Political games will not reduce boat arrivals, warns Susan Metcalfe.
THE horrific sinking of a boat off East Java at the weekend highlights the need for Australia to stop the people smugglers. It is also time for the government and opposition to negotiate a solution to the political stalemate on asylum policy.
The Malaysian arrangement is the only policy on the table with the potential to decrease boat arrivals, and both parties should turn urgently to tackling its inadequacies.
But better long-term strategies are needed to target the agents in neighbouring countries who prey on and profit from the desperation of others.
Advertisement: Story continues below
I know refugees who are still paying off costs amounting to thousands of dollars for their journeys. And if they fail to come up with the money, their families back in their homelands will be targeted.
But in going after the people smugglers, the Australian government has failed to distinguish between the impoverished fishermen who crew boats, the refugees who have tried to help others escape and the heads of operations who sit back and rake in the money while sending people out on overloaded, unseaworthy boats in horrendous weather.
I am in contact with one refugee who sits in jail as another Christmas approaches. He is a good man, and his wife and child are trying to survive without him. The past couple of years have been difficult.
This man was a bit player, trying to help others escape from Sri Lanka at the height of the recent civil conflict. Once he realised that the small group he was helping was travelling on a dangerously overloaded boat, he went to the police to admit his involvement and ensure the safety of the people on board.
The judge was sympathetic at his hearing last year but had no choice but to sentence him to a non-parole period of three years. Not only is this a punishment that does not fit the crime, his imprisonment fails to ease the problem the government is trying to resolve.
I understand that it can be difficult to catch the heads of operations in other countries, and that corrupt officials often collude in smuggling operations. But there is no excuse for Australian laws that do not discriminate between different levels of involvement and do not allow room for leniency where it is warranted.
Like many other asylum policies and laws created for political reasons over the past decade, this is simply another that is ineffective, unfair and has no logical basis.
Both parties should now support investing more heavily in tracking those dealers who run the people-smuggling shows in the region.
If the Coalition genuinely wants a policy that deters boat arrivals and ensures the safety and rights of refugees, it should work with the government to ensure the security of anyone returned to Malaysia.
The only Coalition policy that could result in a reduction in boat arrivals is the forcing back of unseaworthy vessels. But the last thing we need is a policy that will further endanger the lives of asylum seekers on the sea.
In the aftermath of this weekend's tragedy, we can do without politicians who want to play games for political gain. If there is blame, then it lies with all sides of politics, in Australia and around the world - with the politicians who fail to meet the needs of the world's most desperate. Without long-term approaches to protection and processes in our region, we will always end up back in the same place.
Now is the time for our national leaders to step up and confront the very difficult and complex problems that involve fragile and vulnerable human beings.
Susan Metcalfe is the author of The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010).