John Menadue | The Pacific Solution didn’t work before and it won’t work now

One-liners derived from focus groups and dog-whistling don’t add up to an acceptable refugee policy. But that is what the Coalition offers. ‘Stop the boats … turn them back to Indonesia … take the boat people to Nauru’.

It is important to examine carefully the so-called Pacific solution that Tony Abbott gives us as one-liners. The cost of Nauru in the 2000s was extremely high, both for the people imprisoned and the taxpayer, with minimal benefits to Australia.  It cannot be part of a regional arrangement.  In any event Nauru and the Pacific Solution cannot be repeated.  That is the clear view of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and all agencies advising the government in this area.

Consider the following:

  • It is true that after 2001 the Howard Government’s policy practically stopped boat arrivals. But asylum seekers continued to come by air at the rate of about 4,000 per annum. (In the last decade 76% of asylum seekers came to Australia by air.) Not surprisingly if one mode of unauthorised arrival is closed or made more difficult, desperate people fleeing persecution will make alternate arrangements. What is important is the total number of asylum seekers coming to Australia, not their mode of arrival. People smugglers sell their services to both boat and air asylum seekers seeking refuge. Fact Sheet 73 by DIAC is quite clear about this. ‘Many (asylum seekers who come by air) use the services of people smugglers to come to Australia.’  So the boats largely stopped arriving but about 4,000 asylum seekers continued to come by air each year.
  • The total number of asylum seekers declined after the peak in 2001. This occurred not just for Australia but for all major refugee receiving countries. As the Secretary of DIAC told the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee of the Senate of 17 October 2001, page 29, ‘Given the events of September 11 [2001] and its aftermath, there was a significant return of over two million refugees to Afghanistan’. This process of refugees returning to Afghanistan was assisted by peacekeepers in Afghanistan in 2002. Not surprisingly the refugee flows to Australia fell considerably after 2001.
  • If we compare the flow of asylum seekers to OECD countries and Australia in the years 2000 to 2009, it is quite clear that, with a few leads and lags, the flows of asylum seekers to Australia followed very closely those to other OECD countries.

Australian versus OECD asylum flows


Flow of Afghani, Iraqi and Sri Lankan asylum seekers: 2001 – 2010

Sources: UNHCR Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries (2005-2010), UNHCR Statistical Online Database (Asylum seekers originating from, 2001-2004), UNHCR Statistical Yearbook (2004).

  • The number seeking entry to OECD countries rose again after the mid-2000s. Several factors contributed to this rise. In 2005 a state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka. In 2007 the US troop surge in Afghanistan commenced, which provoked further outflows of refugees. In 2008 the Sri Lankan Government withdrew from the cease fire with the Tamil Tigers and the civil war resumed. The result was another serge in asylum seekers to Australia and other OECD countries. In the last two years of the Howard Government asylum seekers coming to Australia rose from 3,094 in 2005 to 4,009 in 2007. The UNHCR Report in 2010 ‘Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries’ noted that asylum seeker numbers have gone up for the sixth consecutive year i.e. since 2004.
  • The trend of asylum seekers to Australia in the Howard years followed world trends. The figures show clearly that war, civil unrest and persecution determine refugee outflows rather than any deterrent policies in destination countries such as Australia.
  • In the use and abuse of statistics, there is one very important lesson. Just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. It is clear that the major reason for the fall of asylum seeker numbers in the early period of the Howard Government was not its own policies, but a decline in the number of asylum seekers in the world. Certainly boat arrivals did fall, but the total numbers are what are important. When world refugee numbers rose again after the mid 2000s, so did the numbers coming to Australia. The Howard Government policies had only a marginal impact on the total number of asylum seekers coming to Australia. The UNHCR does not differentiate by mode of arrival, but Tony Abbott deliberately encourages our obsession with boat people. It is obviously good politics to focus on boat people only. We never hear him admit that more asylum seekers come by air than by boat.  On the 10th December 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald reported from Wikileaks that a ‘key Liberal Party strategist’ told a US diplomat in Canberra in November last year, that the issue of asylum seekers was ‘fantastic’ for the Coalition and ‘the more boats that come the better’. That ‘key Liberal Party strategist’ could not have been more explicit about the political game being played. I asked the President of the Liberal Party and Tony Abbott who that ‘key Liberal Party strategist was. I did not receive a satisfactory answer from either.  Coalition  propaganda as expressed by Messrs Abbott and  Morrison is quite consistent with the view expressed to the US  Embassy by a ‘key Liberal Party strategist’ that the more boats that come the better.
  • If Tony Abbott picks up the phone to speak to the President of Nauru, as he says he would if he became Prime Minister, he should remind himself that if he wants to get the budget back into surplus the Nauru and Manus solution cost the Howard Government $1 billion over five years.
  • Yet after years of cruel punishment on Nauru, all but 45 of the 1,637 asylum seekers incarcerated in Nauru who were found to be refugees gained residence in Australia or New Zealand. The message is clear. Even if you are cruelly punished you are very likely to finish up in Australia or New Zealand. The very few asylum seekers in the future, who might know about the history of Nauru/Manus, will not see it as a deterrent. The Secretary of DIAC spelled out that what  meagre success Nauru might have had would not work again in the future. In the Senate Committee referred to earlier, p.29, he said ‘dramatic, high-profile efforts (Tampa) together with the processing that occurred on Nauru was very much unknown to people (at the time). The people who were subject to it and the people-smugglers who were organising it were not able to predict what would occur. A point that I have often made is that what was unknown prior to the events of 2001 became known in hindsight. It became a certainty (that they would finish up in Australia or New Zealand)… the key point is that it (Nauru) could not be replicated.’ He went on to say ‘Our view (in DIAC) is not simply that the Nauru option would not work (again), but that the combination of circumstances that existed at the end of 2001 could not be repeated with success. That is a view that we held for some time and it is of course not just a view of my department; it is the collective view of agencies in providing advice in this area’.
  • In April 2011, referring to deterrents generally, the UNHCR said ‘Pragmatically no empirical evidence is available to give credence to the assumption that the threat of being detained, deters irregular migration’. The threat of detention is usually unknown. If it is known, the threat to life and limb in detention would need to be greater than the threat of war and persecution that they are escaping from. Is that what Tony Abbott has in mind – that life in Nauru would be worse than persecution by the Taliban?
  • Australia needs to work constructively with our regional partners to develop comprehensive and durable protection systems along the ‘migration pathway’. Nauru is not on that migration pathway and has nothing to offer in any regional arrangement. The successful Fraser Government’s Indochina refugee program would not have been possible without the cooperation of refugee transit countries  such as Malaysia. The same is true today. Despite the reservations, the Malaysian Agreement created a new opportunity for a meaningful regional dialogue. This was a dialogue that was not conceivable even a few years ago. The Malaysian Agreement was historic. For the first time a non-signatory country to the Refugee Convention (Malaysia) and a signatory country (Australia) were in discussion on important principles of refugee protection in the region. For the first time Malaysia acknowledged the existence of refugees in its territory. UNHCR welcomed the Agreement. Nauru is not and never was a transit country. It has no role now or in the future in helping to build a regional arrangement. It would again be a temporary political ‘quick fix’. There is no end-game with Nauru. It would not be a building block as Malaysia would be in an effective regional arrangement.
  • Another part of Tony Abbott’s flimsy Pacific Solution is the issue of Temporary Protection Visas for persons who are found to be refugees. One feature of these TPVs is that the holder cannot sponsor family members to join him (or her) in Australia. That is why when SIEVX sank off Indonesia ten years ago with the loss of 353 lives; 288 or 82% were women and children. These unfortunate women and children had decided if they could not be sponsored to join husbands, fathers or brothers in Australia, they would directly risk their own lives by boat. Few fair minded people would believe that TPVs make for humane and good policy.
  • The other dubious part of Tony Abbott’s boat people one-liners is to push the boats back to Indonesian waters. The Fraser Government in July 1979 rejected the policy of turning boats away. It said that if it did so, Australia ‘would be courting international pariah status’. It is just as true today. In the Senate in November last year, Admiral Ray Griggs of the RAN said that turning boats around at sea was highly risky and that Navy personnel are bound by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and that the Convention ‘would be the prime driver in the decision making of the Commanding Officer’. Despite all the evidence, the Coalition continues to assert policies that are dangerous or failed in the past.

