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Byron Shire
March 3, 2024

Boat turn-back policy a failure

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Maynard Keynes once famously said, ‘When the facts change, I change too. What do you do?’. For all Australians the facts changed last week.

Until last week we were told that the government had stopped the boats. But then Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison admitted that their border security policy has failed. They admitted they have turned back 28 boats. They have not stopped the boats.

The Coalition’s justification for their cruel treatment of refugees is that they want to :
a) stop the people smugglers; and
b) stop people risking their lives in leaky boats.

Now we learn that the smugglers are still in business and people are still risking their lives at sea. None of the cruelty Australia has inflicted on the unfortunate refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island has deterred desperate people from seeking refuge or unscrupulous people from exploiting them.

Given this there can, surely, be no justification for persisting in our mistreatment of the detainees. As the boats keep coming it is clear that even an Australian concentration camp is preferable to the risks in their homelands for many desperate people, so this alleged deterrent has failed and there can be no reason for its continuation.

The facts have changed and we must change too. Our priority should be to end the suffering of those unfortunates who looked to Australia for refuge and were treated with contempt and brutality and to find a different way to stop the boats. When rational people’s policies fail they find new ways to achieve their goals. They don’t keep on making the same mistakes while mindlessly chanting three-word slogans.

If the government persists with this discredited policy there can be only one conclusion: the policy is not to stop the boats but to punish those who have the temerity to turn to Australia in their hour of need.

Is that really the sort of people we are?


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  1. This refugee debate focuses morality but morality comes at a cost. There are 65 million displaced people in the world and I believe Australia humanitarian record and budget allocation is exemplary. I am happy to reassess this belief if the refugee advocates tell us how many refugees Australia should take. Now I do not believe anyone would promote inviting all 65 million refugees or we should not accept any. Therefore there must be a number in-between.

  2. I cannot speak beyond what I read in the press for the situation ion Manus but I lived in Nauru contemporaneously with the last refugees from the Rudd era and worked with the Government of Nauru on its difficult transition to a post-asylum centre economy. The asylum seekers are described as detainees but for most of the time they were not detained but free to move throughout the island. Although there have been some much publicised incidents in Nauru the overall situation for the asylum seeker the situation could hardly be described as one of cruelty – their lot has been little different from ordinary Nauruans. Yes it is hot and yes facilities and diversions are limited but that is the reality of the country that has been prepared to give them asylum. Indeed the facilities in Nauru have been much improved over the period of housing of asylum seekers. The country has many problems but it does now have a more reliable metered electricity system, supporting functioning desal water production. Health and education facilities are much better, including a new high school. One of the problems that Nauru faced after the closing of the first processing centre was the reduction in specialist health services, particularly the ending of mental health professionals,which Nauru could not afford for its small population. So while the asylum seekers have access to limited health facilities, they are the same as those used by Nauruans. It would be easy to grant these people asylum in Australia but we should remember who they are. I agree with Don, any policy on refugees has to be credible in a world of 65 million displaced people. Of that number only a tiny small number have acquired by whatever means the funds, and are willing to take the risks and pay the various bribes, to get on a refugee boat. They are no longer in the immediate danger in Nauru that drove them to seek asylum. If we were to grant them asylum we would do so in preference to many other people living in much poorer and more difficult conditions, and, particularly in respect of displaced women and children, at much grater risk of abuse and exploitation. And in doing so we would provide an incentive to other potential refugees to obtain by whatever means the tens of thousand of dollars necessary to get to Australia. We have a clear signal from Europe as to what would happen if we were to change our policy and the result would not be the handful of boats that have recently re-appeared, The only people who discredit our policy are those who have no perspective on the enormity – and I mean that in the correct sense of the term – of the problem of displaced people, and a naive view that those who were able to get enough money should be given the limited number of refugee places available in Australia.

  3. There are two important points to make about our asylum seeker policies. I write from the perspective of having lived, studied and worked in developing countries for over three decades, including on programs with displaced people and including in Nauru during the latter part of the first processing centre. Relative to the 65m figure that Don MacMillan refers to, even the most generous political party in Australia would only provide a very small number of refugee places. To provide those places to the small number of people who have the tens of thousands of dollars to get on a boat to Australia, and who are already in a country of asylum, would be to neglect people, particularly women and children, who are in much poorer camps and at much greater risk of harm and exploitation. In respect of detention in Nauru, notwithstanding some well publicised incidents under our watch that we should investigate and deal with, the lot of asylum seekers is little different from that of most Nauruans. Facilities like water, electricity, education and health have much improved over the period Australia has housed asylum seekers, but remain limited. But whatever the limitations of the place and arrangements, to describe the situation on Nauru as cruel is most unfair to the government and people of Nauru, the country that is willing to provide them with asylum.


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