Thursday 8 September 2011

Onshore processing a threat to social harmony, Labor told

A RETREAT to onshore-only processing of asylum-seekers poses a risk to Australia's social cohesion and could lead to the kind of cultural problems afflicting England and France.

Advice provided to the Gillard government by senior bureaucrats says that without offshore processing a surge of boat arrivals would overwhelm detention facilities and force boatpeople into the community.

If last week's High Court decision, which torpedoed Labor's Malaysia Solution and cast doubt over the legality of all offshore processing, was allowed to stand, it could have a fundamental impact on Australia's multicultural society, the government has been warned. The advice says the High Court decision, if unchallenged, could have a bigger impact on Australia than the Mabo or Wik native title decisions.

The advice comes as Julia Gillard's urgent efforts to restore offshore processing have become bogged down. Tony Abbott is refusing to budge in his opposition to the Prime Minister's insistence that any suite of measures include reviving her now scuttled Malaysia Solution.

The Opposition Leader wrote to Ms Gillard last night, restating his "willingness to put beyond legal doubt offshore processing at Manus Island and Nauru" and asking for a concrete government proposal. While Mr Abbott has stuck to his preference for processing on the Pacific island of Nauru, the government has been told that would not be an effective deterrent to people-smugglers.

The government's advice is that people-smugglers celebrated the High Court decision and are actively recruiting customers.

It also suggests that a regime limited exclusively to onshore processing could lead to about 600 boatpeople arriving in Australian waters every month, and within a year the detention network would be overwhelmed. Asylum-seekers would inevitably end up in the community, and would most likely be treated as second-class citizens, triggering the possibility of Australia experiencing European-style disharmony.

Refugee advocate David Manne, who represented the 42 asylum-seekers who launched the High Court case, said last night there was no evidence to substantiate the claims in the advice to the government.

"They . . . are unsubstantiated and irresponsible claims which are only likely to demonise people and to fuel hostility in betrayal of this rich history in this country of helping people and welcoming people in humanitarian need," Mr Manne told ABC's Lateline.

The government has been told the Malaysia people-swap deal was seen as a game-changer because it involved the "virtual tow-back" of people, and prevented asylum-seekers from getting any foothold in the Australian legal and processing system.

The advice also suggested that processing asylum-seekers on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island was a viable back-up plan, but most of them would end up being resettled in Australia. Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott are agreed on the need to amend the Migration Act to restore the legality of an offshore processing regime, but the Prime Minister remains determined to send asylum-seekers to Malaysia.

Ms Gillard, who needs a political victory amid plunging poll ratings, must also stare down Labor's Left and the Greens, who are advocating onshore-only processing of asylum-seekers. Greens leader Bob Brown said Australia should process asylum-seekers onshore as it was cheaper, legal and humane.

The Malaysia deal involved sending 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in return for accepting 4000 proven refugees.

Yesterday, as Ms Gillard continued meetings in Auckland, five senior bureaucrats briefed Mr Abbott and his legal affairs spokesman, George Brandis, on their legal advice about the impact of the court ruling, which they argued prohibited all offshore processing. Mr Abbott emerged from the meeting with his position unchanged.

"So the ball is very much in the Prime Minister's court," the Opposition Leader said. "She has to declare what the new policy of the government is in response to the High Court's decision. While there is no government policy, the boats will keep coming."

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison questioned whether Malaysia was an adequate deterrent, saying almost 1000 people turned up between the people swap deal being announced and the High Court decision. "The government has not found a silver bullet to this problem; they are the cause of it." A Coalition spokesman said last night that, on average, 574 asylum-seekers had arrived every month last year.

Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said Mr Abbott had said he was open to compromise and was now "crab-walking . . . Malaysia is the best solution and it is the best humanitarian solution as well".

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said he had been advised that the most effective deterrent was to return boatpeople to where they began their boat journey and tell them that they would not receive preferential treatment in terms of resettlement. This deterrent did not apply in the Howard government's use of Nauru because if they were regarded as genuine refugees, they ended up in Australia or New Zealand.

"But the Malaysia arrangement, whereby we take more genuine refugees who've been processed, but people who come to Australia by boat are returned to Malaysia to be processed in line with everybody else awaiting resettlement under the UNHCR, is a more effective deterrent," Mr Bowen told ABC TV.

The government has been told the towing back of about six boats into Indonesian waters in late 2001 and 2002 was a more effective people-smuggling deterrent than the Pacific Solution.

Former prime minister John Howard last night said the Gillard government was in such a difficult position because his Pacific Solution was undone by Kevin Rudd.

"The key thing about our asylum seeker policy is that we had stopped the boats," Mr Howard told Lateline. "If our policy had've been left in place and not tampered with by Kevin Rudd, then this problem would not have arisen."

In an email to staff last week after the High Court decision, Immigration Department head Andrew Metcalf said the "tow-back of several boatloads of people to waters adjacent to Indonesia" had a dramatic effect.

"It is indisputable that these actions sent a clear message to people-smugglers," he said. But it is understood that Indonesia would not accept any arrangement for the towing back of boats.

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