the government's bill, the opposition is perfectly comfortable with countries such as Somalia as a processing location, since Somalia is a signatory to the convention.

Moreover, the Coalition insists that the Labor government agree to tow boats back into Indonesian waters where it is safe to do so. The navy has advised that towing boats back to sea is dangerous; that it would lead to their scuttling, putting at risk the lives of asylum-seekers and navy personnel. On Thursday, Tony Abbott refused to rule out the use of force in turning boats back into Indonesian waters.

So let's not have this bogus appeal to the compassionate treatment of asylum-seekers from the Coalition. And let's not forget that successful interception of people-smuggling operations requires the co-operation of Indonesia. The Indonesian government repeatedly has warned that it opposes towing boats back into its waters.

When advocates of the present de facto policy of onshore processing are confronted with ongoing boat tragedies and loss of life, they blame the government for implementing the policy they favour. One response is that the government should devote more resources to maritime search and rescue. The expanse of water through which boats travel from various parts of Indonesia to the favoured destination of Christmas Island is greater than the size of France. With all the resources in the world, effective surveillance over such a vast expanse is impossible. Spotting vessels in distress in choppy waters is extremely difficult. When a boat capsizes, non-swimmers quickly drown and survivors have less than 36 hours to live.

And interception at the point of embarkation is easier said than done. Within the Indonesian archipelago, people-smugglers have hundreds of choices for a staging point and they tend not to tip off the Indonesian authorities when planning an illegal voyage. Since the opposition and the Greens have combined in a coalition of the unwilling, the choices available to the government are extremely limited.

Despite strong advice from the departmental experts who helped develop Nauru as a processing location that this will no longer work, the government is willing to give it a try. But this, too, is being blocked by the opposition and the Greens on differing pretexts.

The Coalition argues that it has no obligation to support policies designed to stop asylum-seekers downing at sea, since Labor is in government and the role of the opposition is to oppose. This argument enjoys a good deal of support from sections of the media.

Strangely, the opposite argument was deployed when the Howard government established Nauru as a processing centre and in the years following the September 11 World Trade Centre attack, when it sought to strengthen national security legislation.

Labor in opposition accepted that it had an obligation to behave in the national interest. Negotiations took place and the Coalition government gained the support of Labor for Nauru and for enacting strengthened national security laws. All that is now forgotten as we live the new paradigm of the Coalition opposing for opposition's sake.

Meanwhile, innocent people are drowning at sea and many more will die. The Australian parliament is writing one of the darkest chapters in our nation's history. The Labor government is willing to negotiate for an effective policy response to the High Court's decision but is meeting a solid wall of resistance from the Greens and the Coalition.

More and more asylum-seekers will make the hazardous journey by boat, displacing those who are too poor to move out of refugee camps across the borders from countries from which they have fled. The standard response is that no such queues exist. Of course they do, but it seems to be a case of out of sight, out of mind. These poor refugees, too, deserve our compassion.

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