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If only they would listen

While the Liberals gloat over stopping the boats, and Labor wrings its hands pretending concern about drownings, other more enlightened people are offering practical advice, if only our politicians would listen.

Julian Burnside, who knows more than most about the plight of refugees, makes the following eminently sensible suggestions.

“I suggest an alternative, genuine, form of offshore processing, which is for Australia to process asylum claims offshore (in Indonesia, before they get on a boat) and, for those assessed as refugees, promise resettlement in a finite, specified time.

The essential elements of this proposal include:

• Our annual refugee intake would need to be increased. It is presently set at 13,750. It should be increased to 30,000 per year.

• The processing has to be fair. Experience suggests that, when processing is not subject to judicial oversight, the result of the process owes more to political considerations than to the merits of the particular claims. Experience on Nauru from 2001 to 2005 threw up some notorious examples of grossly unfair processing.

• The increase in refugee places has to be sufficient to keep their waiting time in Indonesia to a reasonable length: one year at the most. A longer waiting time than that may prompt some to try a quicker route.

• We would have to enlist Indonesia’s cooperation so that the refugees could live without harassment while they waited in Indonesia for resettlement. In particular, it is desirable that they be allowed to work while in Indonesia awaiting resettlement.

• We would have to warn them about the risk of getting on a smuggler’s boat.

This sort of offshore processing would in fact solve the problem of people risking their lives at sea. By processing refugee claims in Indonesia, and increasing our refugee intake, we would create a system for safe, orderly resettlement. We can do it. But we won’t do it unless our concern about people drowning at sea is genuine.

A real regional solution

I do not advocate an open borders policy. Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is reasonable. But it should be limited to one month, for preliminary health and security checks. After that, release them on interim visas with four crucial conditions:

• they must stay in touch with the Department until their refugee status has been determined;

• they are allowed to work or study;

• they are allowed access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;

• they are required to live in a regional town until their refugee status has been determined.

There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. The National Farmers Federation estimates that there are 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas. It is highly likely that many asylum seekers would get jobs.

How this would work can be tested by making some assumptions.

First: numbers. The average arrival rate of boat people over the past 20 years is about 2,000 per year. In 2001 (the year of the Tampa episode), just over 4,000 boat people arrived. (It is a striking thing how the arrival of 4,000 frightened people threw the country into a panic). In 2012, 25,000 boat people arrived. That is roughly equivalent to the annual arrival numbers in the late 1970s, as we resettled Indo-Chinese refugees, with no observable social difficulty. The arrival rate has fallen away again, but let us assume that the 2012 figure becomes the new normal.

And second, let us assume that all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits.

These are both highly unlikely assumptions.

It would cost us about $500 million a year. All that money would be spent in the economies of regional towns on rent, food and clothing, to the great benefit of the economy of the regional towns where they lived. It is not difficult to see the benefits to the economy of towns which are slowly losing population to the capitals.

By contrast, we are presently spending about $5 billion a year mistreating refugees. In other words, by treating them decently we could reduce the cost of the system by about $4.5 billion a year.

It is not hard to think of national infrastructure projects which might be funded from the savings. A billion dollars a year could be turned to creating more public housing for homeless Australians; another billion dollars a year could be applied to building schools or hospitals, or used to reduce the deficit or reverse tertiary education funding cuts.

There are many ways these ideas could be implemented. A few billion dollars a year can be used to damage asylum seekers profoundly, or it can be used for the benefit of the community in which asylum seekers live pending refugee status determination and for the benefit of the wider community. But it won’t happen until someone shows enough leadership that we are behaving badly because we have been misled about the character of the people who wash up on our shores.

Let us hope that, one day soon, Australia will show that it can return to its true character.”

Hear, hear.


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  1. Jexpat

    Unforunately, Liberals and the the present Labor leadership alike are impervious to sensible economic arguments.

