In the past few days we have seen the issue of refugee processing rear its ugly head yet again in what I can only suspect is a bid to bury the issue during the Christmas/New Years season. It’s an incredibly clichéd topic but I think it warrants a revisit.

Immigration has always been a problem in Australia; or, rather, Australia has always had a problem with immigration. A terrible combination of that peculiarly English brand of xenophobia and a feeling of being isolated in the middle of Asia has left Australia with a questionable legacy that politicians, in an age of appealing to the lowest common denominator, are too happy to exploit.

The collapse of colonialism has made it more difficult (not to mention less appropriate) to deal with displaced persons by settling them on ‘vacant’ land but with violence and the environment displacing people every year there is a definite need for relocation. We in the west, who have greater access to employment, greater living conditions and better support structures, are in a better place to receive refugees and should be taking it upon ourselves to support those who do emigrate, while also helping to improve circumstances in affected countries.

Some refugees may squander their second chance: many Australians don’t take full advantage of their first. To cut a long rant short, I wholeheartedly support humanitarian immigration; my problem lies in offshore processing. Here are a few reasons why.

Offshore processing is a political tool.

When one thinks of an asylum seeker, the common image is of someone who has tried travelling to Australia on a boat with 20 – 100 other people and who has been intercepted somewhere near Christmas Island or off the coast of Western Australia.

It is an image easily adapted by reporters and politicians to make people believe we are being swamped or invaded by boat people to the point where people are surprised, or outright deny, that the vast majority of illegal immigrants arrive by air. One might also point out the following from a Government report into boat arrivals (July 2011):

“…past figures show that more asylum seekers who arrived by boat have been recognised as refugees than those who entered Australia by air.”[1]

As long as the public can be tricked into thinking there are hordes of foreigners trying to get into the country illegally, the government can get away with skipping over its humanitarian obligations and failing to provide the healthcare (mental and physical) that is required by people who have been forced from their homes and find themselves in a detention camp.

It sweeps the issue under the rug.

There are Immigration Detention Centres in most Australian states and territories (South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory the exceptions) and immigration facilities every state and territory. Even before they open, IDCs create controversy and political headaches; as the opening of the Inverbrackie “Alternative Place of Detention” (low security detention centre) proved, the opening of detention centres is highly contentious and rarely approved of by the locals.

When problems arise in onshore detention centres it is hard for the public to avoid. When I was growing up in Adelaide the Woomera detention centre was constantly in the media with reports of suicide, human rights abuses, overcrowding and a substantial lack of funding (the centre, designed to hold 400 people, held nearly 1500 detainees at one stage and at one point held over 450 children).

When detainees protested at the Maribyrnong IDC it was a topic of conversation at the family get together my wife and I went to (and I’m fairly sure someone mentioned machine-gunning the lot of them into submission).

But when the IDC is on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, or even in a foreign country, it is much harder for activist groups and journalists to keep an eye on and publicise what’s happening. It took a Four Corners report on the treatment of cattle in Indonesia to get the Government to make sure that processes and training were being properly implemented; would it take a similar effort to make sure that detention centres in Nauru, East Timor or Malaysia were being properly managed?

Is it really wise to use detention for economic development?

One of the common arguments in the East Timor and Nauru solutions was that the establishment of detention centres in those countries would be fortuitous to their economies and create a sustainable industry for the people there. Frankly this argument is sort of like justifying hanging because it keeps carpenters in work. If we are going to encourage small nations in their development, should it not be in something productive or constructive?

To wrap up I will say only this: those who arrive by boat have a much higher likelihood of being granted refugee status in Australia than those who arrive by any other means. Even if this wasn’t the case they deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity.

[1] “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?” Australian Government