QUARTERLY ESSAY 13 Sending Them Home



Amanda Vanstone

Robert Manne’s essay Sending Them Home: Refugees and the New Politics of Indifference is the latest addition to a genre that is popular within a small but articulate section of the Australian community. Dear to the heart of this collection of church leaders, journalists and academics is the view that a large section of the Australian community is racist and xenophobic. Perhaps because they feel unappreciated by the wider Australian community, many Australian intellectuals have tended to regard their “ordinary” brothers and sisters as redneck and racist. The views of this bunch in relation to asylum seeking are built on a psychological foundation of denial about some very uncomfortable realities.

The first is that global inequality and the growth of people smuggling combine to undermine the integrity of the international system, designed to grant protection to those people most in need.

The reality is that 1.2 billion people live in absolute, dire poverty, surviving on less than a US$1 a day. The world has millions of vulnerable people and people smugglers will always prey on that vulnerability.

Secondly, our tender-minded intellectuals cannot face the fact Australia’s capacity to provide places for refugees is necessarily finite. If we accept as a refugee someone whose claims are doubtful, we do so at the expense of someone else whose claims for permanent protection may be stronger. We can only help so many people and nothing can change that.

Focused on his own compassion and always ready to point an accusing finger, Robert Manne seems impervious to these uncomfortable realities. If he had taken a long hard look at some basic facts, he might have been much slower to condemn governments tasked with making the tough decisions these facts impose.

According to the International Organisation for Migration there are an estimated 30 to 40 million illegal immigrants worldwide. Annually, around 500,000 illegal migrants enter Europe and another 700,000 enter the USA. It is obvious to anyone with an open mind that the overwhelming majority of these people are not refugees.

Most of the 10 million people the United Nations estimates are genuine refugees live in camps where life is hard, generally much harder than in many of the source countries for Australia’s recent unlawful entrants. They are not wandering the world looking for a place to stop. Of course it is true that genuine refugees still cross borders to seek protection in Western countries. And it is important that access to a refugee determination process and a place of protection be available to all who need to seek protection.

Robert Manne is not moved by the plight of people in camps, however; they, it seems, are the world’s problem, not Australia’s.

But the reality today, which is confirmed by the statistics of asylum claims in Western countries, is that the overwhelming majority of claimants in recent years have not been found to be refugees.

In the Netherlands, for example, in 2002 only 0.6 per cent of claimants were given refugee status and a total of 12.2 per cent were given some form of protection. In Germany less than 10 per cent of claimants were successful in 2002 in gaining any form of protection.

In many cases, the people who arrive illegally in Western countries have travelled through countries where they could have found protection. Indeed, many of them may have enjoyed long-term protection in another country. Their motives for proceeding to the wealthy West are obvious. They want a better standard of living. This is no doubt a fact that causes discomfort for the guilt merchants.

Robert Manne admits that “very large numbers” of people have sought to exploit refugee laws by “claims of persecution which are either exaggerated or invented”. However, he does not dwell on this point or face the scale of the problem. The psychology of denial requires him to move on quickly.

With hundreds of thousands of people flowing into affluent European Western countries and most claims for asylum being rejected, there is inevitably a buildup of people without legal status. The many legal obstacles to removal of unsuccessful claimants in most jurisdictions are a major part of the problem.

In Europe, in particular, there have been relatively few removals. European countries have emphasised the importance of voluntary return. If failed asylum seekers are not removed, then assessment processes seem pointless and they can be allowed to move slowly.

What has happened, to be candid about it, is that the Europeans have made a virtue out of necessity. They cannot easily prevent arrivals, nor easily remove people, so they have been happy for their response to be portrayed as an exercise in compassion. Things are changing, however. The Europeans are more actively tackling these issues. Some of the approaches being considered mirror those taken by the Australian government. Robert Manne needs to open his eyes and see what is happening.

The Netherlands, a longstanding champion of the UN Refugee Convention, has recently confronted the problem of failed asylum seekers. In February this year the Dutch Parliament legislated to introduce involuntary removal for failed asylum seekers. This applies to an estimated 26,000 people who have arrived since the introduction of new asylum legislation in 2001. Some still have avenues of appeal open, but they now know that involuntary removal stands at the end of the process.

The sad reality is that the international system of protection for people fleeing persecution is under threat from economically motivated illegal migration. Unless the integrity of the asylum system can be ensured – and this means that failed asylum seekers must be returned – the whole system is in danger of falling into disrepute. Attacks on the return of failed asylum seekers are undermining the integrity of the 1951 Convention.

Unless governments around the world actively discourage the use of people smugglers the United Nation’s system becomes a second-class system, available only to those who cannot afford to pay a people smuggler.

