I Left the Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment to Speak Out

The cur­rent sys­tem is de­stroy­ing lives for no rea­son

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Shaun Hanns

This was not a sys­tem that saved peo­ple; it was one that killed them.

I have spent the past five and a half years work­ing in the refugee and hu­man­i­tar­ian di­vi­sion of what was un­til re­cently the De­part­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion.

From in­side the de­part­ment, ev­ery­thing con­nected to asy­lum-seeker pol­icy looks dif­fer­ent. The com­bi­na­tion of understanding the think­ing be­hind asy­lum­seeker pol­icy and daily ex­po­sure to the hu­man im­pact of that pol­icy gives a unique per­spec­tive that, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, rarely makes it to the pub­lic sphere. How­ever, given the in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion on Nauru, I be­lieve it is im­por­tant that this per­spec­tive is more widely un­der­stood. I left the de­part­ment this week in or­der to speak out.

I be­lieve that both sides of the na­tional de­bate about asy­lum seek­ers have lost touch with re­al­ity. I also be­lieve that our cur­rent sys­tem is wrong, de­stroy­ing the lives of the men, women and chil­dren on Nauru and Manus Is­land for no rea­son. I do not sup­port the idea of un­re­stricted mi­gra­tion, but I think the pol­icy as it stands goes far be­yond what is nec­es­sary to pre­vent it from oc­cur­ring.

July 19 this year was the five-year an­niver­sary of Kevin Rudd’s an­nounce­ment that no asy­lum seeker who ar­rived via boat would be re­set­tled in Aus­tralia. It marked half a decade of what is ar­guably the tough­est asy­lum-seeker pol­icy mod­ern Aus­tralia has ever seen. Naively I be­lieved this was a mo­ment when the na­tion would pause, re­flect and con­sider the wisdom of the path we have taken. I was con­vinced that there would be in­tense me­dia in­ter­est in the an­niver­sary, with sev­eral of the ma­jor news­pa­pers ded­i­cat­ing mul­ti­ple pages to the is­sue. In re­al­ity, the mo­ment came and went with next to no one even notic­ing.

On re­flec­tion, it’s all quite un­sur­pris­ing. Be­ing out of kil­ter with the pub­lic de­bate is part of work­ing in the refugee space. It’s a strange sen­sa­tion, spend­ing your life ab­so­lutely soaked in some­thing and watch­ing as a fierce de­bate rages about an is­sue that seems barely recog­nis­able when com­pared with your daily ex­pe­ri­ence. At times it feels hard to imag­ine an­other sub­ject that has been talked about as much yet fully en­gaged with so rarely. But if you take a step back you see that this is just a stan­dard 21st-cen­tury de­bate. Stri­dent views, over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, mis­in­for­ma­tion and a pun­ish­ing ha­tred of nu­ance. The only dif­fer­ence is that when we get this wrong, which is al­ways the re­sult of such de­bates, peo­ple die.

This ar­ti­cle is an at­tempt to help kick the de­bate back on track. For far too long the Aus­tralian peo­ple have been of­fered a false bi­nary choice: be­tween the suf­fer­ing of those on Manus and Nauru, and thou­sands of deaths at sea. The an­swer should be ob­vi­ous: we should ac­cept nei­ther. The de­bate needs to move on from en­trenched

po­si­tions to what­ever is nec­es­sary to achieve an en­dur­ing so­lu­tion.

The first claim that must be re­jected is that any con­cern about deaths at sea is noth­ing more than a po­lit­i­cal smoke­screen used to jus­tify present pol­icy. It is not. Of the past 50,000 asy­lum seek­ers who made it to Aus­tralia’s shores, more than 1100 lost their lives in the at­tempt, a mor­tal­ity rate of roughly 2.15 per cent. The high­est es­ti­ma­tion of ca­su­al­ties from the Syr­ian civil war is about 2.27 per cent of the pre-war pop­u­la­tion. This makes the mor­tal­ity rate of di­rect asy­lum-seek­ing to Aus­tralia roughly equiv­a­lent to seven years of the blood­i­est civil war this cen­tury.

The mean­ing of this is straight­for­ward. The cost in hu­man life of the asy­lum-seek­ing route from In­done­sia to Christ­mas Is­land is ex­traor­di­nar­ily high and al­most cer­tainly higher than the risk of death asy­lum seek­ers face in their home coun­try. This was not a sys­tem that saved peo­ple; it was one that killed them.

