In a week that saw Immigration Department officials in Canberra ratchet up the argument for the offshore processing of asylum seekers, warning that more than 600 people could wash up on Australia’s shores every month if there was a return to onshore processing, the tensions around the issue, and the politcal manoueverings in their wake, suggest Australia is anything but close to resolving the matter.
The message from Canberra, irrespective of the High Court’s recent torpedoing of the Gillard government’s deal with Kuala Lumpur, is that only the “Malaysian solution” can be the “game-changer” in stopping the people-smugglers and the desperate men, women and children they persuade, to make the hazardous voyage to Australia. The assessment, running against a vocal tide of opinion which backs the dumping of offshore processing, was made during a briefing to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last Wednesday.
Despite the department’s advice, Mr Abbott still refuses to back the government’s efforts to circumvent the High Court by introducing new legislation to bring Malaysia back into the equation, and says he will only support offshore processing on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island. Ten years after the ‘Children Overboard affair’, the political football that is the emotively charged notion of ‘border protection’ has not been kicked higher or more often.
Efforts to prevent a repeat of the Christmas Island tragedy in December 2010, ensured that the mechanics of dissuading asylum seekers from ever setting out on a sea journey to Australia, would become central to the debate. What’s clear since the High Court’s ruling, is that many voices are being raised, beyond ‘the usual suspects’ in opposition to offshore processing.
Steve Georganas MP told Neos Kosmos that while he believes the ‘Malaysia solution’ was “a good regional solution,” and that he was “disappointed” with the High Court’s ruling but added: “I’d personally be more comfortable if these things were handled onshore. I’ve always been of that opinion, we’re dealing with human lives.”
Georganas shares a commonly held view that the most crucial issues now, is to look at the perceived problem in perspective: “We’ve got 40 million people displaced in the world, last year there was something like 3000 people arriving by boat on our shores, [it’s] absoluteley minute. Look at Italy and Greece and look at what is happening over there. What does it mean for ordinary australians? How does it affect their individual life? The answer is zilch. Let’s get some level-headed discussion so we can get a proper solution, a long-lasting solution.”
The Labor Member for Hindmarsh added, that from the government’s position “everything’s on the table at the moment. We’re going to be having discussions through caucus, and we need to get it into perspective. If you have a look at the Nauru option and the former government’s off-shore processing, over ninety per cent ended up in Australia.
What did we acheive? We acheived big expenses, millions of dollars. It was all about the image [the Howard government] created, that they were tough on refugees. In the end ninety per cent were deemed to be genuine refugees.”
The South Australian MP believes there are certainly lessons from history which his government would be wise to remember “No one played politics with this issue up to the Howard government, previously both sides knew there was a lot of volatility to the issue, and the last thing governments need to do is incite that volatility.”
Fellow Senator, Nick Xenophon, believes the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on offshore processing would be better spent on hospitals and schools, and that a more effective use of tax payers money in stopping the boats, would be to spend the money on hunting people smugglers in tandem with regional authorities. “Let common sense prevail,” says the Independent Member for South Australia. “91 per cent of people who have been processed offshore got to stay in Australia anyway.
This is an issue where politics has got in the way of reason. We need to look at onshore processing. It’s quicker and more efficient. If people qualify as refugees, they stay. If they don’t, they they go back. we need to be tough but fair and the best way of dealing with it is onshore.”
A tireless advocate for Asylum Seekers’ rights, Kon Karapanagiotidis feels vindicated by the decision to prevent the ‘Malaysia solution’ being implemented, and with it, the fundamental questioning of offshore ‘solutions’. “It’s affirming,” said the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne, “we’ve spent ten years as an organisation in the minority, it was nice to have a win for once.”
Karapanagiotidis echoes the view that it is the absence of a sense of proportion, that has hampered successive governments in achieving humane and sustainable policies in relation to asylum seekers. “23,024 people have come by boat to Australia since 1975. That’s 677 people a year. Based on that average, it would take 149 years the fill the MCG once, with people coming by boat. Why the hysteria? What’s all this fear-mongering about? It’s a joke. We’re in a crisis that doesn’t actually exist, the insanity is that we find ourselves in a political crisis manufacturing a boat people problem, when there isn’t one.”
A graduate with a Bachelor of Law from La Trobe University, Karapanagiotidis feels that the Greek Australian community’s response to the asylum seekers issue also needs to be reconfigured. “Greeks understand the experience of migration almost better than anyone else, what I find often is that Greeks themselves here are the most anti-refugee.
They say ‘we came the right way, we’re the right sort of immigrants. It’s time for a new conversation about what are we afraid of.” Above all, the La Trobe Uni alumni believes that now, more than ever, an opportunity exists that Australia must grasp.
“We’re strong enough a country to learn from our mistakes. There’s another way forward: the humane processing of asylum seekers in the community. It would cost one per cent of what it costs to keep them in a detention centre. Nine out of ten people on these boats are found to be genuine refugees. You have two choices: you can save millions of dollars, let them work, be part of the community, and those people will pay back ten fold, or continue down this path, where we’re all diminished as Australians, Which way do we want to go as a country?”