The arrival of Foreign Affairs officials in East Timor this week to discuss a regional asylum seeker processing centre comes as the East Timorese parliament rejects the proposal. While East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has not closed the door on the idea, he has been, at best, polite about it. As an election issue, it will remain alive and kicking.
The government's policy of seeking talks with East Timor about establishing an offshore centre got off to a bungled start last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirmed, denied and finally confirmed again that East Timor was the government's preferred site.
While the government's intentions are now more or less coming into focus, what is clear as it scrambles to put together a policy before the election is that the asylum seeker policy debate revolves around lowest common denominator politics. The positions of the government and the Opposition raise serious questions about Australia's ability to formulate a rational and internationally acceptable refugee policy.
The parameters of the asylum seeker policy debate have long been in territory that runs contrary to Australia's legal international obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as international law. Australia's international reputation has taken a battering since "border protection" was made a public political issue by the Howard government in 2001.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's claim that the world has changed since these commitments were signed is factually wrong – refugees from persecution and war retain the same needs for international protection. The only thing that has changed is that the "dog-whistle" is being blown hard by both sides of Australian politics and that the dogs of Australian xenophobia have been let off the leash.
Underlying the asylum-seeker debate is a rational claim to protecting Australia's territorial sovereignty. Any functional state requires that its borders are controlled and that the passage of people, including asylum seekers, tourists and other visitors, is regulated.
However, the assessment of people seeking asylum, or refugee status, must be consistent with legal obligations and appropriate to the circumstances in which they arrive. The relatively small number of asylum seekers making the journey here by boat – less than 20 per cent of our refugee intake — do so because they are unable to board a plane. Unlike the vast majority who arrive by plane, boats are visible and make good pictures for a tabloid news media all too often intent on beating up the story rather than explaining it.
Turning asylum seekers back out to sea, as suggested by Tony Abbott, to face greater hardship and possible death, would border on international criminality if ever implemented. The government's less malignant, if still misguided, policy of seeking offshore processing in East Timor is at least impractical. East Timor has no capacity or inclination to accept asylum seekers. From the government's position, its concerns appear much less about addressing a serious policy issue and much more about neutralising the opposition's wedge politics.
The government has, however, made at least one sensible decision in recent days, and that is its intention to start to include the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in resolving its asylum seeker dilemmas. To get its policy back on to an even keel, it should also engage the International Organisation for Migration.
Both these organisations were instrumental in addressing the original "boat people" issue from the late 1970s. Australia worked co-operatively with the UNHCR and the IOM in concert with regional governments. It should do so again.
At that time, a similarly small number of asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters by boat. Most were processed by these international agencies in Indonesia and Malaysia – precisely the place where asylum seekers now land before heading for Australia. Australia then took its fair share of those people. One consequence of that was that Australia has integrated an Indochinese community – it is difficult now to imagine Australia without them.
There is little doubt that there is a criminal racket involved in exploiting the desperation of people seeking asylum and it would be appropriate for such criminals to face harsher sentences than they now do, both in Australia and abroad. This then could be part of a more nuanced and fully articulated asylum seeker policy.
Harsher sentences against people smugglers, greater support for asylum seeker processing by appropriate international agencies in the countries through which they transit, encouraging Indonesia and Malaysia to sign the Refugee Convention and, finally, more humanely accepting for processing asylum seekers who do manage to arrive in our waters is all part of a more comprehensive, less knee-jerk asylum seeker policy.
Helping address the causes of people seeking to flee their homes would also help. Reports that Tamils are now safe in Sri Lanka are inaccurate — many continue to face persecution and "disappearance". Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, continue to be war zones to which Australia is a party. Resolution of these issues is critical for a range of reasons, a xenophobic concern about asylum seekers perhaps being among the least important.
What Australia does not need to do is foist upon a hapless country such as East Timor the problems that it is trying to avoid rationally dealing with. Nor should it continue to develop policy based on politically-led public ignorance and unfounded fear.