Towards a more humane asylum seeker policy

After writing all those letters yesterday evening, I found myself lying awake last night wondering what kind of asylum seeker policy I’d like to see happening in Australia, and what the Australian public might be convinced to accept.

Our current policy is punitive to the point of being abusive.  It is opaque – we can’t tell if any boats have been stopped, because the navy and media are barred from reporting on the situation.  It breaks international law.  It is expensive.  It is destructive.  It shames us as a nation.  And… I don’t think it actually works.

What, exactly, is the purpose of ‘stopping the boats’, anyway? Is it to prevent drownings at sea?  If so, then why are we towing boats back into other countries’ waters?  (Is it OK for people to drown so long as they aren’t in our sea?)

In any case, we haven’t stopped the drownings.

Is it to discourage people from coming here ‘illegally’ (and let’s be very clear that the term ‘illegal’ is one made up by our governments over the years – it is not illegal to seek asylum)?  How is that supposed to work, anyway?  I doubt that most people in war zones or other dire situations are in a position to get reliable information on what to expect if they come to Australia… and even if they do, do we want to be a worse alternative than starvation, genocide or rape?  Really?

In any case, we haven’t stopped people coming.

Is it to discourage people coming here as economic refugees?  If so, then surely we should be putting money into foreign aid, so that people don’t have to come, right?  Except that we are not.  In fact, we’re currently taking money out of the foreign aid budget.  This is logically inconsistent.

In any case, 88% of people arriving on boats are found to be genuine refugees.

We are not protecting our borders from invasion, because we are not being invaded.  The number of refugees coming to Australia by boat is tiny, particularly compared to the number of people arriving by other means – or going to other countries.

We are not protecting Australians from the economic costs of a huge, unsupportable influx of people – we are paying nearly $125,000 per refugee per year under the current system.

And we are certainly not using ‘tough love’ to protect the refugees from the consequences of their mistakes.

We are, it seems, driving them to suicide, or giving them right back to the people who persecuted them.

Honestly, if mothers of infants are attempting suicide because they think it might result in a better life for their children, that’s not moral blackmail, that’s despair.  And tragedy, since it appears that we have no morals to speak of in this matter.

I think, at this point, being tough on asylum seekers is so entrenched as a value that neither of our two biggest political parties dare touch it – because whoever does so first risks being seen as weak and unelectable.  This is largely self-inflicted – our politicians and media have done a fine job over the last fifteen years or so of demonising asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, people who are not genuine refugees and who have come here to take advantage of our generosity.  And the public has learned to believe this.

To my mind, the only way forward is somehow to persuade both Liberal and Labor to come together and agree that enough is enough, and create a policy which they will both support, rather than undermining each other.  Is this a pipe dream? Very possibly.  But imagining a solution is the first step towards creating one, so here’s my attempt to envisage what a humane asylum seeker policy should look like.

Processing, Assessment, and Integration

At present, we are being incredibly slow at processing asylum seekers, but when we actually get around to do so, we are finding that the vast majority turn out to be genuine refugees.  In other words, most of these people are eventually going to become permanent residents, and, eventually, Australian citizens.

So we might as well make sure they are equipped for this.

Our process for assessing refugee claims should go hand in hand with preparing new residents for future citizenship.  This is the compassionate thing to do – and it’s also the most beneficial model for Australia as a whole.  Many refugees will need help with English language skills, with trauma counselling, and with integration into Australian society – this will be the case no matter how long it takes to process them.  Why not start this process immediately, rather than imprisoning and traumatising them further – and in so doing, making their ultimate integration a much longer and costlier process?

I’d envisage a process that looks something like this:

1. Initial Screening / Health check and Quarantine

This period should be brief – a few weeks at most.  And this part, we actually could do off-shore if we felt that this was necessary.  During this period, we would provide a health check-up to all people arriving, and quarantine anyone who needs quarantining.  The health check should also include a psychiatric assessment, to flag people who might need help along those lines (survivors of trauma, etc) down the track.

If practical – and it may not be – there could also be a criminal record check at this point.  This would also be the point where the initial application for asylum was made.

2. Processing / Detention in the Community

This period should be aiming to last 6-12 months.  It should be community-based (in capital cities or large regional centres for practical reasons), though depending on the situation of the asylum seeker, accommodation might be in community housing or, at least initially, in something that still is essentially a detention centre.

During this period, asylum seekers would receive a stipend (probably the equivalent of NewStart, though as accommodation would be provided, it might be a bit less).  They would also receive access to medical care, including psychiatric care.  In return for this they would be required to:

  • attend intensive English classes, unless they can pass an initial exam showing that they are fluent in English
  • attend a series of classes that are essentially an introduction to Australian culture, laws, and democratic processes.
  • health permitting, spend 10-15 hours a week in an approved form of community service (delivering meals on wheels, helping in community gardens, etc)

The purpose of this process and these requirements is to help prepare asylum seekers to enter the wider community – by providing them with language skills, having a reasonable idea of how Australian society works, and by contributing to the community.  The community service aspect is, I realise, contentious, especially given how badly Work for the Dole schemes have gone, but I think it might be useful on a number of levels, not the least of which is combating our xenophobia – if Australians see that asylum seekers are already giving something back to the community (rather than ‘stealing our jobs’ or ‘living the high life on pensions’), this is not a bad thing.  And, if run well, such a program would allow asylum seekers to feel useful and less like charity cases, provide a reason to get out of bed and leave the house, and, hopefully, provide opportunities for asylum seekers to meet people in the wider community.

