Volume 3, Issue 4, (Originally Published on Monday 25th March 2013)
With tens of billions of dollars of government backing, privatised security and often hyperbolic media attention to boot, the offshore processing of asylum seekers has become one of Australia’s most controversial industries.
Last Tuesday, the Campus Refugee Rights Collective (CRRC) hosted a forum on the state of offshore processing today, with a panel discussion involving CRRC activist Duncan Wallace, eminent human rights lawyer and refugee advocate Julian Burnside AO QC and Melbourne University Professor Harry
Minas, who, in addition to being the director of the Centre for International Mental Health, made headlines last year when he quit a federal government advisory panel due to his sharp disagreements with the Gillard government’s asylum seeker policies.
More than 60 attended the packed session at the Student Union to hear the panel’s insight into the human, as well as financial, toll of Australia’s current migration policies.
Quoting the latest UN statistics that over 15 million refugees exist in the world today – with only around 80,000 being resettled internationally in 2011 – Minas said his strategy is “basically to undo everything the government is doing and to start afresh.”
“The real problem in Australia is a distraction. It has nothing to do with our capacity to support people,” Minas said. He noted that Australia had settled more 650,000 refugees over the past 50 years, adding that “they’ve enriched this country immeasurably.”
Minas drew parallels to Wallace’s comments that the current strategy towards asylum seekers mirrors in some ways the US ‘war on drugs’. “The government picks an issue of some kind that causes moral anxiety, then they generate consensus about a group of people constituting a threat,” he said.
Minas called the current government’s strategy “leadership that seeks to bring out the worst in people” by appealing to an “absolutely toxic bipartisan consensus.”
Burnside echoed Minas’ concerns, decrying the “spectacular costs that could be avoided if we decided to treat people humanely”.
Burnside pointed to an estimates that the current asylum seeker strategy could cost upwards of $15 billion over the next five years, enough, he noted, to wipe out every student’s HECS debts. He also referred to some offshore processing costs exceeding $450,000 per detainee.
With an affable style and lively sense of humour, Burnside also covered the history of his previous work to fight offshore processing on Nauru, while keeping to the theme that Australia must, in his words, “readjust our moral compass.”
“[Asylum seekers] are not illegal. They are nothing except good citizens,” Burnside stressed, stating that the current government is ‘getting away’ with actions it had contested in opposition to former Prime Minister John Howard, whose offshoring policies closely resemble those being proposed by the current Labor government.
Burnside noted that Labor and even internal divisions with conservative elements of the Coalition had opposed the Howard government’s plan to excise the Australian mainland from Australian territory for the purposes of the Migration Act. Today, the Labor government is championing such a reform.
“At least with the Coalition, you know you’re dealing with a wolf in wolf’s clothing,” Burnside said, adding that a government with plans to offshore its commitments to asylum seekers and refugees “is a party not worth knowing.”