The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Can we retrieve our moral values?                                Duncan Graham
Now here’s the rub.
Only those lacking compassion and the determination to discover alternatives would find the so-called Pacific Solution acceptable.
Nauru and Manus are poor locations for camps though probably not the ‘hell’ refugee supporters allege; over-egging claims do advocacy harm. We need a reasoned debate with practical proposals, not hyperbole.
Nonetheless prolonged detention and delayed claim resolution would break anyone’s spirit.  That’s immoral and inhumane.
The cramped accommodation sounds far from ideal though probably better than the Calais camp and detention centres in Southeast Asia.  Services include flying the seriously sick to Australia for treatment.  That doesn’t happen in Indonesia, where refugees squat where they can.
The Pacific Solution will be ranked in the future alongside the Stolen Generation and trusting churches to care for kids as policies of shame.
Nor is it acceptable that only those with enough money to pay smugglers and who pass through other safe nations to reach Australia should have priority over the poor already in refugee camps with proven fear of persecution.
We can’t be sure there have been no recent arrivals because our democratically elected leaders won’t share information with their voters.  That’s authoritarianism and it should outrage us all.
Fortunately for the government the media crisis means there are few journalists with enough resources to investigate, while the ALP has decided to play possum to its lasting dishonour.
No-one wants people risking their lives to get here. If the boats have stopped that’s something we might all agree is positive. Some points need to be acknowledged while deploring the overall policy, the demeaning of inmates and staff, and the cost.
But an equally effective and more humane way than creating misery has to be found to halt human traffickers and deter people from trying to reach Australia by sea.
Fortunately we have a forum capable of finding a solution.  Unfortunately it has failed.
The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, more succinctly labelled the Bali Process, started work in 2002.  It has almost 50 members and will meet again in Jakarta next month.
Its splendidly-titled job is to ‘enhance cooperation on border and visa systems to detect and prevent illegal movements; increase public awareness in order to discourage these activities and warn those susceptible, and …deter people smuggling and trafficking’. 
Here’s how to judge its effectiveness: According to Parliamentary Papers close to 45,000 have crossed the Arafura Sea since the Bali Processors first shook hands.  The largest number was just three years ago; 17,202.  Around 1,000 may have drowned.

A Queensland University review published before Australia’s unilateral action in turning back the boats found that ‘the Bali Process has only produced limited tangible outcomes and has had no immediate impact on the levels and patterns of migrant smuggling in the Asia Pacific region’.

Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono persistently called for a ‘regional solution’ without offering details. It’s been a regular chorus – this month former Indonesian foreign minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda​was was telling the Asia Dialogues on Forced Migration that the Bali Process needs to be ‘dramatically’ strengthened. 

Fairfax Media, in reporting the forum – a sort of warm-up to the Bali Process – said the meeting warned that unless forced migration is managed under a comprehensive regional plan, it will have "permanent and intensifying negative impacts on countries in our region".
Well, yes, but hasn’t that happened already?  Is everyone deaf or indifferent?
The push factors, like the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar urgently need addressing but this world issue is too complex for swift local solutions. However we can fix the pulls.
Here are some measures that could help.  Those already in Indonesia need to be processed quickly by the UNHCR, which means allocating extra resources for the agency is mightily stressed. This is another area where Australia could assist.
Those found to be economic refugees can be repatriated (something Indonesia can do because it’s not a party to the Refugee Convention), the others moved to a camp awaiting third-country settlement – though not Australia.
We are prosperous and have boundless plains to share.  Not all refugees carry radical disruptive agendas – many would enrich our society and make fine citizens. Our quota could increase.  But all need to be deterred from risking their lives at sea.
There are about 13,500 asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. That’s miniscule in a nation of 250 million, but Indonesia is not a migrant society and has some aversion to foreigners.
Those escaping Iran and Iraq are either Christian or Shia Muslim. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Sunni and intolerant of what it calls ‘deviant sects’.
There’s already been conflict – eight died in a 2013 brawl in a centre funded by Australia. There have been reports of brutality and fighting on Nauru and Manus, though nothing on this scale
According to Monash University anthropologist Dr Antje Missbach, whose book Troubled Transit looks at the situation in Indonesia, there’s little chance the country’s present administration will ratify the Refugee Convention.
 Missbach writes that Jakarta fears ‘Australia could then designate Indonesia as a safe first country and return people there, which Indonesia wants to avoid more than anything else.’  If correct then reassuring our neighbour that these concerns are groundless could shift another obstacle.
Indonesia’s concession could be to tighten border controls and vigorously pursue corrupt immigration officials and police who help the people smugglers. 

There’s been loose talk in Jakarta about using an island. In the 17 years from 1979 around 250,000 mainly Vietnamese refugees lived on Galang near Singapore until resettled. The Indonesian camp was run by the UNHCR. It is now empty.
Unfortunately the apparent deterrent success of the Pacific Solution has reduced the urgency to find a better way.  The moral pressures being applied by medical professionals, churches and others are commendable, but a spit in the wind of intolerant opposition.
Unless they propose real alternatives acceptable to most Australians, banner wavers do little more than encourage the idle human traffickers in Indonesia to think business might pick up soon. Better to lobby the Bali Processors to confront their responsibilities and find that elusive regional solution.

(First published in On Line Opinion 18 February 2016.  See:

No comments: