13 August 2012

Expert panel hands in Australia immigration asylum seeker recommendations

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The expert panel established by Prime Minister Julia Gillard has delivered its policy recommendations to the parliament in the hope that the ongoing and protracted debate over how best to deal with the asylum seeking issue with Australian immigration legislation will be resolved.

Australia immigration

The panel, headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston, will make its full recommendations today.

Australian immigration authorities have been plagued by asylum seekers since the government's original solution, the so-called Malaysia Solution in which 800 asylum seekers would be taken to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 bona fide refugees, was struck down by the High Court last year.

Since then, record numbers of asylum seekers have arrived by boat while politicians bicker over how best to deal with them; the government wants the other parties to co-operate to allow the Malaysia Solution to pass, the Coalition wants offshore processing but on the Pacific Island of Nauru and the Australian navy to escort asylum seeking boats out of Australian waters. The Greens do not want offshore processing of any sort, instead they propose increasing the country's refugee intake and processing all asylum applications onshore.

The row has repeatedly kicked up again all year each time a new record has been reached or a new voice has added its opinion. However, the sinking of two asylum seeking boats within a week which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 94 people brought the issue to the boil and politicians debated into the night to try and find a compromise before parliament broke for its winter break.

While an independent bill managed to make it through the House of Representatives, it was quickly struck down in the Senate and politicians went their separate ways without a suitable deterrent in place, leaving boat arrivals to reach never before seen levels.

Expert Panel

In response, Ms Gillard established an independent, non-partisan panel with the sole directive of formulating a solution all parties could be happy with.

The panel was headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston and also included former Department of Foreign Affairs chief Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle, a renowned advocate for refugees. The trio were given access to any documentation they required and members of all concerned parties, including political ones, presented their cases to the panel.

Ms Gillard instructed the panel to be ready to present their recommendations to the parliament when it reconvenes this week and, with three fresh boat arrivals reaching Christmas Island over the weekend, politicians waited on tenterhooks to hear the recommendations.

Recommendations

In total the panel will make 22 separate recommendations formally to the parliament today but the main points of the panel's proposals are already widely known.

Mr Houston and co have elected to take select parts of each party's policies; from the governing Labor Party, the panel says offshore processing in Malaysia should be permitted, but only with added safeguards to ensure that, as Malaysia isn't party to the UN Refugee Convention, asylum seekers' human rights are upheld.

From the Coalition, the panel says offshore processing both in Nauru and Papa New Guinea can go ahead. The panel also recommends increasing the country's refugee intake from 13,500 to 20,000 in line with the Greens as well as a further increase to 27,000 over the next five years.

"We recommend a policy approach that is hard-headed, but not hard-hearted," said Mr Houston.

"This is realistic, not idealistic. It is driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness."

The former Defence Chief said the policy is unlikely to be universally liked, but will tackle the problem at hand and urged politicians to end the stalemate.

"If this package is embraced by the government and implemented it will start to have an effect fairly quickly and over time we would hope to see the number of boats diminish substantially.

"Unless we do something different, something that addresses this issue, the problem is just going to get worse."

Reaction

While Ms Gillard's move to establish the panel can be seen as a logical, unbiased thing to do, the decision was met with derision from both opposition parties; the Coalition claimed their hard line approach was the stance adopted during the previous Howard government which saw boat arrivals practically stop while the Greens refused to support any proposal which included offshore processing.

Indeed, even Ms Gillard said she would not blindly adopt the panel's recommendations.

Government

Early reaction from within the government suggests that the Labor Party intends to follow the panel's recommendations and has even begun the processing of reopening the processing centre on Nauru with legislation to begin the process expected within the week.

"There is no point seeking independent expert advice if you don't intend to follow it," said one anonymous government source.

"Subject to seeing the [full] report, I tend to think that whatever it recommends should be legislated without delay."

Ms Gillard said such was the urgency of the issue, she intended to adopt all of the panel's recommendations in principle.

"This report charts the way forward and I will compromise in order to enact the recommendations of this report," she said, adding that while her party remained committed to the Malaysia Solution, the implementation of processing in Nauru and Papa New Guinea would not depend on the Coalition's support of the Malaysia Solution.

“We want an outcome here, we want change. We don't want pedantry and politics. That's the spirit the government is taking into this.”

Coalition

The Coalition has hailed the panel's recommendations as a vindication of their own policy proposals.

"The Houston panel has green-lighted Nauru, and they have red-lighted Malaysia," said opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison.

"They have said that the Malaysia people swap, as it is currently constructed, fails the protections test, the same test that the High Court said it failed, the same test that the Coalition has consistently said it has failed."

Mr Morrison said that his party would look carefully at the report before agreeing to its recommendations, a move Immigration Minister Chris Bowen criticised as simply 'sticking to a sound bite'.

Greens

The Australian Greens have criticised the report as 'cruel' and refused to agree to such policies.

"At the heart of these recommendations today is going back to the Howard days, to the bad old days of John Howard. To the cruelty of Manus Island, to the cruelty of Nauru,” said Greens Leader Christine Milne.

“The Greens will not be party to something that is cruel to people, something that causes people more pain than they have already suffered through their journey as refugees.

“That is not the kind of Australia that we want to see advocated in our region.”

Indonesia

The majority of asylum seekers arriving in Australia leave from Indonesia and has had to bear a significant burden while Australian politicians have gone back and forth. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Indonesian government has welcomed the report's recommendations as a suitable deterrent.

Whatever steps that the two countries take to address this issue certainly will help reduce the potential for people smuggling as well as trafficking,” said Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene.

“I believe that both Australia and Indonesia will continue to take the necessary steps to address this issue.”

The full report is due to be delivered to the parliament today.


The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications with the Australian Embassy.

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