Let's not revive the ill-conceived Pacific Solution

By James Dunn

The High Court's decision on the sending of asylum seekers to Malaysia has apparently brought a welcome end to an ill-conceived and mismanaged policy. It cut across our commitment to international human rights, and is endangering the Gillard government. The Court's position is a welcome change to Australia's political commitment to these humanitarian standards inspired by the Universal Declaration proclaimed in 1948 which has been uncertain and uneven, contrary to the boast of our politicians in international forums. In the circumstances it is encouraging that the risks involved in the Malaysian solution were apparently too serious for our High Court judges to let it pass. The judgement should also make it impossible for the Government to consider the Nauru Pacific Solution that Mr. Abbott regrettably continues to brandish.

Just as Julia Gillard should not have questioned the High Court's Malaysian decision, the Opposition should stop crowing about the virtues of returning to Nauru, which faced negative criticism from International human rights agencies during the seven years of its existence. In no circumstances should it be reconsidered. Again it would mean the virtual illegal imprisonment of asylum seekers abiding by the refugee convention, which gives all persons the right, on the basis of well founded fears of persecution, to seek refuge in another country. Therefore, those asylum seekers are not in fact breaking the law. The Nauru Pacific Solution does really punish persons who have not committed an offence. It takes the form of he kind of incarceration that the Soviet Union imposed on its dissidents in remote and inaccessible areas in Siberia, in order to break down their opposition to the established order. It had mixed success, often leading to suicides and serious mental problems. Based on my contacts with them years ago when I was at our Moscow mission, that form of detention, as was intended, created a deeply depressing environment. For many of its inmates internment at Nauru led to fits of deep depression.

It is high time Australia came up with a more practical and more humanitarian plan for the treatment of the boat people, one no longer motivated by those yellow peril fears that discoloured our perceptions last century. In reality for cultural reasons few Arabs, Asians or Africans would want to come here if their existence in their own countries was not being endangered in some way. Even during China's massively disruptive Cultural Revolution few Chinese came this way. A closer example is Indonesia's bloody civil war in 1966, which took almost a million lives. Although Indonesians are a sea-faring people caused not a single boatload sought refuge in Australia. Asians and Arabs are less attracted to our affluent form lifestyle than most Australians fear. .

A brutal truth we should never ignore is that it was the Bush-led coalition, of which we were an enthusiastic part, which led to chaos and violence, triggering the present wave of refugees, most of whom actually prefer to head for Europe in any case. As the journeys of the so-called boat people are undertaken in very unseaworthy craft, it is of course important that they should be discouraged, but let's not view them as sneaky intruders. And although much of our focus is on the people smugglers, they are only part of the problem.

In my view the main issue is about the attitudes of Indonesian authorities - their readiness to turn their faces away from a cruel though profitable operation, or even encourage the departure of unseaworthy vessels on voyages through rough seas that have already claimed hundreds of lives. Few of these dangerous journeys would take place without the tacit approval of the relevant Indonesian authorities. Putting it simply, without a significant measure of tolerance from relevant state authorities the problem would scarcely exist. What is needed, then, is a stronger and more frank approach to Indonesia on this whole question. If the lucrative Indonesia-based people smuggling operations were at least actively discouraged, the problem would diminish. The Indonesian navy is constantly conducting coastal patrols, which, if appropriately focussed, would surely stop voyages that endangered their occupants.

In the meantime we need to be more tolerant, reflecting on our past as well as on our commitment to human rights. As our ancestors fled oppression and famine in Europe to form our privileged society, without seeking permission to land from the original inhabitants, we do have a moral obligation to understand and aid those relatively few seeking to make a better life with us. Our problem is minor when compared with that of Europe's Mediterranean states. Greece, for example, has had to cope with more than 35,000 refugees in the same period when we were burdened with about 2000!

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in East Timor who wrote the definitive book on East Timor’s history in the mid-80’s Timor: A People Betrayed and updated in 1996. In 2001-2002 he was the UNTAET Expert on Crimes Against Humanity in East Timor.

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