Asylum seeker arrivals by boat now average 2500 a month.

Asylum seeker arrivals by boat now average 2500 a month. Photo: Reuters

It was 14 months ago that then Immigration Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe sounded a warning about relying on the Pacific Solution to once more stop the boats.

Metcalfe was an architect of the policy that John Howard implemented in response to the MV Tampa episode of 2001.

It was one of a suite of polices Labor unravelled when it came into government five years ago, leading to the situation today.

In September last year, after the High Court had put the sword to the Malaysia plan, Metcalfe argued strongly that Parliament needed to legislate to circumvent the court decision and implement the plan.

Nothing that had been tried before would work again, he said, because the Pacific Solution had lost its scare factor. It was now known that if an asylum seeker was sent to Nauru or Manus Island they would most likely wind up in Australia anyway, assessed as a refugee.

The Malaysia plan, which would involve sending 800 arrivals straight back to Malaysia, would, he said, mimic the effect of turning back the boats. This was a limited strategy employed by the Howard government, but of all the measures it employed, it was the most effective.

However, after a handful of successful attempts, turning back the boats became impractical, if not impossible, because the people smugglers scuttled them when the navy or customs vessel hove into view.

Furthermore, the Indonesian government would no longer allow it.

Metcalfe was asked what would happen if the Malaysia solution was never put into practice and the status quo of onshore processing continued.

He said we should expect "600-plus people every month or higher".

Consequently, in just over a year, Australia's mainland detention centres would be full and "long-term detention would become unviable".

"Large numbers" of asylum seekers would have to be released into the community, as they are in London and Paris. This could create underclasses and threaten "our multicultural society, which works so bloody well because everyone has equal status".

"That's why I think this High Court case has frankly a bigger impact — if it stands — on Australia than Mabo and Wik, because this could change the nature of our society and make it more like Europe, where large numbers of asylum seekers turn up," Metcalfe said.

This scenario would play out, with or without the Pacific Solution.

The opposition and the Greens chose to ignore Metcalfe's words and refused to allow the Malaysia plan through Parliament.

Three months ago, the government re-implemented the Pacific Solution as part of a broad suite of measures including boosting the annual humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 20,000 and excising the Australian mainland from the migration zone.

Nothing has worked. Arrivals by boat now average 2500 a month.

There are two broad categories of arrivals: ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan, who have the most legitimate claims to be refugees; and the economic refugees, those coming to Australia by boat because it offers a better lifestyle. The second category is primarily made up of Iranians – who know the Australian government can never send them home because Tehran refuses to take them back – and ethnic Singhalese from Sri Lanka.

These are the people the government is flying back almost as soon as they land because they have no legitimate claim to refugee status. More than 500 have been returned.

Given the similarities to the Malaysia plan, the constant arrival of this ethnic group is an indication that the Malaysia plan, even if implemented now, may no longer work either.

The decision to release thousands of arrivals into the Australian community and subject them to the same limited visa conditions as if they were on Nauru or Manus Island is the latest surrender by the government in a bid to stop the boats. It is an admission the Pacific Solution has not only failed to slow arrivals but has been overwhelmed.

The bridging visas are similar to the temporary protection visas the opposition insists must be brought back.

In short, there is barely a difference now between Labor and Coalition policy.

The airwaves were full this morning of refugees advocates and others heaping damnation on the government, but not a single person offered a solution.

No one said it was acceptable to have 2500 people arriving each month by boat and no one proposed a way to tackle the problem other than to let them all in. They just tut-tutted that measures designed to deter arrivals were cruel, as if this was supposed to be innocuous. There is no humane way to stop boats; only that some methods are less inhumane than others.

The Howard government years showed that the spectre of being unable to control or even moderate arrivals undermines public support for refugees and the migration program.

Those genuine refugees making the trip to Australia are losing sympathy and support because of those abusing the system.

The opposition continues to insist that only it can stop the boats, but it has little more to offer than the polices Labor has been dragged kicking and screaming to re-implement.

It maintains that temporary protection visas and turning back boats where possible will stop the problem, but these would be incremental changes at best to the current policy positions. Metcalfe said TPVs would no longer work.

The bridging visas Labor announced yesterday are hardly likely to deter someone living in Doomsville, Afghanistan.

At least they offer a meagre welfare payment and, eventually, permanent residence in Australia after a five-year wait.

Turning back the boats remains as impractical now as it was when Howard stopped doing it.

Should Labor lose the next election, it is likely Tony Abbott will inherit the problem Labor has created and he has refused to help fix.

And it remains to be seen what, if anything, he can do about it.