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Here's how to create long-term, safer pathways to Australia for asylum seekers

The sight of the two big parties exchanging and releasing letters on Tuesday was a performance that gave little hope for a sensible, humane or long-term response to the complex humanitarian issue of asylum seekers.

Australia receives around 2% of asylum applications to industrialised nations - over six months we receive equivalent numbers of unauthorised arrivals that Italy receives in one weekend. Yet political consideration of asylum policy is so warped our leaders were reduced to bickering like note-passing schoolchildren.

It is the Australian Greens' platform that the arrival of asylum seekers, whether by air or boat, is a humanitarian issue and cannot be dealt with in any practical or long-term sense while it continues to be conflated with border control or national security.

Let's not forget it was John Howard who in the wake of September 11 and in desperation to win the 2001 election set out to make the issue of people fleeing war-torn countries seeking refuge a matter of national security.

Remember too that while politicians are talking about saving lives, when she launched the Malaysia swap deal on May 7, not once did the Prime Minister mention stopping deaths at sea or preventing another Christmas Island shipwreck. Nine times she said she wanted to send asylum seekers to the back of the supposed "queue" while she said ‘smash the people smugglers' business model' six times.

Asylum seekers are not coming to Australia to breach our borders, but instead to invoke the protections of our borders. Any plan in response to boat arrivals must remember our nation is a signatory to the Refugee Convention because we believe those needing protection should be given safe haven.

It is tragically illustrative of asylum seekers' desperation that some survivors from last weekend's boat wreck told journalists in Java they will make the journey again. They are devastated by the loss of friends and family yet they will risk everything to seek our protection once more.

It is not naïve of the Greens to call for a more effective and compassionate approach that decreases, as far as possible, asylum seekers' reliance on unsafe journeys by sea. History has shown us there are better alternatives. It is only the big parties' obsession with appearing ‘tough' on boat arrivals that creates a false dichotomy of Australia having to choose between cruel off-shore assessments, or the current scenario of unmitigated boat departures.

People are astounded to hear there are only two UNHCR officers in Indonesia tasked with assessing asylum applications. For the past decade Australia has taken roughly 60 refugees per year from Indonesia, despite knowing hundreds of asylum seekers are transiting through or waiting there.

The government should look back to 1989 and the Comprehensive Plan of Action adopted by 70 nations to assist refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. A revamped version could see Asia-Pacific governments co-fund regional screening centres run by the UNHCR, with commitments to resettlement quotas upheld by participating countries. Australia can the lead the way.

This is something the Australian Greens would be interested in supporting - adequately-resourced regional assessment centres which provide transitory protection in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, from where we could directly accept refugees and genuinely undercut people smugglers. Crucially, such centres should never be used punitively as dumping grounds for asylum seekers who have managed to reach Australia, as in the government's Malaysian swap deal. It was in no way a long-term response while the "queue" in Malaysia is effectively 53 years long.

We could cope with regional resettlement commitments by lifting our humanitarian quota to 25,000, including directly accepting an extra 5,000 -10,000 refugees from Indonesia and Malaysia. Giving individuals hope their families won't be in unprotected limbo that is essentially a life-time sentence.

We should be prepared to offer more protection as global conflicts ebb and flow. It seems to have escaped some commentators that boat arrivals are higher due to escalations in persecution in specific nations. The biggest increase in asylum applicants to Australia in 2009-2011 came from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

We must also consider improving assessment processes in the regions of origin or countries of origin such as Afghanistan. Again, there is precedent from the 1980s when internally displaced people from El Salvador and Chile were accepted into Australia through targeted in-country programs.

One of the Hazara survivors of the recent Java boat tragedy said he tried repeatedly to apply for protection through Australian channels in Kabul but was told to reapply by sending an email in 2014. For him, staying at home by the computer waiting until 2014 was as much a risk of harm or death as the journey to Australia by sea. Iranian asylum seekers I've met in detention centres around Australia tell me they had only hours to collect their family and leave their country.

Seeking asylum, fleeing for your life and trying to protect your family from persecution is by its very nature disorderly. The problem lies not with asylum seekers but the persecution that spurs them to run. They should not be punished or jailed in remote island prisons as examples. Our challenge as a safe, peaceful and humanitarian country is to work with our neighbours to manage displaced people's needs as best we can, offering a practical, humane and long-term response.

It's important to remember the horrors of off-shore detention. Amanda Vanstone closed the Nauru centres due to a dire mental health crisis in 2005 brought on by housing vulnerable people in a remote, impoverished nation. They had little access to fresh water, legal advocacy, community support or adequate health and medical services. Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has been condemned by Amnesty International for its ill-treatment of asylum seekers, including caning over 30,000 foreigners in the past five years.

The Greens believe the well-documented harms of off-shore detention do not outweigh the supposed ‘deterrence' effect. In the past 13 years - regardless of which government and which policy was in place - at least 22 boats have sunk between Indonesia and Australia. The SIEV X sank and killed 353 people weeks after the Howard government passed the ‘Pacific Solution'.

People who seek protection and who are unable to access visas and flights will keep coming while the prospect of life here is better and safer than at home. Incarcerating them for months and years in what Dr Patrick McGorry calls "factories for mental illness" should not be a deterrent Australia is willing to stomach as a Refugee Convention signatory. That's akin to saying all drug addicts should be jailed in order to send a message to the dealers.

We need a durable, long-term solution and for that reason the Australian Greens will always be willing to discuss and consider a genuine regional framework based on compassion and humanity.

 

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