Accepting Refugees Is Good Business

If Chris Bowen and the ALP really want to do the right thing on asylum seekers, they should put people smugglers out of business. Some ideas on how to get started

Dear Chris Bowen

This a letter from a concerned voter asking you to prove your goodwill! Take on some of the good bits of the Houston document and show us you really mean to be different. There are some immediate ways you can show you mean to do the right thing, rather than just avoid a political trap.

Here is a proposal that may really stop the people smugglers. Compete with them; put them out of business. Undercut the costs and remove some of the bureaucratic barriers that limit Qantas and other airlines from competing with the people smugglers.

To achieve this, put these points on your list.

• Declare 20,000 as your target for 2012-13, starting today.

• Offer an additional 200 places from Indonesia and another 2000 from Malaysia.

• Fund 8 extra UNHRC staff to validate claims in each of the above countries.

• Open a migration office staff by DIAC staff in Kabul, Quetta, Indonesia and Malaysia to set up a real set of queues that you claim the people are jumping.

• Allow visitor visas to people from countries that also have asylum seekers.

• Get the DIAC teams to sift through the asylum seekers in Indonesia, already approved as refugees and see how many have useful skills that are needed.

• Offer 1500 of them to Gina Rinehart on conditions she pays and employs them, and they stay on her project for three years.

Focus on these measures while you try and sort out the literal mess of unusable sites for so called off-shore processing. This will change the business strategies completely. By offering a substantial number of places to asylum seekers in Malaysia and Indonesia and some hope of proper passages in the foreseeable future, the people smugglers will not have a market left.

Providing some additional assistance for the UNHCR in both countries and setting up an orderly queue with clear criteria, priorities and timelines has been needed for a long time. Most Australians assume these measures are already in place. Stop trying to deceive the public as you build your case on the wrong assumption that there are actual queues and some sort of timetable operating in the countries to our north. Asylum seekers from Asia do not have more orderly ways of arrival. They can't get tourist visas, as shown in this article by Mike Seccombe, and there are pitifully few approved UNHCR candidates picked from these areas.

Given our supposed labour shortages, why are we not interviewing candidates about their skills and know how, not just their need for refuge? We may find that many people in these queues have qualifications and/or experiences that could fill some of the jobs going begging in the mining areas. Like the older Snowy project, they could be offered visas if they agreed to work in mines or the local fast food stores for 3 years — rather than being stuck on a pile of bird shit doing nothing. And it would cost less than recruiting other short term workers. This would also mean they could come here under different categories of migrants.

Don't use the millions of displaced people in the world as an excuse for not trying this out. Most of them are not looking to come here.

Your Government's immediate commitment to the increased numbers, local immigration teams setting up queues and orderly processes would make your rhetoric reality. Who would choose a leaky boat and insecurity in detention when they have some reasonable chance to join a real queue, be assessed and be given a timeline? You would beat the smugglers hands down via fair competition!

At the same time, you need to move on some of the other promises to make the region safer for transiting refugees. Building goodwill with our neighbours requires us to recognise the relative burdens they face and we do not. We have the space to take extra people and already take many new migrants each year. Our refugee intake compared to these other figures is quite small. We are an affluent country who can absorb extra needy people, yet we do not show generosity. Yes, we take more per capita refugees officially than other countries but far fewer than our neighbours who have fewer resources and porous borders. Our insularity can be easily read as racist arrogance rather than unwarranted fears, stirred to seek political advantage.

At the moment you are banking on some very dicey advice that may deeply harm some very vulnerable people, even if a few are saved from drowning. It is the decisions that you, the Australian government, make on our behalf that make us all responsible for that possible harm. You try to justify this crappy option on comparative advantage terms, playing falsely into the ideal of fair play, as you denigrate those who scrape funds together against those who cannot and wait in camps. This is playing games with lives. There is no formal way to measure the relative claims of desperate people — and playing some odd reverse race card isn't helpful. Seeking asylum under the Convention is equally legitimate for all who need it and can't be means tested.

So Chris Bowen and all your colleagues. Please show you have at least some principles left, and announce the increased numbers today, as well as the mechanisms to establish the missing queues. Then you may gain some of the credibility that you badly need to get you out of the mess you have created. Had you done something like this when the problems started, rather than focusing on discouraging the customers and scaring the smugglers, you may not have created such a mess. So please remedy what you can now! Do the right thing albeit from left field.

Eva Cox AO
Ex child refugee from Hitler (UK 1939, Australia 1948). (Opinion polls opposed our arrival then too.)