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We need to be a little cruel to some to be kind to the rest

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The asylum debate should not forget those waiting in refugee camps.

IN AN odd kind of way my heart goes out almost daily to Chris Bowen in his role as Immigration Minister. Immigration is a difficult job at the best of times. In that job there is a daily diet of difficult decisions, often ones where there is merit on both sides but you have to choose.

I remember, when I was in the role, trying to decide whether to cancel a man's visa and send him back to Britain after he had done his time for manslaughter. He had been here a long time, his family were here and if he had become a citizen when he was a child there would be no question of returning him. His mother penned a heart-wrenching letter about being a pensioner and unwell and therefore unable to travel. The thought of never seeing her son again was causing her intolerable anguish.

A young adviser looking at the file with me was unmoved. ''She should tell her story to the mother of the guy he killed, who won't get a letter, a phone call or a photo from her son,'' he said. As the minister, your name goes on the paper and you take responsibility.

Even when you move from decisions about individual cases to broader policy questions, there are usually difficult choices. All the time you have to remember that there are consequences that flow from what you decide.

It is now clear that abandoning both offshore processing and temporary protection visas has had the consequence of making it more attractive to come to Australia by boat from Indonesia.

Sorting out a way forward rests not only, but heavily, on the shoulders of the Immigration Minister. My heart goes out to him on this one because when there are strongly held but divided views within the community, it is hard enough - but when those divisions go right through your political party and into cabinet, it is a nightmare.

To top it all off, when everyone, informed or otherwise, open-minded or not, has a view and feels keen to share it, life just becomes that much more difficult.

Thankfully we live in a country where everyone is free to share their view. The recent commentary from Sir Gustav Nossal is a case in point. He is an eminent scientist, clear thinker and wonderful contributor to Australia. That of course doesn't always mean his view is correct, although given his reputation many will be inclined to accept it without question.

Sir Gustav is quoted as not opposing offshore processing (the policy of both major parties) because under onshore processing the boat arrivals have increased. He then goes onto assert that the only practical way to stop people smuggling is to set up a processing centre in Indonesia. There is no indication that he was questioned on the rationale for this.

My own view is that this will simply act as a magnet for more people to come through Indonesia. Inevitably this will be at the expense of those waiting in camps in other parts of the world.

Sir Gustav doesn't like the intake of boat people reducing our intake from camps. He says we can afford more. Well, the Howard government increased our intake from camps and Labor has done the same. Australia is and has been for many years the third-largest taker of refugees for permanent resettlement in the world. We offer excellent resettlement services and they are expensive. Unfortunately this achievement, of which we should all be proud, gets little mention as the debate centres on those who want to jump the queue.

If the refugee intake isn't high enough now at 13,750, what would be a fair intake? Would Sir Gustav reduce services to refugees in order to afford more? What would he say when any agreed limit was reached? What would he do with any people who, not wanting to wait in a queue in Indonesia, came by boat anyway? Whatever limit we agree on leaves us with the question of how to enforce that limit - how to stop the boats.

A refugee travelling the world to shop around for the ideal migration destination is a long way from the traditional notion of a refugee fleeing persecution. Still, as we know, that golden visa card called ''Australian permanent residence'' or ''citizenship'' is a very valuable result.

Why would we think destination shoppers are more entitled to that reward than those who wait in camps? It is really only because they are here - that is, it is the politics of proximity and the politics of convenience. We turn our back on those waiting in camps because it is just too hard to stand up for them.

The so-called search for a policy that will stop the boats is in itself interesting. We know that not giving destination shoppers what they want, in combination with offshore processing, works. What else are we searching for?

If we offer only temporary protection, no permanence, no citizenship and no family reunion, the boats will stop. It may be tough on those who want to jump the queue, but it is fair to all those who sit and wait.

Amanda Vanstone was immigration minister in the Howard government.

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