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A shameful day… but what else?

Yesterday, Kevin Rudd announced his new asylum seeker policy, which included as a major point the change that no asylum seeker arriving by boat would be settled in Australia, but instead they would be sent to Papua New Guinea, processed by the PNG Government, and settled in PNG. Another announcement today saw an announcement that the Manus Island Detention Centre would be redeveloped to increase capacity to 3000.

All this from the Prime Minister who warned the Labor party against a lurch to the right on asylum seeker policy. I can only assume that Kevin Rudd meant that instead of a lurch to the right, you should jump so far past the right that we can’t even see the right.

There will be many articles written on why this new policy is bad. Here’s one looking at the numbers of why PNG is not a good solution. But it’s no use to just proclaim the policy bad. In order to fully participate in the debate, an alternative solution needs to be presented as well. This solution needs to not only be shaped on Australian values, but it must also address the issues that this new policy aims to address.

While the Asylum Seeker issue worldwide is a non-issue, here in Australia it is a major part of the political landscape. We need to find a new solution. So I went to look at what other countries do to process their Asylum Seekers.

Europe has just recently implemented a new policy on Asylum Seekers, named Dublin II. As part of this new agreement, countries have a common deadline of 6 months (with limited exemptions) to process asylum seekers. The processing is to be done by the country that the asylum seeker first entered the European Union – so for example, if they were to arrive on the shores of Italy, then to move through the EU to England before applying for Asylum, their processing would still be done by Italy. However, there is also a regulation which prevents Asylum Seekers from being moved to EU countries where there is a risk of inhuman or degrading treatment. This affirms the fact that Asylum Seekers are still humans, and still deserve to be treated with respect, and not like criminals because they have done nothing wrong. This has been proved in court, where Belgium was reprimanded for sending an asylum seeker to Greece, where his human rights were at risk of being violated. (Reference)

An undated article on the Daily Mail has suggested that Britain is looking at setting up processing centres outside of the EU. While appearing at first glance similar to our regional/off-shore processing solutions previously presented by both Labor and Liberal governments, the big difference is that in Britain’s plan, the centre would be run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Unsuccessful applicants would be returned home, unless it was not safe, in which case temporary leave within the EU would be granted.

What we can take from Europe is that there are a number of elements we can add to our current policies. Firstly, setting a 6-month deadline to processing applications means that we are not housing Asylum Seekers indefinitely. Off-shore processing is one of the most expensive ways of processing Asylum Seekers – it just doesn’t make sense financially to hold these people for 4 or 5 years, when we could process them in 6 months, and either get them out in the Australian community, where they can start earning money and contributing to our society, or we can return them home if their claim is unsuccessful, and no longer have to pay for them.

Secondly, we should include the UNHCR in the running of our off-shore processing centres. The thing is that they have a lot more experience than we ever will in the running of these centres – because it’s what they do. They run Refugee camps all over the world. They know the processes that they need for the camp to run smoothly, and to develop policy to ensure that Asylum Seekers are treated with respect.

Thirdly, we must recognise that the sending of asylum seekers to a third country that is worse off than us is not acceptable. In PNG, 51% of the population live on less than $2 a day. 61% have no access to clean water. PNG’s GDP per capita is US$1844, compared with Australia’s US$61789.  Life Expectancy is 62.8 years, compared with Australia’s 81.85 years. In pretty much every situation, PNG is lacking, where Australia is abundant.

But running the centres better isn’t the entire answer. If the main issue “stopping the boats” (not that it really is, but as it’s the centre of attention of our politicians, we’ll run with it), we need to find ways to deal with that issue.

There are a number of ways in which we can do that. which would be more effective than the current model, which punishes the Asylum Seekers more than the People Smugglers.

Firstly, we can work with Indonesia to provide a more efficient processing system, that will actually provide Asylum Seekers there with a safer alternative than the people smuggler model. Currently, it is too difficult to enter the system from an outside country, which makes the boat journey an attractive one. If we can provide easier access into the system, with a faster processing time, then the benefits provided by the people smugglers will be negated.

Secondly, through working with the governments of the source countries, and providing foreign aid, we can help to reduce the persecution faced by people in their home countries. This is difficult, because it is a long-term solution, and results aren’t seen quickly. However, if you want to stop the people smugglers completely, removing the need for people to seek asylum is one sure way to stop it from happening. Will it happen overnight? No. But through dialogue with the source nations, we can either promote peace in their country, or open up persecution free channels for people to migrate out of the country. One of the main reasons people turn to the smugglers is because there is no other way out of the country – they often face more persecution if they were to do it through the legal channels.

Through these two options, Australia can make a serious dent in the people smuggler’s business model. Stop the problem, and where the problem can’t be stopped, provide a more attractive option. This is a big change from the current model, which is to do nothing about the problem, and to make our shores a less attractive option – the problem being that no matter how unattractive we make our shores, they will still be more attractive than the persecution faced in their home land.

So that is what I believe is needed here in Australia. A reform of our detention centres to provide a 6 month deadline for processing, as well as including the UNHCR in the operation of these centres, and working more proactively to “break the business model of the people smugglers.” I still firmly believe that the problem that we have here is not a major problem – and the amount of attention given to it by our politicians and media is completely out of balance to the level of problem that it is. Kevin Rudd’s new solution is also so much of an overreaction that it blows the problem out to something that it clearly is not. However, the only way to combat such misinformation and such mishandling of the issue is to provide better, more effective, more humane solutions to the perceived issues.

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