Date: 5 February 2014
Author: Caroline Fleay
Title: Alternatives to Offshore Processing: Submissions to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers 2012
Publisher: Labor for Refugees
Date Published: 2013
Author/s: Robin Rothfield, ed.
Like many others, I was stunned when the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers announced in August 2012 that offshore processing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island was considered an appropriate policy to deter asylum seekers from taking risky boat journeys to Australia. The Labor Government had established the Expert Panel in June 2012 in response to the increasing number of asylum seekers arriving by boat and the deaths at sea as some of the boats sank on route. The Panel was tasked with providing advice on issues including “how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat”.
To assist its investigation, the Expert Panel called for submissions and soon received 340. I supported Anne Pedersen’s Academic Open Letter that ended up as a submission to the Panel. Given the research and reports that documented the harmful impacts of offshore processing on asylum seekers under the Howard Government, we certainly did not recommend offshore processing. We were not alone. According to Alternatives to Offshore Processing: Submissions to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers 2012, the vast majority of submissions – 86 per cent – did not recommend it.
Alternatives to Offshore Processing comprises a collection and discussion of the more detailed submissions sent to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. While there is limited analysis of the common recommendations included in the submissions, the book usefully summarises them to highlight a range of alternative policy guidelines that are at odds with the majority of the policies adopted in the wake of the Panel’s Report. Alternative policies would seek to address the important but often ignored reasons of why people attempt to take a perilous journey across the sea to Australia. For many, it is simply because there are no other means available of finding asylum.
The book slams the Expert Panel’s recommendations and asks why they did not reflect the majority of the submissions. As the title suggests, much of the volume focuses in particular on the recommendation that offshore processing be re-introduced. It also provides a damning critique of Australian Labor Party (ALP) policies, unsurprising given that the book is a Labor for Refugees initiative. It serves as an open letter to ALP members and to their leaders whose asylum seeker policies flouted the party’s National Platform, and calls for policy change. To this end, Chapter 3 provides an interesting summary of responses to the government’s policies in the wake of the Expert Panel’s report, and highlights where these policies contradicted the ALP National Platform. The discussion in this chapter could have been enhanced, however, by reframing its focus on the sources of information. Much of the chapter is a summary of reports from predominantly Fairfax media outlets. It would have been more compelling if instead it had been an analysis of the key events and responses of relevant organisations and individuals post-August 2012.
Useful discussions can be found in Chapter 4 on “worrying developments” in the wake of the Expert Panel’s Report, including a particularly compelling overview of arguments against the indefinite detention of refugees who have not received security clearances from ASIO. It is also striking to reflect on this chapter some five months after the Coalition Government won the federal election and realise just how many other “worrying developments” could now be added.
While it is acknowledged in various places that the circumstances within which the Expert Panel was established “were highly political”, the book does not explore in any depth the political context within which the Panel was formed. Political debate in Australia had gotten to the point where both major political parties were trying to outbid each other with policies that would be perceived by the electorate as harsh enough to have an impact on boat arrival numbers. Given this context, it is not surprising that the Labor Government seized upon the Panel’s recommendation of offshore processing and set about implementing it first, without the Panel’s “safeguards” to at least try to minimise the harms inherent in a system of indefinite detention.
While Alternatives to Offshore Processing calls on the government to take the lead in bringing about a more humane discourse – referring to the previous Labor Government – this could, of course, now extend to the current government. But how do we get the government, or the Opposition, to do this? This book’s discussion and collection of submissions serves as a pertinent and useful source of information on what could be humane Australian policies. But what is also needed is a much keener understanding of how Australian policies got to this point, and how the parameters of “politically acceptable” policies can be shifted so that the rights of asylum seekers become a central concern. That is now the challenge.
Caroline Fleay is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University. Her research focuses on asylum seekers and Australian policy, and her publications explore the impacts of immigration detention and the experiences of asylum seekers living in the community. Caroline has also advocated on behalf of asylum seekers for over a decade.
Policy Online hosts a digital version of the book Alternatives to Offshore Processing, available here.
 Prime Minister of Australia ‘Transcript of joint press conference’ Canberra, 28 June 2012.
 See: http://blogs.curtin.edu.au/human-rights-education/files/2012/07/OPEN-LET... (5)
 For example, see L. Briskman, S. Latham and C. Goddard (2008) Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia, Scribe Publications, Carlton North; M. Gordon (2005) Freeing Ali: The Human Face of the Pacific Solution, University of NSW Press, Sydney; S. Metcalfe (2010) The Pacific Solution, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne.
 J. Mettam (2013) in R. Rothfield (ed.) Alternatives to Offshore Processing: Submissions to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers 2012, Labor for Refugees, Bentleigh, Vic., p. 32.