It is clear to most people who look beyond the one-liners that Nauru, turning the boats back and temporary protection visas is not a viable policy.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, must have had Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in mind when he said in Sydney on the 14th February this year that we should ‘avoid simplistic or populist explanation for what are very complex and multi-dimensional issues … fears about projective floods of refugees in industrial countries are often vastly overblown … (the debate in Australia) is out of proportion in relation to the real dimensions of the issue as the number of people coming to Australia (about 6,000 asylum seekers per annum) are small by global standards.  … We need a sense of balance, perspective and compassion for those who are less fortunate.’ He pointed out that Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, received more than 100,000 asylum seekers and migrants in 2011 who crossed the Gulf of Aden … by boat. He added that last year 57,000 people arrived by boat in Italy and Malta. Our ‘problems’ are miniscule by comparison.

One-liners and dog-whistling do not make for good policy or indeed any policy at all. But unfortunately it does appeal to prejudice and our darker angels.

Two weeks ago Scott Morrison attacked the minimal government accommodation support for asylum seekers living in the community. He was assisted by the Daily Telegraph in promoting prejudice. Only last week he gave us another dose of xenophobia. He said that ‘typhoid cases on the latest boats highlights the risk of Labor’s border failures.’ It was a shameful, suggesting that asylum seekers were spreading disease. His allegations have been effectively rebutted by an expert in infectious diseases Dr Trent Yarwood.

The performance of Messrs Abbott and Morrison remind me of the statement by the American satirist and journalist, H.L. Mencken, that ‘the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the population alarmed’.

Persecuted and victimised by the Taliban and the Mullahs in their own country, asylum seekers are now persecuted by the Coalition in Australia for its own political purposes. It is one of the basest and most appalling features of human history – to attack the vulnerable person, the foreigner, the outsider or the person who is different. It is like the schoolyard bullying of the vulnerable and defenceless. The Coalition continues to appeal to the worst in all of us, our fear and selfishness.  The Coalition wants to frighten and bully its way into office. When will it stop? We are a better country than this. We have shown that with good leadership we will respond to the ‘better angels of our nature’.

Australians showed in the outflow of 1.4 million people from Indochina after the fall of Saigon that with strong leadership we can act humanely and still protect our borders. After all, the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers coming to Australia is miniscule. We need more than one-liners and slogans.

And the Nauru “solution” is no solution at all. It failed before and will fail again.

This piece was taken from a presentation at the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW,  March 6, 2012.

Watch John Menadue’s full presentation at the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW here

John Menadue

Board Director, Centre for Policy Development and Secretary Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-83