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Scott Morrison thumbs his nose at Indonesia, and sets back the only humane solution for refugees
The Guardian (Australia) - November 19, 2014
It was all part of the language that got up a head of steam in the Howard era to demonise boat arrivals. Those asylum seekers were queue jumpers who made it harder for decent, patient refugees to find a place in the sun.
Now Scott Morrison has opened a fresh chapter in the wretched and mendacious management of his portfolio, by announcing yesterday that asylum seekers who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July this year will not be eligible for resettlement in Australia. Or as he puts it, this is "taking the sugar off the table".
The people who "did the right thing" and went into the orderly processing queue are the immigration minister's fresh batch of victims. It's only a matter of time before he rolls backs eligibility for the humanitarian program to those who apply from the country of first asylum alone, and not those who have transited "in search of more favourable resettlement destinations".
His announcement was dressed up with the usual bluster about "stripping people smugglers of a product to sell to vulnerable men, woman and children" and saving lives at sea.
The truth is that people smugglers only have ever been intermediaries in this whole process. The force that drives asylum seekers onto boats is the complete lack of any hope for a future. At least people in UNHCR queues had some hope that they could be resettled. So, contrary to the minister's grand thesis, the closure of the UNHCR's humanitarian intake from Indonesia is likely to motivate people to return to the boats and the people smugglers.
There's more than a whiff of Orwell in Morrison's latest flourish. It's not as though Australia has ever considered refugees from Indonesia as a high priority. The figures from the UNHCR resettlement statistical database portal, based in Washington DC, shows that in the nine years from 2003 to 2012 we took 1,170 refugees from Indonesia.
That's an average of 130 a year. In 2013 the departures blossomed to 808 and in 2014 so far the intake is 1,397. Overall, that is a pretty miserable showing from a country on our doorstep that has more than 10,000 prospectively waiting to get into a "queue".
Morrison's latest announcement won't affect the UN agency's processing program. The organisation is now recalibrating where it can send those it has found to be genuine refugees.
Madeline Gleeson, research associate with the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, says: Refugees will continue to move to Indonesia, continue to be processed by the UNHCR and continue to be resettled. The only difference is that the resettlement burden will shift entirely to Australia's allies – including the US, New Zealand, and Canada.
We will shirk our responsibility and let our allies pick up the slack. Another effect is to transfer more of the asylum burden to Malaysia. We couldn't get much more on the nose with our regional neighbours if we tried. Only three and a half months ago the deputy head of Indonesia's agency for human trafficking and refugees, Johnny Hutauruk, was reported as urging Australia to lift its refugee intake from his country. Morrison has just thumbed his nose at that plea.
There is another pressing factor: we do know from the work done by refugee organisations in Indonesia that there are "several hundred" unaccompanied minors with family ties to Australia, who are in the queue.
A significant proportion of those children are now prohibited from reunion with their close or extended families here. The UN refugee agency is snookered because it cannot really dispatch them to other countries where there is no familiar connection.
Morrison may have hit the trifecta: a policy that does the reverse of what he contends, increases Australia's odium in the region, and ratchets-up our inhumanity by turning our back on the only politically workable and humane solution to the boats "problem" – closer co-operation with Indonesia.