In the wake of the ALP’s refusal to rule out turn-backs of asylum seekers arriving by boat, some have suggested the debate is now over and that those advocating for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers should accept the new reality of bipartisan consensus on turning back the boats. This argument has been publicly made by the leaders of at least two organisations providing services to refugees, Save the Children and Welcome to Australia.
The arguments put forward for bipartisan consensus around turn-backs are disingenuous in their claims to pragmatism. By capitulating to the core policies of Coalition governments, the argument goes, a consensus can be formed that will neutralise the divisive wedge politics that have been mobilised so successfully by the Liberal Party under Howard and Abbott. As if bullies ever give in when they get what they want. As if policies of passive appeasement have ever defeated rabid right-wing xenophobia once it has the scent of blood. In the absence of a coherent alternative, Labor is doomed to compete from a position of weakness with policies defined by conservative values. So why are self-identified progressives, even those outside of the twisted mirror-maze of ALP factional politics, so invested in the possibility of a bipartisan consensus on refugee policy?
The drive towards consensus between liberals and conservatives on refugee and asylum policy has little to do with pragmatism and much more to do with a shared desire for control. For those who imagine themselves in positions of power, a kind of permanent role-playing game for ALP activists and hangers-on, the prerequisite of any effective policy is the maintenance of government control over the process.
The problem is that’s not how the world works. People escaping oppression don’t apply to cross borders in an orderly manner. They flee in disorder by any possible means. This is such an unavoidable fact of refugee movement that the 1951 Refugee Convention defines the right of those claiming asylum to cross borders without permission or documentation, the right not to be returned to places where they face persecution (non-refoulement), and the right not to be punished for the manner of their arrival. The 1951 Convention already codifies a minimum consensus on border policies that allow people to escape extreme persecution and genocide. Talk of pragmatic compromise on these principles is incompatible with claims to support or advocate for the rights of refugees.
And yet, Welcome to Australia director Brad Chilcott has publicly supported a policy of turn-backs in breach of the principle of non-refoulement. In advance of the ALP conference, which he attended as a delegate for the increasingly inappropriately named left faction of the party, Chilcott called for the ALP to ‘neutralise’ a divisive debate by ‘closing the ocean route to Australia’. This, from the leader of an organisation that takes its motto from the national anthem: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas.’
Writing in The Australian, Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds makes a more reluctant argument for the same conclusion: that organisations supporting refugees should embrace the opportunity for bipartisan consensus by abandoning active support for the principle of non-refoulement:
Although we may not like turnbacks, it is clear the policy is here to stay. Now we and other advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers must look beyond this aspect of the policy and concentrate our efforts on implementing a genuine regional framework, which we have long called for.
Both NGO leaders draw on similar language to argue for the pragmatic opportunities of bipartisanship. ‘We mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’, Ronalds writes. But accepting a compromise that contradicts and undermines one’s own stated goals is not a pragmatic move.
Any effective regional framework for refugee protection must be based on the principle of non-refoulement. If this were not already obvious, the Rohingya refugee crisis in May brought the human cost of turn-backs into stark relief. When boats carrying desperate asylum seekers from Myanmar arrived on the Southern coast of Thailand, the military government followed Australia’s example and pushed them back to sea. As boats drifted, abandoned by their crews, many were also turned away by authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia. When asked if Australia would help, Tony Abbott summed up the consensus among governments in the region: ‘Nope, nope, nope.’
Yes, the crisis showed the urgent need for a regional framework for UNHCR processing and resettlement of asylum seekers, but first someone had to let them land. Without non-refoulement there can be no protection for refugees. An effective regional framework for refugee protection, which Save the Children are right to advocate for, must be based on extending support for the 1951 Convention, not undermining its core principles.
As NGOs have taken on major government contracts for refugee and asylum-seeker services, such as the $19m contract Save the Children currently holds with the detention facilities on Nauru, these organisations have become structurally invested in maintaining government control over asylum seekers. But liberal humanitarians are more deeply invested in government control over asylum seekers than can be explained by any direct financial benefit. They may disagree with right-wing conservatives on how many refugees should be accepted, or the details of how those who are turned away should be treated, but they share the premise stated by John Howard during the Tampa crisis: ‘We will decide who comes here and the manner in which they come.’
In May, many hundreds of the Rohingya asylum seekers were rescued by fishing communities in the Indonesian province of Aceh who refused to wait for authorities to act and took direct action to bring the boats ashore. These Acehnese communities acted on the human impulse to help those in need, refusing to prioritise government control over human life. We should take their example.