THE PROPOSED ARRANGEMENT to have asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia be processed and if necessary, settled in Papua New Guinea has ramped up the political agenda.
This is reputedly an arrangement that neither Australia nor Papua New Guinea can guarantee will be successful in stopping the flow of boats even if it is fully put into practice.
So why isn’t this proposal merely being viewed as more ‘short sighted’ political hyperbole of the usual kind that is made just prior to a general election?
Firstly, what is an ‘asylum seeker’? Humans are mostly content to live where they were born and are familiar with unless their circumstances become adverse. The terminology logically then applies to a person who seeks asylum or protection from where they normally reside due to potential threats, persecution, starvation, pestilence or disease.
Seeking better living conditions is a human trait and has applied to us since our ancestors first migrated out of the East African crucible of human life some hundreds of thousands of years ago. Where those ancient migrants found no previous human inhabitants, they just set up shop and started a new life based on what they brought with them and what resources they found when they arrived.
Where there were already human occupants occupying the land and using the available resources, the newcomers faced the inevitable dilemma of either forcibly contesting ownership or moving on. Those who were not able to move on, or lacked the means to migrate, simply perished.
The Great Potato famine in Ireland in the 19th Century is a classic example where successive potato crops failed due to the potato blight. As a result, the population of Ireland subsequently dropped by 25% with one million emigrating and one million dying of starvation.
Such has been the human experience and now all the habitable areas of the world are quickly filling up. There is a real danger of the Earth quickly becoming overpopulated and many areas have already outstripped the available resources. Arable land and water are either at a premium or about to become so.
Religious and cultural persecution have over the last few millennia added to the continual warfare that seems to inevitably blight the human race from time to time. Examples of this type of persecution are the vast internal wars, migrations and subsequent depopulations in Eurasia and the European invasion of the Americas, 14,000 years after they were first colonised by settlers from Central Asia.
So let’s get some terminology established.
Refugees and asylum seekers are people who are outside of their own country and are either unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
• While asylum seekers and refugees are in Australian territory (or otherwise engage Australia's jurisdiction), the Australian Government has obligations under various international treaties to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected. international treaties to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected. These treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.
• As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. This is known as the principle of non-refoulement.
• Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights under the ICCPR, the CAT and the CRC, and not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.
Under its Humanitarian Program, Australia accepts a certain number of people every year who are refugees or have special humanitarian needs. The Humanitarian Program has two main components:
• offshore resettlement for people who are found to be refugees (and others whose need for protection has been acknowledged) in another country before they come to Australia, and
• onshore protection for people who come to Australia and make a successful claim for asylum after they arrive. Under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) (the Migration Act), asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without a valid visa, whether on the mainland or at an 'excised offshore place', must be held in immigration detention until they are granted a visa or removed from Australia.
There are currently thousands of asylum seekers, as well as some recognised refugees, being held in immigration detention around Australia. Hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia are also being detained in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea under the Australian Government’s third country processing regime.
So by transferring asylum seekers from Australia to say PNG, effectively removes their right to be processed under Australian law with all the current taxpayer funded overheads and appeal processes. It also makes those who have been transferred to another country subject to that host country’s legal process and laws.
In addition, it is reported that all asylum seekers who arrived after the 13th of August 2012 are yet to have their claims processed. The list of those currently in detention and awaiting processing is therefore growing by the day and it could take at least five years spent in detention before a claim is processed.
Why won’t this new proposal be effective?
The real answer doesn’t lie with a short term, ‘band aid’ type fix. The essence of the answer to the problem of asylum seekers who arrive by boat is currently twofold:
1. Effective communication of Australia’s immigration policies to potential asylum seekers, and
2. Effective co-operation between the Indonesia (as the main source of departure) and the Australian government.
Neither of these more practical answers seems to feature largely in the proposed arrangement with PNG.