Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Current maritime asylum-seeker policies appear to be working - at least in the narrow sense of reducing arrivals by boat to a trickle.

The arrival of 546 asylum seekers in October and November represents only 14 per cent of the number of arrivals for the corresponding months last year.

This is a dramatic reduction, even if only for two months. If arrivals were to level out, it would mean about 3300 a year, compared to 25,000 last financial year.

The announcement of long-term resettlement of refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru by the previous government has likely been decisive in changing the decision to travel to Australia on the part of those asylum seekers who have not yet handed their money to a smuggler.

Truncated decision-making processes and quick returns home for Sri Lankan arrivals not screened into the asylum system have had a sharp effect on arrivals from that country. Tighter visa procedures on Indonesia's part might also be a factor.

Stern rhetoric by the Coalition no doubt added to the general negative message to prospective asylum seekers. There is no evidence that the government has actually turned any boats back to Indonesia.

However, even on the most optimistic scenarios of stabilisation or further reduction in numbers, the issue of maritime asylum seekers will be with us for a few years.

Australia still has a huge legacy of people to deal with.

There are nearly 2000 asylum seekers detained in PNG and Nauru alone.

Their individual futures have yet to be determined. Those found to be refugees and given residence in PNG or Nauru will agitate to come to Australia. Some non-refugees will return home voluntarily.

It will not be easy to repatriate, against their will, those found not to be refugees to countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan because of lack of co-operation from those governments. Difficult living conditions, isolation and uncertainty in the centres will undoubtedly lead to further unrest, including mental illness and hunger strikes.

Within Australia, there are some 33,000 maritime asylum seekers, on bridging visas or in detention, in various stages of processing. It will take years to decide their fate, even under shortened procedures.

The grant of temporary stay and limited benefits to refugees will be controversial and legally contested. Returning those found not to be refugees to their country of origin will be even more difficult than for those in PNG and Nauru.

There remains considerable anguish for the government, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and the asylum seekers themselves, as these issues grind through the system.

But, if Australia has found a solution that seems to be working, it is the wrong one.

A solution based on PNG and Nauru and threats of turnarounds was never the best choice for managing the flow of asylum seekers.

Neither of those countries is involved in the flow of people to Australia. Their experiences over the next couple of years will discourage them from ever being caught up in Australian problems again.

The fact that Australian governments have again resorted to use of PNG and Nauru demonstrates Australia's inability to achieve any form of genuine ''collective responsibility'' with south-east Asian transit countries.

It is a great pity that another way was not found for Australia, regional governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to work together to take active responsibility for the protection needs of asylum seekers in the region, while cutting people smugglers out of the picture.

And yet it nearly happened.

The groundwork was laid in 2011 by the Bali Process Ministerial Meeting, which encouraged practical bilateral arrangements between its participants to deal with humanitarian protection needs as well as people smuggling.

The arrangement on transfer and resettlement with Malaysia

negotiated by the previous government in that year was the first instance of Australia being able to achieve some form of shared protection responsibility with a country through which asylum seekers transit.

The arrangement provided for maritime asylum seekers to be transferred there and have their future decided through UNHCR processes. Resettlement in third countries would have been the outcome for refugees.

Unlike those now unhappily in PNG and Nauru, asylum seekers would not have been in detention, but provided with the opportunity to live and work in the community while having their futures determined.

Australia showed its good faith by undertaking to resettle a larger number of refugees from the refugee population in Malaysia. The arrangement was reached with the UNHCR's co-operation.

Guaranteed return to a transit country would have certainly removed any reason for asylum seekers contemplating a smuggled journey to Australia to move beyond that departure point.

A hopelessly divided Australia rejected the arrangement.

The High Court, presenting a surprise interpretation of the relevant parts of the Migration Act 1958, decided that the Minister for Immigration did not have the legal power to make transfers to Malaysia.

An odd combination of refugee advocates, the Greens and the then Coalition opposition ensured that the simple legislative arrangements needed to make it viable at that time could not happen. Asylum seeker arrivals then climbed to unprecedented levels.

It was a truly lost opportunity for a sustainable approach based on collective responsibility.

Having burnt many bridges with both Malaysia and Indonesia, Australia may have to wait a long time for another chance at such an opportunity.

Blocked at the crossroads, the previous Labor government inevitably found itself taking the well-trodden PNG and Nauru pathway. We have now ended up with a ''one-off fix'' based solely on deterrent strategies. It will not be easy to get back on the right road.

Peter Hughes, a former deputy secretary in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, is a visitor at the Regulatory Institutions Network in the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific. He has more than 30 years' experience developing and implementing Australian and international migration and refugee policies.