There’s a rea­son I feel com­fort­able say­ing this so defini­tively: I was a pro­tec­tion visa case of­fi­cer. My role in the de­part­ment was to in­ter­view asy­lum seek­ers, ob­jec­tively as­sess the threat they faced and de­cide if they qual­i­fied for refugee sta­tus. In my time I’ve in­ter­viewed peo­ple from Iran, Iraq, Le­banon, Pales­tine, Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Su­dan, So­ma­lia, Eritrea, Egypt, Ye­men, Nige­ria, Ghana, In­dia, Sri Lanka, Myan­mar, Bangladesh, Viet­nam and, yes, even a few who made it from Syria. Long ago I lost count of how many de­ci­sions I’ve made, but it’s most likely some­where around 300. Of those I be­lieve that per­haps half a dozen, cer­tainly no more, gen­uinely faced more mor­tal dan­ger in their home coun­try than they did on that treach­er­ous stretch of wa­ter.

I don’t say this to crit­i­cise peo­ple for their choices, or to at­tempt to un­der­mine the le­git­i­macy of the asy­lum claims of the many who made it to our shores. I say it be­cause it gen­uinely dis­turbs me. There are a va­ri­ety of rea­sons for want­ing to leave a coun­try, and ex­pect­ing in­di­vid­u­als to per­form a com­pli­cated cal­cu­lus of the un­know­able threats they face be­fore choos­ing to come is patently ab­surd.

The process of as­sess­ing whether an asy­lum seeker re­ceives Aus­tralia’s pro­tec­tion isn’t face­less and bu­reau­cratic in the way you might imag­ine. It’s in­tense and bor­der­ing on in­ti­mate. You spend per­haps a day find­ing out ev­ery­thing you pos­si­bly can about a per­son, then you spend any­where from two to five hours in a room with them, dis­cussing ev­ery­thing about their life. If it’s likely to be a neg­a­tive de­ci­sion they will al­most al­ways re­alise this in the in­ter­view. You see the fa­mil­iar flash of re­al­i­sa­tion be­fore their face sim­ply falls. We crush peo­ple’s hopes for a bet­ter life while look­ing them in the eye.

Work as a case of­fi­cer also pro­vides an understanding of just how dark things can get in this world. The worst in­ter­view I ever con­ducted was in my first year on the job. The man I in­ter­viewed pre­sented like some­one from whom all hap­pi­ness had been bleached out. He re­vealed to me the ex­is­tence of peo­ple who ded­i­cate their lives to per­fect­ing the art of hurt­ing other hu­man be­ings. It goes far be­yond ha­tred. Some tor­ture seems to be a con­certed ef­fort to strip the last ves­tiges of hu­man­ity from an­other per­son. A me­thod­i­cal at­tempt not just to treat the vic­tim as if they are less than hu­man, but to make them be­lieve it. That was the kind of tor­ture this man had been through. I told him that I ac­cepted his story and there was no rea­son to go through the trauma of re­liv­ing it all. He wasn’t lis­ten­ing. As if in a trance he stared into the mid­dle dis­tance and listed all the things that had made him the way he was. The things that had hap­pened to him. The things he had seen hap­pen to oth­ers.

That in­ter­view af­fected me like no other. A hor­ri­ble knot of anger welled up in my chest and sat there for weeks. Not just right­eous indig­na­tion, but a ter­ri­fy­ing, con­sum­ing rage. For two weeks I was in a fury bro­ken only by in­ter­mit­tent sick­en­ing imag­in­ings of what had been de­scribed to me. I be­gan to think that this was my new nor­mal. Thank­fully, even­tu­ally, the rage sub­sided.

The job un­de­ni­ably has a dark side, but it also in­stils an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the lives of peo­ple who seek asy­lum, and of the world they left be­hind. You gain an understanding of their of­ten com­pli­cated and am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ships to their home coun­tries and their sense of loss over those they left be­hind. As they be­come fully fleshed out peo­ple, so in one’s imag­i­na­tion do those who did not sur­vive the trip to Aus­tralia. The tragedy of 1100 peo­ple los­ing their lives be­comes 1100 in­di­vid­ual tragedies. More than the num­bers by them­selves, this is the rea­son I will never sup­port ir­reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion to Aus­tralia.

By the time of Rudd’s July 2013 an­nounce­ment I’d been in the de­part­ment for four months. I’d taken the job out of a mor­bid cu­rios­ity and a de­sire to un­der­stand from the in­side one of the most con­tentious po­lit­i­cal is­sues in our coun­try’s his­tory. Be­sides, 90 per cent of them end up be­ing refugees any­way, right? I thought to my­self when ap­ply­ing. Af­ter four months of work­ing on a seem­ingly end­less stream of un­mer­i­to­ri­ous Sri Lankan cases, I was painfully aware of just how naive I had been. Ev­ery­thing I thought I knew about the is­sue had been com­pletely up­ended. I had no idea what to think or re­ally what I be­lieved.