  2. Julianne

    Thank you Julian.
    “I suggest an alternative, genuine, form of offshore processing, which is for Australia to process asylum claims offshore (in Indonesia, before they get on a boat) and, for those assessed as refugees, promise resettlement in a finite, specified time.”
    A man of compassion, learning with an ability to enunciate a clear, reasonable argument as to how we should deal with this oppressive problem. If only you were our “Opposition Leader” – as far as politicians are concerned I hold the view “He who shouts loudest – turn him over first”. But our form of politics has produced a “slogan” prime minister, and a “humpty dumpty” opposition leader who fears to make a stance in case he is criticised. Neither side seem to have any concerns beyond themselves and the next election. Nothing seems to move them.

  3. Kaye Lee

    As at 30 June 2015 there were 28,588 asylum seekers who had arrived by boat (including 3,579 children) who had been permitted to live in the community on Bridging Visas while waiting for their claims for protection to be processed.

    Asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat on or after 13 August 2012 and who have been granted bridging visas are not permitted to work. They may be given temporary assistance (89% of the Centrelink Special Benefit rate) for six weeks. After that they have to qualify for special hardship status to continue receiving that small benefit.

    Temporary protection visas, which Morrison used children to blackmail Ricky Muir into agreeing to, do not allow for family reunion and if the TPV holders leave the country they are not allowed to re-enter, which means their families often use people smugglers to try to reunite with them.

    None of what we are doing makes any sense – moral, economic, or common.

  4. jimhaz

    This is a decent plan that the public would accept. It’s moderate and removes the avoidable cruelty.

    i don’t quite get it however, What happens to the excess over the 30,000? Just stay in limbo in Indonesia?

    [they are allowed to work or study]

    There would be issues in relation to work. Islanders who are on 457 visas working on farms will miss out – many are relatively poor. Perhaps fewer Aboriginals would be employed. Some of this already occurs – many work for abattoirs.

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    20,000 of those young families on the roads in Europe could just be the stimulus needed to get this country moving again.

  6. Florence nee Fedup

    Abbott is right. What this country doesn’t need, never needed is detention camps for the refugees we have taken in. I would be surprised if Keating envisaged detention while being processed, on the scale we have seen since his days.

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  9. diannaart

    I suggest an alternative, genuine, form of offshore processing, which is for Australia to process asylum claims offshore (in Indonesia, before they get on a boat) and, for those assessed as refugees, promise resettlement in a finite, specified time.

    I and many others have been saying and thinking the same thing since Howard & SIEV X, when Australia began its turn to the far-right.

    Of course, I am not Julian Burnside…. and not even a person of his eminence is given much voice on the MSM.

    Maybe we don’t need people of reason, just complete nutters calling the millions of people flailing across the Mediterranean, fleeing bombs and horrors perpetrated by a Willing Coalition as well as other complete nutters (IS) as “illegal”.

    Someone needs to explain to Abbott – that his family were economic migrants, but people fleeing war-zones are refugees.

  10. Wayne Turner

    On the asylum seeker issue:-

    Liberal party = No shame.

    Labor party = No guts.

  11. mars08

    Labor Party … No guts, no shame, no idea.

  12. Mark Needham

    “The processing has to be fair.”
    Even Julian, has to admit that it has to be fair.

    But they are not queueing, are they, Kaye Lee, “their waiting time in Indonesia to a reasonable length: one year at the most. A longer waiting time than that may prompt some to try a quicker route.”

    So, we hope they are not catching a boat,??

    Please, please give us all a break. Let us all make up our minds as to what is going on.

    Further comment that “TPV holders leave the country they are not allowed to re-enter, ” things are that bad, persecution, eminent death that they can return to the country that is so bad, that they must FLEE, so suddenly and NOW.

    “could just be the stimulus needed to get this country moving again.” and the last 50,000 have done what…?
    As Mr Agius, often says, “no evidence.”

