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Asylum-seeker processing in Australia: an unintended victory for common sense

By James Dunn - posted Friday, 21 October 2011

The Gillard government's decision to start processing asylum-seekers in Australia may have been a reluctant one , but it is the best outcome for the refugees, and for our wider national interest, representing the kind of fair-minded, humanitarian attitudes we like to think Australians stand for. We are not dealing with economic opportunists, but for the most part, with people fleeing oppression, who in desperation not preference, are fleeing their homeland. Processing on the Australian mainland will not only be more humane, it should be less expensive, benefitting communities where it takes place.

I was pleased to learn that Julia Gillard rejected returning to the Nauru option, but was surprised to hear that her Immigration Minister reportedly considered it. Those who favour Nauru should take a close look at reports on how the detention inmates fared on that extremely isolated Central Pacific island. Most of the human rights reports were of a negative nature, leading me to designate it our Pacific Gulag. Many inmates, certainly those who are legitimate asylum seekers, should not be in detention. Some eventually suffered depression, in some cases despair. Just why the Opposition kept using Nauru as a rallying cry, I simply cannot understand. Hopefully it is no longer an option, though who knows what will happen if Tony Abbott were to win office.

Will we now get many more boat arrivals, as the Prime Minister and Chris Bowen are suggesting? Perhaps, but I doubt if the increase will be all that significant, for this escape route is surely the most costly and most dangerous one facing those seeking to make a new and safer life abroad. The Iranians, for example, have to cover long distances just to get to Indonesia, where the option of travelling hundreds of kilometres in leaky, unseaworthy boats awaits them. In the circumstances it is a pity that the prime minister and some of her colleagues are predicting a significant increase in boat arrivals. This could be seen by the people smugglers as an invitation to double their efforts.


Is may be that there will be a new exodus from the Middle East in its latest turbulence, with the Arab Spring movement in trouble in a number of countries, especially Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Also it is uncertain what kind of governments will emerge from political changes in Egypt and Libya. Most refugees from these states will probably head for Europe, only a few risking the long passage to Australia. And we need to bear in mind that the West has some responsibility for the current situation, because the US, most European countries, and Australia enthusiastically encouraged the various political reform movements. It follows that we should respond with compassion for those fleeing revolutions that have failed or have moved in the wrong direction. Fortunately Australia is so remote that we are unlikely to face a flood of refugees - in contrast to the poor Greeks who have received over 37,000 in less than a year, at a time when they are wrestling with a serious economic crisis! Let us therefore keep this whole matter in proportion!

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About the Author

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in East Timor who wrote the definitive book on East Timor’s history in the mid-80’s Timor: A People Betrayed and updated in 1996. In 2001-2002 he was the UNTAET Expert on Crimes Against Humanity in East Timor.

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