I re­mem­ber the Rudd an­nounce­ment quite dis­tinctly. A few col­leagues had gath­ered in the break­room to watch. The im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion was muted. No one said much of any­thing. My guess is that we’d all come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that the sit­u­a­tion was out of con­trol and that the govern­ment would even­tu­ally be forced to do some­thing dras­tic. The only ques­tion in our minds was what, and now we had the an­swer. Per­son­ally, my only thought was Makes sense, but they need to start work­ing on a more durable long-term so­lu­tion im­me­di­ately, be­fore qui­etly head­ing back to my desk. At that point I gen­uinely be­lieved the re­sponse was nec­es­sary to stop a con­tin­u­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe.

Five years later I no longer be­lieve the on­go­ing re­fusal to re­set­tle those on Nauru and Manus in Aus­tralia serves any pur­pose. My doubts be­gan to form dur­ing my trip to Nauru sev­eral years ago. At the time it was com­mon for de­part­ment of­fi­cials to travel to the is­lands. I was only de­ployed for a short pe­riod, but it made a sig­nif­i­cant im­pres­sion on me. A lot has been writ­ten about the is­land al­ready, and I don’t be­lieve any Aus­tralian gen­uinely be­lieves that life there is easy or de­sir­able. For that rea­son I won’t go into a long de­scrip­tion of my time there. I will, how­ever, make two ob­ser­va­tions.

The first is that it’s hard to over­state how in­cred­i­bly claus­tro­pho­bic Nauru feels. Of­ten I found my­self star­ing out at where the waves start to break, just 10 me­tres

I no longer be­lieve the on­go­ing re­fusal to re­set­tle those on Nauru and Manus in Aus­tralia serves any pur­pose.

from the shore, and be­ing painfully aware of how far from the near­est land­mass we were. It felt like the world ended where those waves broke and that noth­ing else ex­isted, or could ex­ist. It was a deeply un­com­fort­able feel­ing, and I was more than ready to leave when my time was over.

The sec­ond ob­ser­va­tion is that even these shores were off lim­its for all but Nau­ru­ans. This isn’t a law, just a prac­ti­cal out­come of Nauru’s age­ing sew­er­age sys­tem. In a brief­ing we were told that the E. coli con­cen­tra­tion in the wa­ter is sim­ply too high for any­one to swim at the beaches with­out get­ting sick – other than Nau­ru­ans, who develop a re­sis­tance while grow­ing up. For­eign­ers are con­fined to swim­ming in the har­bour, a small con­crete en­clo­sure in Ani­bare Bay on the east side of the is­land.

I am well aware that these ob­ser­va­tions are triv­ial com­pared to the well-doc­u­mented is­sues on the is­land. I’m just seek­ing to un­der­line the strange sense of be­ing com­pletely out of place. You are con­stantly aware that you do not be­long. Nauru may be home for Nau­ru­ans, but it never could be or will be for the ma­jor­ity of asy­lum seek­ers and refugees in­terned there. It’s not hard to see why so many end up strug­gling with men­tal-health prob­lems.

On Nauru I met a man who started to shake my faith in the sys­tem. He was es­sen­tially the same as the

ac­tiv­i­ties have taken place. Per­son­ally I be­lieve it is also the most suc­cess­ful so­lu­tion we’ve come to from the hu­man­i­tar­ian point of view. I am not sug­gest­ing that it is pleas­ant, nor that a bet­ter so­lu­tion can­not even­tu­ally be found, sim­ply that out of all the so­lu­tions we have tried this is the one that causes the least dam­age.

It raises a se­ri­ous ques­tion. If turn-backs are so ef­fec­tive, why do the more dam­ag­ing as­pects of the de­ter­rence regime per­sist? Why don’t we have the con­fi­dence to rely on the turn-back regime and re­set­tle those on Manus Is­land and Nauru in Aus­tralia? Hav­ing worked in the area for so long, I have come to be­lieve it’s due to two myths deeply held in the de­part­ment that are rarely chal­lenged and, for most, dif­fi­cult to see be­yond.

