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Asylum: A foreign or domestic problem?

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COMMENTS

22 September 2011 16:01

In the noise after the High Court's decision and the looming defeat of the Government's bill to revive its Malaysia deal, we are losing sight of the fact that Australia faces a defining choice on how we address the issue of asylum seekers. To go to first principles, we need to ask if unauthorised migration is Australia's domestic problem, or a regional problem.

The first option holds that asylum seekers are primarily a domestic Australian problem. Once asylum seekers arrive, the federal government acts to process or deport. This may include processing in a place that, for legal reasons, is outside our exclusion zone (Christmas Island, Nauru, PNG), but such facilities are Australian-owned and operated, and essentially domestic in character. It is assumed under this option that legislation restricting entry (such as temporary visas) can deter people making the original trip.

The second option is that unauthorised migration is a transnational issue and must be addressed regionally. This has been started with the 2002 Bali Process, significant agreements on standardised anti-people smuggling legislation, and more recently the East Timor processing centre (vetoed by East Timor) and the Malaysia deal (vetoed by the High Court).

The fundamental moral risk of the first option is the Australia must passively watch people undertaking dangerous travel via exploitative people smugglers to Australia (In the 2011 Lowy poll, this was the primary concern of most Australians). Once here, however, Australia can provide humane treatment during processing as is our responsibility under international treaties.

The fundamental moral risk of the second option is that Australia relinquishes control over the conditions during processing (this was the main criticism of the Malaysia deal, and such control/land for the processing was unwanted by East Timor), but would likely better ensure that no risky boat journey to Australia is undertaken.

Neither choice offers a clear moral option. But we have a choice. Do we agree that unauthorised migration is a domestic problem (leaving us to debate if legislation deter others, and the length and conditions of processing once here), or do we see it as akin to the drug trade and human trafficking, something to be addressed in the transit ports of our region (leaving us to then debate how we achieve agreement, and what sort of regional processing conditions we would satisfied with).

I have a clear preference for the second, though I'll leave the case for why till a later post, but as the noise and politics grows, it's worth highlighting the philosophical choice underpinning this debate. What type of problem we take unauthorised migration to be, a domestic problem or a regional one, will critically define how we go about trying to address it.

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