Obviously, these requirements would have to be somewhat flexible depending on the age, health, and existing skills of the people in question.  School-age children, for example, would be exempt from any requirement other than that of attending school in a local community, and would receive language and cultural support through aides allocated to the school.

To manage this process, each asylum seeker or family would be assigned a case manager, who would also assist with the application, and assess skills.  This case manager is key to the process, as he or she would become the asylum seeker’s main contact and referral point for other services, and would remain so until the asylum seekers under his or her care became eligible to apply for permanent residency.  I would anticipate that the level of contact required would be fairly intensive in the first couple of years, and then tail off significantly as asylum seekers reached the settlement stage.

3. Settlement and Integration

Assuming a successful outcome to the application, asylum seekers would receive a residency visa.  This would entitle them to five years of residency, at the end of which, assuming they had broken no laws and had complied with any other requirements, they would be able to apply for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship.  The visa would allow asylum seekers to work, go to school, and have access to Medicare and other entitlements as appropriate.  At this point, they would be freed from the community service obligation, but would be encouraged to continue with the English and Civics classes until they had achieved a reasonable level of competency.  (These classes would be free and would be offered in the evenings and on weekends if appropriate.)

At the time that this visa was granted, the case manager would interview the asylum seeker or family, and discuss employment, education and settlement.  The goal here would be to settle asylum seekers in communities where their skills would be useful and needed (this would mesh well with the current Asylum Seeker Welcome Cities program), while being mindful of maintaining existing family and community connections.  The case manager would assist asylum seekers who had overseas qualifications or training to get them recognised either wholly or in part (I suspect that this really is the complicated part, and we’d need another specialist of some kind here), and connect them with resources for seeking employment.

4. Citizenship



I’m not going to try to write a budget for this, but let’s at least take a look at the sort of costs that might be involved in this process. There are a number of estimates floating around regarding how much we are spending on mandatory detention, but one of the more reliable estimates looks to be $339 per refugee per day.  This is nearly $124,000 per person per year.   You can do an awful lot with $124,000.  Social worker and case manager salaries hover around an average of $55,000 per year – which seems criminally low to me – and one can assume on-costs of around 22%, taking this cost to about $65,000.  Psychologists come in at a little more expensive, coming to about $80,000 per year, including on-costs.  I don’t know what a reasonable case load would look like for a social worker or a psychologist in these circumstances, but I’m fairly sure they look after more than one person or family at a time.  If we allow one full-time case worker and one full-time psychologist to each group of ten people in the first two years – which is probably on the intensive side, frankly – this is only about $15,000 per refugee per year.  And I’m reasonably sure that we can manage to house, feed and provide medical care to a refugee in the community for under $110,000 per year.  I would anticipate that by the end of two years, the majority of asylum seekers would be at the settlement stage, and require less intensive contact with their case workers.

There will, of course, be other professionals involved in this plan – teachers, trainers, administrators, doctors, career advisors, and goodness knows what else, but most of these would not be interacting with refugees on a daily basis.  I’d be willing to bet that if we actually wanted to do so, we could create an absolutely blue-ribbon refugee settlement process that would cost less, provide more on-shore jobs, and have significantly better outcomes both for the refugees and our community than our current system.

I would also suggest basing the case workers and Asylum Seekers in the Processing stage in regional centres, as a way of bringing jobs to these areas and also, frankly, to help keep accommodation costs manageable.


So, what do you think?  Would this work?  Would it be an awful idea?  What would your ideal policy look like?

4 thoughts on “Towards a more humane asylum seeker policy

  1. perhaps 100% of those arriving by boats are genuine refugees, because who would attempt this horrible trip, its risks and the horrible conditions? 88% have been found to be genuine refugees by a hostile government.
    detention isn’t necessary at all, since they’re no more violent than the average population.
    IF detention was necessary – and I believe it isn’t – it should be in a building with a fenced in yard, with the refugees allowed to walk in the building and yard freely and families kept together, not the kids taken from their father, which is what happens so often in detention when the man is taken to a men prison while the mother and kids are held in a family jail. And then only for a criminal and health checkup, which shouldnt take more than a few days.
    locking up people because they come from contagious countries can result in infecting other prisoners and the guards. it doesnt work. it just makes things that much worse.
    refugees dont take anyone’s job because they also CREATE JOBS. they have to eat, don’t they? they need clothes, etc. in a big city, there are many more jobs than in a small town. which means the more people you have, the more jobs you have.

    • All very good points, especially regarding job creation and your point about actual percentages.

      I do honestly think a brief quarantine period (that is strictly about health) is not unreasonable, especially if it can be combined with general health screening to help identify medical needs – we are an island country, there are some diseases that just don’t make it here under normal circumstances, and of course, we are accustomed to very, very strict Customs Regulations, so to me, quarantine is all of a piece with this. I am, however, absolutely against the prison-like conditions currently prevailing, and the separation of families from each other.

  2. Your plan is very comprehensive & thoroughly thought-out. I’d love to see it implemented, but fear Uncle Murphy loves us far too well. See also Cordelia’s comments on how powerful “the will to stupidity” is.

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