The first myth in which we are trapped main­tains that any kind­ness, any what­so­ever, will restart the in­dus­try. The sec­ond is that peo­ple smug­glers are ca­pa­ble of send­ing large num­bers of boats to Aus­tralia at short no­tice, enough to over­whelm any pos­si­ble so­lu­tion. Al­though from an or­gan­i­sa­tional point of view the lat­ter may be true, it grossly over­es­ti­mates the abil­ity of peo­ple smug­glers to con­vince peo­ple to at­tempt the trip. They are both myths born of the ex­pe­ri­ences of 2012 and 2013, when the peo­ple-smug­gling busi­ness was run­ning red-hot.

The sin­gle largest pol­icy mis­step un­der­pin­ning these myths was the de­ci­sion in late 2011 to release asy­lum seek­ers into the com­mu­nity be­fore de­ter­min­ing their refugee sta­tus. This led to a sig­nif­i­cant spike in what are dis­parag­ingly de­scribed as “eco­nomic mi­grants”. I will not go into the mer­its or oth­er­wise of that la­bel here. Suf­fice to say that a large num­ber of peo­ple with weaker-than-usual pro­tec­tion claims, who pre­vi­ously would not have made the at­tempt, took this op­por­tu­nity to en­ter Aus­tralia. This is what swelled the num­bers so much that the sys­tem be­came un­ten­able.

With so many asy­lum seek­ers mak­ing the trip, peo­ple smug­glers en­gaged in what the de­part­ment calls “surge tac­tics”. Fac­ing a new at­tempt to stem the flow of asy­lum seek­ers, smug­glers used a va­ri­ety of means to con­vince large num­bers to travel to Aus­tralia im­me­di­ately. This is why the orig­i­nal re­open­ing of Manus and Nauru ended up be­ing in­ef­fec­tual. The is­lands filled quickly, and it be­came ap­par­ent that any new ar­rivals would not be forced to en­dure off­shore pro­cess­ing.

Af­ter Rudd’s July 2013 an­nounce­ment, peo­ple smug­glers at­tempted the same tac­tics. This time they didn’t quite suc­ceed, but came very close. In­side the de­part­ment it was now be­lieved that any loos­en­ing of Aus­tralia’s regime would re­sult in a sim­i­lar surge, with sev­eral thou­sand asy­lum seek­ers mak­ing the trip.

But just how likely is this? The last surge, af­ter Rudd’s July 2013 an­nounce­ment, was rel­a­tively lim­ited and fin­ished mid Septem­ber. By that stage just over 3750 peo­ple had made the jour­ney. As the num­ber of ar­rivals per month was al­ready around 3500 at the time, that 3750 over two months was fewer than ex­pected. The smug­glers weren’t so much con­vinc­ing peo­ple to take the risk as they were con­vinc­ing peo­ple who had al­ready com­mit­ted to a course of ac­tion, and of­ten had al­ready paid a per­cent­age of their fee, to see it through.

This is very dif­fer­ent to con­vinc­ing large num­bers of peo­ple to part with around US$6000 to take a risk that will al­most cer­tainly end with them find­ing them­selves back where they started, only US$6000 poorer. Yet the ex­pe­ri­ence of 2013 still un­der­pins what of­fi­cials be­lieve will hap­pen if there is any change in pol­icy. We are equat­ing a busi­ness that is now in a state of tor­por and man­ag­ing to at­tract around 50 clients a year with what it was at its height, un­der very dif­fer­ent pol­icy set­tings. It is not a ra­tio­nal com­par­i­son.

A much more rea­son­able com­par­i­son is with what hap­pened af­ter Fe­bru­ary 8, 2008 when the Rudd govern­ment an­nounced the clo­sure of Nauru. De­spite the ab­sence of off­shore pro­cess­ing, over the next 11 months only seven boats car­ry­ing 161 peo­ple ar­rived on Aus­tralian shores. What’s truly re­mark­able is that this is only two more boats and 13 more peo­ple than in 2007, when the Howard govern­ment’s Pa­cific So­lu­tion was in full ef­fect.

It took a full 12 months for the peo­ple-smug­gling busi­ness to prop­erly re-es­tab­lish it­self and five years to get to the sort of num­bers that it had in 2013. Nev­er­the­less, mem­bers of my de­part­ment and the govern­ment are con­vinced that, this time, even the small­est con­ces­sion will some­how im­me­di­ately lead to thou­sands com­ing ev­ery month. It’s truly weird. Peo­ple smug­glers are not so sin­gu­larly charis­matic that they can con­vince thou­sands of peo­ple to part with large sums of money to take a risk, par­tic­u­larly with­out ev­i­dence that they can de­liver what is promised. They need suc­cess­ful jour­neys to re­build the con­fi­dence that’s re­quired to restart the in­dus­try. This is the one thing that we have demon­strated that we can deny them. With close to 100 per cent ef­fec­tive­ness.

