Illustration: Pat Campbell
Ever since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his new ''solution'' to asylum problems, the Australian media have been awash with the heartrending spectacle of hand-wringing politicians voicing their horror at the very thought of asylum seekers dying at sea.
Barely holding back their sobs, they have used this as the basis for justifying policies that many would regard as a shameful abrogation of Australia's voluntarily assumed obligations under international law, and a vicious kick to the teeth of people who typically are seeking safety in the face of the threat of persecution in their countries of origin.
Only a cynic would dream of suggesting that this might be a cover for a less attractive motive, namely to harvest the votes of Hansonites and rednecks in marginal seats who probably do not give a damn if asylum seekers die at sea. Yet one of the strange things about the emphasis that is being given to loss of life at sea is that the politicians' concern about loss of life seems strangely selective, almost as if they were speaking from briefing notes circulated by a public relations adviser.
For example, last year, 1307 road fatalities occurred in Australia, up from 1277 in 2011. Each of these deaths is also a tragedy, but reducing the road toll seems to get far less public attention from political figures than ''stopping the boats''. It is curious that these deaths seem to capture little attention from our leaders in comparison with deaths outside our territorial waters of people who are not Australian.
Furthermore, the notion that we will save lives through deterrent policies to discourage using the services of people smugglers is deeply suspect. The reason for this is that deterrent policies such as the new Rudd approach do nothing whatsoever to address the push factors that underpin most substantial refugee movements. No one seems to think about what might happen to people who are blocked from fleeing persecution.
Even if all asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan are to be dumped on Manus Island, fear of the Taliban will continue to prompt people to try to flee those countries. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have an established history of atrocities and human rights violations directed against vulnerable minorities, which only a fool would deny.
And ''success'' in breaking up the ''business model'' of people smugglers in south-east Asia will not put an end to the phenomenon of people smuggling, for this is simply a market response to the discrepancy between on the one hand the need for safety, and on the other hand, the pitifully small number of resettlement places that wealthy countries are prepared to make available globally.
A triumphant success for the Rudd policy approach will simply give a boost to the smuggling activities of the Russian and central Asian mafias. Those fleeing the Taliban will still die, but they will die by drowning in the Mediterranean, or by suffocating in overcrowded trucks. The real message of the new Australian approach is a simple one: ''Go and die somewhere else''.
But if the anguish of politicians over deaths at sea seems just a little bit simulated, there is something infinitely worse about the claim that successful asylum claimants take scarce settlement opportunities away from needier people waiting patiently in squalid refugee camps. This argument, cunningly calculated to appeal to the better instincts of the general public, is altogether without merit.
The reason why is that successive Australian governments have chosen, as a matter of deliberate policy, to cut one resettlement place for each protection visa issued to an asylum seeker arriving in Australia who establishes a credible refugee claim. At the stroke of a pen, the government could do away with this. It could easily run a system in which a fixed number of resettlement places would be guaranteed each year irrespective of the number of successful asylum claimants processed onshore.
While this would be more expensive, the notion that Australia is just too poor to contemplate such a system is simply ludicrous, especially when one looks at far poorer countries that accept vastly more refugees than Australia does. In other words, asylum seekers do not take places away from ''needier refugees''. Rather, politicians have adopted policies to make ''needier refugees'' carry the costs of Australia's treaty obligations.
Politicians also run the line that ''good'' refugees are those who patiently join queues overseas, while ''bad'' refugees are those who act on their own. This claim, too, has little merit. There are several reasons why this is the case. First, while they undoubtedly help some deserving people, offshore resettlement programs do not offer a place in a queue but a ticket in a lottery. Despite the best efforts of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there is very little ''orderly'' about offshore resettlement programs, and no guarantee that they in fact assist the neediest refugees. All too often they exclude the disabled, favour those with sponsors in the country of resettlement, and are distorted by political considerations.
Since 2008-09, Australia has resettled more than 3000 Bhutanese - and while few would begrudge them the opportunity to enjoy a better life in Australia, no one could seriously describe them as the neediest refugees in the world: a recent study concluded that ''relative to refugee camps in other countries, the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal are of a reasonable quality, and relative to health and education systems in rural Nepal, they are of a high quality''.
The main reason this resettlement has occurred is that the Americans, most likely looking for a non-Middle Eastern group to assist, opted to resettle Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and urged their allies to do likewise.
Second, offshore resettlement programs can be subtly biased in favour of those who know
how to work bureaucratic systems. Form 80 from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, to be completed ''neatly in English using block letters'', states that ''if you are applying for a refugee/humanitarian visa you must provide all addresses for the last 30 years (both month and year are required with no gaps)'' - not so hard for a bureaucrat, but not so easy for a
As a former secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs once put it, the ''poor, unskilled, illiterate and non-English-speaking refugee with no links to Australia and stuck in a squalid camp may be in the greatest need of resettlement and have superior claims to 'refugee status', but they are unlikely to be on our priority list''.
In dire circumstances, wise people do not wait for bureaucracies to save them. If they can, they act on their own. That we punish them for it tells us more about us than about them.
Professor William Maley is director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University.