In normal circumstances, deaths of asylum seekers, sexual assaults on adults and children, and widespread severe mental illness – including self-harm – attributable to the length and conditions of offshore detention would demand a reconsideration of the policies that allowed these events to occur.
And yet, the Australian government and the Labor opposition maintain an unwavering, untested, bipartisan assertion: no-one will be resettled in Australia, as that will encourage people smugglers.
By extension, Australia will not accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees, as that will provide an equivalent incentive to the people-smuggling trade.
The historical evidence suggests the government’s fears are unfounded. People smuggling will not revive simply because refugees are resettled in Australia. There are good reasons to believe refugees currently stuck in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island can be relocated to Australia and New Zealand without this leading to a revival of boat traffic.
A short history
Offshore processing and turning back boats on the high seas were introduced in 2001 and again in 2013 in response to a growing number of boat arrivals.
Between 1999 and October 2001, more than 10,000 asylum seekers arrived on Christmas Island by boat. Between June 2011 and September 2013, 40,000 people arrived. But when offshore processing and turnback policies were introduced, the boats stopped arriving in both periods within months.
But what happened to the asylum seekers detained offshore during the Howard government years?
From 2001 to 2008, of the 1,153 refugees and asylum seekers resettled from Nauru and Manus Island, 705 went to Australia, 401 to New Zealand and 47 to other Western countries. Resettlement of all but 82 occurred under the Howard government, with most occurring from 2002 to 2004. A further 483 people were found not to be refugees and returned to their countries of origin.
The resettlements occurred without fanfare, while maintaining the official policy of offshore detention and processing, and boat turnbacks. From 2002 to 2007, 18 boats arrived with 288 asylum seekers. In addition, one boat was turned back with 14 passengers.
This analysis suggests the threat of offshore detention and processing and boat turnbacks is a clear deterrent to prevent people coming to Australia by boat. Importantly, the deterrent effect does not rely on a blanket ban on resettlement of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia and New Zealand.
No long-term resettlement options
Accept for the moment that offshore processing and boat turnbacks are necessary to deter asylum seekers from travelling by boat to Australia.
Accept that these policies stem an uncontrollable flow of humanitarian migration through Indonesia to Australia, prevent people drowning at sea and enable Australia to resettle more refugees through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ resettlement program.
The policy issue in 2001 and 2013 was the uncontrollable arrival of boats. But the issue now is where and when to resettle refugees and asylum seekers who have been sent to Manus Island and Nauru since the reintroduction of offshore processing. On this issue, there is no plan.
The government has made some meagre efforts to organise resettlement in Cambodia. It claims refugees are also free to resettle in Papua New Guinea. But nobody believes these are viable long-term solutions.
No case for the hard line
If this analysis of the incentives proves to be wrong, and it turns out that resettling refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in Australia and New Zealand does increase the number of asylum-seeker boats attempting to reach Australia, we know from the experiences of 2001 and 2013 that the combination of offshore detention and boat turnbacks is an extremely effective deterrent – one that can swiftly be reinstated.
In July 2013, the month Kevin Rudd announced no asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be resettled in Australia, 4,338 people arrived by boat in Australia. After Rudd announced the new policy, the number dropped to 1,650 in August and 861 in September. None of these asylum seekers ended up in Australia, instead being transferred to Nauru or Manus Island.
In October 2013, when the new Coalition government added a turnback policy to offshore processing and resettlement, 346 people were intercepted and transferred to Nauru or Manus Island. This dropped to 222 in November, then rose to 369 in December. And then, in the 31 months from January 2014 to the present, there has been just one boat with 158 passengers transferred to Nauru.
In addition, from January 2014 to July 2015, 20 boats were intercepted and turned back to Indonesia or other countries in the region, carrying a total of 633 passengers.
At any time offshore detention and processing have been in place, the number of boat arrivals has been very small. We can be confident that, if necessary, a vigorous reinstatement of regional processing and the turnback policy would once again “stop the boats”.
But at this time, in light of the ongoing and intensifying humanitarian crisis on Nauru and Manus Island, there is no case for maintaining the inflexible bipartisan line on resettlement.
Alex Reilly, Deputy Dean and Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School