    Mark Needham

  13. Kaye Lee


    You say from the comfort and safety of your home to “give us all a break”. Well I am sorry Mark. People like you need to be faced with some truth. You are under the misapprehension that there is an orderly queue of refugees waiting their turn for their number to come up and that anyone who gets proactive about saving their family should be vilified. You want to “make up your own mind” but you are doing so in ignorance.

    The point about TPVs is that it forces the family of the TPV holder to get on a boat is they want to be reunited. They will not issue visas to their family. If your family was in Indonesia or Malaysia and you couldn’t see them what would you do?

    Of the “last 50,000”, 30,000 of them are either locked up in detention or have been given visas that DO NOT allow them to work.

    There is a very nasty undertone of selfish racism in your comments Mark. You make me feel ashamed of Australia.

  14. i have a nugget of pure green

    I have noticed that Marks comments generally revolve around the principle of “its someone else’s problem”

    He does not appear to be able to identify with the humanity of the people fleeing from persecution, which is why that photo of the little boy is so potent. You cannot deny the humanity of that little body on the beach. To use the event of this tragedy for political gain is abhorrent.

    I am not ashamed of this country, I am ashamed of the Abbott Government and their backers. I hope that sanity will prevail in the next government

    I pity a large section of Australians for their ignorance, as there is no excuse for it in the information age, but i hope this experience will remind them that in a democracy everyone has a duty to provide informed consent and not vote blindly and on “faith”.

  15. stephentardrew

    Great ideas Kaye and a good solution. Like any model it will need to be tested on the ground however it is far superior to any suggestions I have heard.

    Another worrying point is the militarisation of the so called Border Force which is, to me, an attempt to pretend to remove employees moral obligations by treating people like commodities. This is unbelievable dangerous. The idea is that no matter what government you simply have to follow the laws initiated by the current government which can remove moral checks and balances at will and this is exactly what the L-NP are in the process of doing to reflect their own immoral stance on refugees. This is undemocratic dictatorial totalitarianism under the pseudo guise of just and democratic representation.

    If you cannot justify your policies on moral grounds then condition the public to believe it is an amoral necessity through fear and racist vilification. It is a strange kind of racism not akin to the white Australian Policy because we are largely multicultural now but the notion of cultural superiority and privilege that others are not deserving of. It is a more devious kind of US exceptionalism

    This Machiavellian distortion of the sensible facts is undermining the values of our culture by trying to make immoral acts acceptable amoral necessities thus destroying the foundations of justice, equity and the reasonable utilitarian redistribution of goods.

    The real danger is that these attitudes filter through to every strata of society twisting the facts to suit immoral corporate exploitation and undemocratic ideological theocratic dictatorship.

  16. Florence nee Fedup

    I think you will find the camps in the Middle East, full, overcrowded and suffering from lack of funds. Some have been there years already. Some are being attacked by ISIL. Not a safe place to be. What seems to be on the roads now, are the last left, those with young families.

    If the towns have been razed to the ground, leaving no work at all, is one a economic migrant when they leave. No job, no feed means one starves.

    The Hungarian leader passed new laws to jail them for years. How does one jail firstly hundreds, then babies, toddlers and kids?

    Can’t see his problem. They don’t want to stay in his country anyway.

    Germany and other countries seem to believe they can take them, absorb them into their communities. Allow them to be productive instead of rotting in camps for years. Win win in my eyes.

    Doesn’t appear to be many older people among what we are seeing. Suspect many of them went early, managed to get to Europe from the camps in the Middle East. Many interviewed said they were on way to parents all over Europe, not just Germany.

    I had four kids. I cannot even imagine how women on their own, with nothing but a carry bag and young kids, including babies have got as far as they have. Having babies along the way. Many heading for husbands that went ahead.

    FM Bishop made me sick this Morning. Someone tell her this hasn’t occurred in the last week. It has been going on for at least four or more years.

  17. Florence nee Fedup

    Time to give rebirth to the Fraser Vietnam Solution. It worked. This nation gained. Win win.

