John Howard is caught between Indonesia and his own bleeding-heart back bench on the issue of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Bruce Baird, Petro Georgiou and Co are expressing inconveniently principled objections to the idea of shipping everyone off to Nauru. And Indonesia, the country that brought us the Dili massacre, is outraged at the very idea that persecution might be occurring in Papua. John Howard must surely be tempted to banish 42 of his backbenchers to Indonesia as a swap.
Mandatory detention policy is a difficult balancing act. We need to keep the Indonesian Government happy because it stops the boats coming, and also the Nauruans, because they lock up the ones who get through.
However, this involves vast expense as well as human rights compromises unforeseen by the people who devised the decades-old refugee conventions.
Given all this inconvenience, it’s no wonder we’re so reluctant to sign any more international treaties.
Fortunately, our Government is making real headway on the underlying causes. The best long-term solution to the refugee influx is improving conditions in the countries of origin, as we’ve done so brilliantly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both those countries, the threat of being slaughtered by the government has been almost entirely alleviated. And while it’s been replaced by a much greater threat of being randomly slaughtered by insurgents, that, happily, is not grounds for seeking refugee status.
The alternative approach is to make Australia a less desirable place to live. WorkChoices means unskilled migrants now face a choice between a sweatshop in their country of origin and a sweatshop in Australia. Which makes being locked up on a Pacific island a relatively attractive proposition.
And thanks to global warming, of course, any Pacific solution can only be temporary. Tuvalu has filed environmental refugee applications for its entire population as it becomes submerged. Australia, funnily enough, was unsympathetic. Even our Nauruan friends have been talking with us about mass resettlement.
So, bizarrely, we are detaining asylum seekers on an island whose entire population is likely to become refugees. They must be hoping our regime will have relaxed significantly by the time they need to use it.
Ultimately, the question must be whether we’re comfortable with locking up children. And of course, we aren’t. It’s so much easier – and, conveniently, less visible – to pay the Nauruan Government to do it instead.