Positive developments in Australian asylum seeker policy
The Australian government has just announced a very positive change to the policy detaining asylum seekers. According to the new policy, detention of asylum seekers will no longer be mandatory and will only apply to those arriving by boat or who are deemed to pose a threat to the community in some way or another. It would also appear that even those detained will be subjected to a less draconian form of detention, with an emphasis on resolving cases quickly.
Not surprisingly, the Liberal opposition has condemned the move, claiming that this will send the wrong message to people smugglers. The opposition spokesman for immigration, Chris Ellison stated that:
“The fact that we only have six unauthorised arrivals in detention in Australia today demonstrates the past success of the coalition government’s strong border protection policies,” he said.
The decision would send a message to people smugglers in the region that the nation is relaxing its border control, he said. (SMH, 29 July 2008)
I have always been horrified by the logic of such arguments, which essentially says that some people, whether “genuine” refugees or not, should be punished in order to prevent criminal behaviour on the part of others. This is a form of exemplary punishment akin to flogging some prisoners in order to serve as a warning to others. It is particularly disturbing that a logic of this kind has the sort of respectability it does in public discourse in Australia. Politicians from the right have been justifying mandatory detention, including the incarceration of children, for years. Even now, Labor is careful to emphasise that they are not “opening the gates”, or going soft on asylum seekers. For me this is a false framing of the debate: it shouldn’t be about who is “hard” or “soft” on asylum seekers but rather whether it is justified to use the misery of some as a deterrent to others.
In any case, the new policy direction is indeed welcome, though the online activist group GetUp! has noted that it could be easily reversed due to a change of heart of this, or a future, government. They are calling for an ammendment to the Migration Act (PDF) in order to reverse the “presumption of detention”. This is something I wholeheartedly support and I would encourage people to sign the online petition in order to put pressure on the Rudd government to do just that.