Who said cruelty is unavoidable? Australians wait for moral leadership on asylum seeker policy

The Student Voice Project publishes opinion pieces by students on current human rights topics. Nesha Balasubramanian, a Gilbert & Toibin Intern, argues that Australia should not shun its moral and legal responsibilities to fairly process asylum seekers and provide a quality life for as many refugees as it can. Nesha writes:

As an Australian of Tamil background and a law student with a keen interest in human rights issues, I watch with dismay as both major political parties compete in a race to the bottom to ‘stop the boats’. I see the importance of deterring desperate asylum seekers from making dangerous boat journeys to Australia, but I also believe that they must be treated with dignity. They are, after all, human beings trying to escape from persecution and sometimes even death.

Under the Labor Party’s current policy, genuine refugees who arrive by boat will never be able to find a new life in Australia. They will be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea or temporarily in Nauru. Those already in Australia will be subject to the so-called ‘no advantage’ policy, facing lengthy processing and resettlement delays. Although the Coalition initially expressed some support for the PNG solution, it has since opposed it. In turn, it has announced that asylum seekers will have no mechanism to appeal their refugee status determination and those found to be refugees will only be given temporary protection in Australia, with no right to family reunion.

The Greens have opposed both policies and deemed them to be ‘cruel’. Their position resonates with me. For Tamils fleeing systematic ethnic persecution in Sri Lanka, Australia has always been a country proud to offer hope for a life free of violence, persecution and fear. Australia is still a country that cares about the plight of human beings all over the world, as evidenced by its foreign aid and development projects, its interventions on the Security Council and its condemnation of violence in places such as Egypt and Syria.  In my view, Australia should help refugees who seek our protection to recover from the trauma of their past and establish a new life. Having signed the Refugees Convention, it is unquestionably the moral and legal responsibility of a democratic, wealthy country like Australia to take a strong humanitarian role in protecting refugees.

The Greens propose two-pronged approach to stop people from making dangerous boat journeys to Australia. The first is to boost funding to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Indonesia and Malaysia so that people can have their asylum claims processed quickly there. The second is for Australia to boost its humanitarian intake (the number of people it permanently resettles) by 10,000. By contrast, neither major party has mentioned increasing funding to UNHCR. And in terms of the humanitarian intake, the best we can hope for is a total of 20,000 for the Labor Party and 13,750 from the Coalition, although the Labor Party has signaled that it would increase this to 27,000 if its PNG solution works. If this does become a reality, it would be welcome progress.

I am from the Western Suburbs of Sydney and I know that Australia cannot accommodate an unlimited amount of refugees.  This would make congestion and overcrowding that comes from poor government planning even more acute. But I also know that I am incredibly lucky to have not been stuck in a war-torn country, fighting for survival like many members of my family and community. Nothing more than pure luck has meant that I am not a desperate refugee looking for a country that I can call home. Australia needs to take in more refugees than it does now; a reasonable number that is in proportion with our population. This is a responsibility that rich, developed countries around the world can afford and should take pride in.

Australia should not shun its moral and legal responsibilities to fairly process asylum seekers and provide a quality life for as many refugees as it can. Where would the desperate refugees of the world go if every country decided that this was OK? Indeed, UNHCR has highlighted the uniqueness of Australia’s approach. Australia’s audacity in thinking that this is possible is shocking.

What we have forgotten is that Australia isn’t just helping refugees, but that refugees are valuable to Australia. Studies show that refugees make a sustained contribution to the country and have high levels of education – on average higher than most citizens and other migrants. Australia is richer – economically, politically, socially and culturally – because of them. The recent appointment of Tim Soutphommsane as Race Discrimination Officer is a clear example of the often ignored value that refugees and their descendants bring to this country.


The major political parties have engaged in a race to the bottom. But what they don’t realise is that Australians are waiting to see a race to the top. Contrary to Malcolm Turnbull’s comments that asylum policies can only ever be cruel, there is a way to stop people making dangerous boat journeys to Australia that is humane. Refugees have seen enough cruelty, they do not need to see more from us. Our leaders can reset Australia’s moral compass on this issue and demonstrate that core Australian values of humanity, fairness and justice also apply in the asylum context. Both major parties ought to consider the long ignored but surprisingly logical possibility that an election can also be won by taking moral leadership on the question of asylum seekers. Australians are still waiting.