The hope of an orderly system of resettlement for those refugees most in need of a new home is under threat from those who are happy for people smugglers to decide who gets resettled

Robert Manne makes much of the fact a large percentage of boat people in the years leading up to Tampa had been successful in their asylum claims in Australia. Yet he does not acknowledge that this suggests that Australia’s system is fair and that people whose claims are not recognised should leave Australia. His world is a world where everyone can have what they want, where no one gains something else at the expense of anyone else. This is the attitude of the armchair commentator, not someone with actual responsibility for making the tough decisions of government.

Manne rejects any connection between places granted “onshore”, that is, asylum claims approved for people who have arrived in Australia one way or another, and “offshore places”, that is, places granted to people outside Australia. He cannot face the reality that having set the number of places to be taken by refugees, any place taken by an “onshore” grantee will be at the expense of an “offshore” applicant.

Yet this is the way our system works. We grant as many places per year as we think we reasonably can. In 2004–05 it will increase from 12,000 to 13,000. If any of these places are unfilled in the year in which they are allocated, they are added to the allocation of the following year. Our commitment to providing protection to people most in need is clear and transparent. Where a person on a temporary protection visa no longer needs protection and leaves Australia, the place vacated will be added to the allocation available for that year. This is a transparent process. It makes brutally clear the fact that we live in a world where all of the good things we take for granted in Australia are very limited, globally.

Nowhere is Robert Manne’s state of denial more evident than in relation to the Pacific Solution. The decision to hear asylum seekers’ claims outside Australia has been very effective in stemming the flow of asylum seekers into Australia by boat.

The success of the Pacific Solution is something that seems to have Robert Manne shifting uncomfortably in his armchair. The objective of asylum seekers heading for Australia is to get a foothold in Australia, rather than to gain protection that may well be available elsewhere. If they make it to Australia, Australian courts and Australian refugee advocates offer a hope that people can stay, irrespective of the strength of any refugee claim. For claimants in detention, the advocates fight for release. For people granted a temporary visa, the advocates campaign for permanent visas.

Manne cites the case of the Minasa Bone, the Indonesian fishing vessel carrying fourteen Turkish Kurds that landed on Melville Island in 2003. He notes that the excision of Melville Island from Australia’s migration zone effectively prevented claims from being made in Australia. He fails, however, to mention how this story ends, with offshore processing. When the fourteen were given the opportunity to have their claims heard in Indonesia by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), seven did not even bother to take this opportunity – they caught the first plane back to Turkey. The rest had their claims refused and left shortly after that. In interviews with the media before leaving, they described their motives as a desire to set up kebab shops and earn $8000 a week, and to meet Australian women.

Robert Manne and other refugee advocates never explain why they are unwilling to abide by the umpire’s rules. It is evident, however, that they are sympathetic to any claim made by an asylum seeker and ready to reject as biased the assessments made by Immigration Department officials or the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Part of Robert Manne’s problem is his unwillingness to consider numbers. He wants us to focus on the 12,000 people who sought to reach Australia in the period in question. “There is little we can do for the overwhelming majority of the fourteen million.” He calls this “the ethics of proximity”. I call it the ethics of tokenism. This is just the salving of a conscience that cannot face the ugly reality of millions of refugees, let alone the much bigger moral problem of global inequality.

The most moral and compassionate way of responding to this horrendous problem is not to take the easy way out by accepting only those on your doorstep, but to determinedly take first those most in need. Largely they will not be people who can afford to pay people smugglers.

The fact is that Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program, which will have 13,000 places in 2004–05, can play an important part in helping the UNHCR to work with affected governments to solve the problems of refugees in camps. The UNHCR’s preference is always for people to return to their homes if this is at all possible. Where this is not possible, resettlement can play a critical role in resolving longstanding problems.

Over the past decade Australia has welcomed a million migrants from all over the world. Included in this are more than a hundred thousand refugee and humanitarian entrants. This is not a sign of a country that is xenophobic or racist. It is not cold or lacking in compassion. But clearly the majority of Australians, who support the government’s policy, are able to face harsh realities that leave tender-minded intellectuals in denial.

Robert Manne and other woolly-minded critics of our refugee policy need to face the fact that their armchair moralising is not some harmless excess of compassion. It provides critical support to the burgeoning people-smuggling business, which in turn threatens the future of the international refugee protection system. If this thought does not get through the net of denial that lets him sleep peacefully every night, he could reflect on the responsibility he would hold for any future loss of life through people getting into leaky boats and attempting to enter Australia unlawfully.


Amanda Vanstone is the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 13, Sending Them Home. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 14, Mission Impossible.


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