  18. mars08

    If we are serious about mitigating this tragedy… and stopping anything like it in future…. We MUST call for the immediate prosecution of GW Bush, Tony Blair and GW Howard for starting a war of aggression in the Middle East. What we are seeing today is a direct result of that foolish, needless action.

  19. Kaye Lee

    I would rather spend the resources on helping the people who are the victims of conflict though the coalition would accuse me of wanting a terrorist picnic.

    Imagine the good we could do if the money spent globally on wars and war games/toys and on fossil fuel subsidies was redirected towards rebuilding, eliminating poverty and hunger, providing clean water, shelter and education.

    Imagine if we tried to understand the causes of things rather than reacting punitively to the symptoms.

  20. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Julian Burnside’s common sense and humanitarian approach to asylum seeker processing will be adopted. The governing body that does so will invoke substantial, ongoing and diverse community support.

    The LNP Degenerates are incapable of alternative solution-seeking. Labor is too frightened to come out of the closet. It will take a combination of individuals from various parties and community groups to see the wisdom, and then advocate and implement it.

    That’s why a working Alliance of the Greens, some selected honourable Labor MPs, sane Independents, diverse progressive voices and parties is essential now.

    Once the Alliance is formed, other great innovative and problem-solving ideas for other issues can be pursued and implemented too.

  21. SirJohn Ward

    Who demolished the World Trade Centres and building 6 and 7?
    Who needed a war to cover up misdeeds of the top corporations that would have created a wall street crash?

  22. Unhappy

    I’m sorry but I totally disagree with you on the number of refugees Australia should increase to each year. 30,000 people is far to many for a country our size. I don’t believe all these people are displaced from their own countries. Not for a minute. I believe many of them just want to get out and they just expect counties like Australia to take then in no questions asked. Well I have many questions to ask and I think all Australians should be doing the same. Like what are their intentions for one! We don’t want terrorist moving in to this country although I believe there are many here already. The safety of our people should be put before these refugees coming here. Believe me once they are here they won’t be removed as easily. Wake up Australia!

  23. Kaye Lee

    Oh for heavens sake, no wonder you are unhappy. For starters are you aware that we take about 200,000 migrants every year so your assertion that “30,000 people is far too many” is just silly. When you say you don’t believe these people are displaced from their country on what do you base your belief when every agency who is actually there says there are over 6.5 million people displaced in Syria alone? And has it escaped your attention that bombs are being dropped on Iraq and Syria, some of them by us? Do you want people to stay with their children and fight our bombs? What are their intentions? To find a peaceful place to live, work and raise their family. The safety of “our people” is at far more risk from intolerant bigots than terrorist asylum seekers.

  24. Stop The Lies

    “Who demolished the World Trade Centres and building 6 and 7?
    Who needed a war to cover up misdeeds of the top corporations that would have created a wall street crash?”

    It wasnt Muslims.

  25. Matters Not

    Well I have many questions to ask

    Good. You have come to the right place to get them answered. So fire away.

    You can use either an essay or a list format.

    Are you aware that Australia has taken in 7.5 million immigrants since the end of WW11?

  26. Itsazoosue


    Why do you not believe that all these people are displaced from their own countries? The evidence is available in abundance. Here is a clip from a doctor on the ground in Syria. What would you do if you and your family faced the same situation? What would your intentions be in removing yourself and your family from this horror?

    Please don’t confuse asylum seekers with terrorists. The former are a product of the “war on terror” as well as its innocent victims. They are desperate and need help.

    Did you know that by 1982, following the Vietnam war, Australia had taken 60,000 Vietnamese refugees? This equates to one refugee to every 250 Australians (based on a poulation of 15m). The number of 30,000 refugees which you believe to be excessive is only one per 767 Australians (based on a population of 23m). By comparison, Turkey is currently hosting 1.2m Syrian refugees – one for every 64.5 Turkish citizens.

    I’m wide awake to this issue, thank you Unhappy, and it breaks my heart. I wish that It was all just a bad dream.

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