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WE'VE had the Pacific solution - the farcical policy of ferrying boatpeople to neighbouring countries - but the paradises of Nauru and Manus Island have proved too tempting, so we are getting the Southeast Asian solution, as refugee advocate and lawyer David Manne calls it.

The Austrlaian Government wants to send 83 Sri Lankans the navy picked up last week and dropped off at Christmas Island back to Indonesia, where they embarked. Yet it has a detention centre to accommodate them on Christmas Island and is spending $400 million building a new one.

There has been a hitch, though, in carrying through the Government's bright idea. The Indonesians, after talking to Australian officials, said they would be quite happy to accept the Sri Lankans; in fact, they would go one better and put them on the next plane back to Sri Lanka.

The information available to date is that the young Tamils in the group come from the east of the country. This is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report last December on the deteriorating situation there: "Harassment, intimidation, arrest, detention, torture, abduction and killing ... are frequently reported to be inflicted on Tamils from the north and east."

When it judges the political situation warrants it, Australia has had no compunction about breaching the refugee convention.
But we have not yet gone so far as to send asylum-seekers back to the country they left, at least not before assessing whether they were refugees.

To his credit, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has ruled out doing so in the case of the Sri Lankans. One plausible explanation for the misunderstanding is that Australian officials suggested that if the boatpeople were returned to Indonesia before they had a chance to ask Australia for protection as refugees, then it would be up to the Indonesians what they did with them. After all, the navy regularly turns boats in international waters heading for Australia back to Indonesia.

Perhaps Indonesia was reassured by the comments of Sri Lankan ambassador to Indonesia Janaka Perera, who said the boatpeople were probably economic migrants who had nothing to fear. But Perera's involvement breaches the fundamental tenet of refugee law that the country from which asylum-seekers flee should play no part in deciding their future.

Worse, he is a former major-general in the Sri Lankan Army accused by the Tamils of responsibility for mass murders. The Government says there has been no change in policy and it is right in the sense that the real policy is deterrence at any cost.

Presumably, it fears a wave of boatpeople from Sri Lanka following the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement between the Government and the Tamil Tigers and the uprooting of more than 200,000 people since the start of last year.

The signal Australia is sending is that, refugees or not, these latest asylum-seekers will not be coming here. But if it cannot pass off its problem to Indonesia, it may have to take them, as it did most of the Afghan and Iraqi refugees shipped off to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

However, there is a precedent for the Government ruling out refugees coming here.

Eight Burmese who landed on Ashmore Reef last August and were taken to Nauru received letters in December saying that if they agreed to go back to Malaysia, the Government would allow them to stay for two years and to work.

Not that this was the only option: they could stay on Nauru and have their claims processed. There was just one qualification: "Unlike previous groups, the Australian Governmnent has decided that, even if you are found to be a refugee, you will not be issued with a visa to Australia from Nauru." The letters added that Australia would look at resettlement in a third country, "which may take some time".

Talk about Hobson's choice. The Burmese are from the Rohingya ethnic group who are persecuted and treated as slaves in Burma. That has not stopped Malaysia sending these people back to Burma in recent years.

Manne, who is representing the asylum-seekers, says Malaysia has one of the worst records for returning refugees to the country from which they fled and for persecuting them in Malaysia.
Not surprisingly, seven of the eight have decided to stay on Nauru, while the eighth is considering returning only out of concern for his two children.

So much for our obligations under the refugee convention.

It is clear where Australia's priorities lie. Under pressure from Liberal dissidents, the Howard Government in 2005 introduced a more humane way of treating asylum-seekers in mainland detention camps, although retaining the harsh principle of indefinite mandatory detention.

Last year, after over-reacting to Indonesian threats prompted by allowing 42 Papuans to stay as refugees, the Government pre-empted a backbench revolt by not going ahead with legislation that extended the Pacific solution to asylum-seekers who landed anywhere in Australia, not just on offshore islands.

But with the slightest provocation, the Government will swing back to putting deterrence ahead of humanitarian considerations.

Deterrence has had some success in slowing the flow of boatpeople but its effect has been greatly exaggerated.

All Western countries have experienced a decline in refugee movements in recent years because conditions in the countries from which they fled have improved.

Deterrence is all about politics, not policy. The proof of that lies in one stark fact: more people fly into Australia to claim refugee status than come by boat. By the Government's definition, these people are just as much illegals: they jump the queue by entering Australia under false pretences, usually on a visitor visa, with the intention of staying here as refugees. Yet the Government does not lock them up in detention centres and treat them as second-class citizens if it finds they are refugees.

It is boat people who trigger the political paranoia about defending our borders.

But the point is not how they come here but whether Australia, as a country that purports to uphold the aspirations of the refugee convention, is prepared to properly protect people who have fled persecution and death.

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