Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The East Timor Solution

4000 asylum seekers. 100 000 homeless Australians. 500 000 unemployed Australians. 2 million underemployed Australians. 3 million Australian pensioners struggling to make ends meet. In the overall scheme of things, the question of what to do about asylum seekers arriving in boats is not enormously significant. Yet, as a political issue it has been not only allowed, but actually encouraged to become a matter of overwhelming concern. So much so that for a while there it was starting to look as if there was a chance that we would all go to the forthcoming Federal election to determine the fate our nation on the basis of how a few thousand foreigners are treated. So much so that we ran the risk of all being distracted from matters of great importance which more directly affect us all, such as health reform, infrastructure investment, and economic management.

The harsh reality is that there are some politicians who a perfectly happy to cast aside the welfare of a few thousand foreigners in order to obtain a political advantage which could make the difference to winning or losing the election. They would prefer us all to be distracted form the shortcomings of their policies by encouraging us to be fearful of people that we are unlikely to ever meet. Ask yourself, have you ever actually met an asylum seeker? The chances are that you never will, because no matter how many boats arrive, the yearly quota of less than 14 000 refugees does not change. In fact you are more likely to meet a real illegal immigrant, that is someone who has come to Australia through an airport and then deliberately stayed after his or her visa has expired, because there are more than 50 000 of them. They’re the ones who really are the queue jumpers.

The Prime Minister’s announcement today has spelled out asylum seeker policy in a manner which is intended to draw a line under the debate so that all of us can move on, and more specifically so that the Government can approach the election without the border protection baggage holding it back. Whether or not it is successful will depend on whether Australians feel that a) the Government is in control of the situation, and b) that asylum seekers won’t be getting any kind of unfair advantage or special treatment by jumping the imaginary queue. On the first count, Julia Gillard has delivered a speech clearly designed to paint herself and her government as being firmly in control. But more importantly, the policy announcement is intended to cut off the arguments about people smuggling and queue jumping.

The proposal to enlist international co-operation to establish a Regional Refugee Processing Centre in East Timor under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner On Refugees effectively answers the question of just where can asylum seekers join the imaginary queue that is so often discussed. If successful, the Centre will be legitimized by the involvement of other countries including New Zealand, as well as the imprimatur of the United Nations, and represents a positive step towards a better outcome overall. But the basic idea is to provide a destination for offshore processing of refugee applicants in a safe environment. The funny thing is that’s an idea which sounds remarkably familiar.

Am I the first to call this the East Timor Solution, or has Tony Abbott already beaten me to it?

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