Since the July 2013 an­nounce­ment the govern­ment has made a few ges­tures of kind­ness. They have had very lit­tle im­pact on the smug­gling trade. The most im­por­tant of these hap­pened in De­cem­ber 2014. Be­cause the is­lands were at ca­pac­ity, a lit­tle over a thou­sand peo­ple re­mained in de­ten­tion while nom­i­nally be­ing li­able to be trans­ferred to ei­ther Nauru or Manus. As part of the Re­solv­ing the Asy­lum Legacy Caseload (RALC) Bill, these peo­ple, pro­vided they had ar­rived be­fore Jan­uary 1, 2014 were slowly al­lowed into the Aus­tralian main­land com­mu­nity to ap­ply for, and re­ceive, pro­tec­tion visas.

This point is crit­i­cal. This one act was an ad­mis­sion of de­feat. It showed that the July 2013 an­nounce­ment was not prac­ti­ca­ble or ac­tion­able. As we are so of­ten told, there is no way that peo­ple smug­glers missed this shift in pol­icy. There is no way that they weren’t us­ing it to at­tempt to con­vince asy­lum seek­ers to take the jour­ney. Ac­cord­ing to con­ven­tional wisdom, there should have been a spike in the num­ber of asy­lum seek­ers at­tempt­ing the jour­ney in the next year. There was not. In 2015 there were half as many asy­lum seek­ers try­ing to reach Aus­tralia as there were in 2014.

Asy­lum seek­ers make their choices on what they cred­i­bly be­lieve will hap­pen to them. The de­ci­sions in

2008 to close the is­lands and in 2011 to release peo­ple into the com­mu­nity be­fore as­sess­ment mat­tered be­cause it changed the treat­ment of new ar­rivals. The De­cem­ber 2014 de­ci­sion did not, be­cause it only changed out­comes for those who had al­ready made the trip. Sim­i­larly, the an­nounce­ment in 2016 of a deal whereby the US would re­set­tle some ex­ist­ing de­tainees might have been ex­pected to cause a spike in boat ar­rivals, but it did not. What mat­ters to asy­lum seek­ers is not what even­tu­ally hap­pened to peo­ple who got on a boat five years ago.

What mat­ters is what hap­pened to the last boat that made the at­tempt. And for the past five years that has been a prompt re­turn. Re­cent work by Kieren Kre­se­vic Salazar has demon­strated that asy­lum seek­ers in In­done­sia are fo­cused on turn-backs. Those he in­ter­viewed claimed that few peo­ple con­sid­ered Manus and Nauru when de­cid­ing whether to make an at­tempt to get to Aus­tralia, be­cause the bor­der is seen as “closed”. The statistics on turn-backs would sug­gest that they are not ly­ing.

In re­cent weeks the ques­tion of New Zealand re­set­tle­ment for small num­bers of those de­tained off­shore has been raised again. That the prime min­is­ter is openly can­vass­ing this op­tion is fur­ther ev­i­dence that re­set­tling those on Nauru and Manus in de­vel­oped economies, as is their wish, poses no gen­uine threat to the de­ter­rence sys­tem. Such an ap­proach will not re­solve this is­sue any­time soon, how­ever, and will al­most cer­tainly lead to fur­ther dam­age and more deaths among those re­main­ing.

It is also un­nec­es­sary. Re­set­tle­ment in Aus­tralia to­day will not restart the peo­ple-smug­gling in­dus­try.

If you ac­cept that the ca­pac­ity of peo­ple smug­glers has been se­ri­ously over­es­ti­mated and that only con­ces­sions made to prospec­tive ar­rivals change peo­ple’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing, the an­swer to this vex­ing is­sue, at least in the short term, be­comes ob­vi­ous. Keep the ar­chi­tec­ture, re­move the peo­ple. Give par­ity to all those who ar­rived be­fore Jan­uary 1, 2014 by al­low­ing those found to be refugees to re­side in the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity. And, where pos­si­ble, use the US deal to re­set­tle the small num­ber who were suc­cess­ful af­ter. Then, keep the door closed to ir­reg­u­lar boat ar­rivals by main­tain­ing the cur­rent set­tings for fu­ture ar­rivals. The worst-case sce­nario of such an ap­proach is that one or two boats man­age to elude the naval cor­don be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to Nauru and we end up with sig­nif­i­cantly fewer peo­ple on the is­lands. The best case is we end up with none.

If we want to, we can end this nightmare to­day. M

– Oc­to­ber 18, 2018

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