Why the Manus Island crisis won't change Australia's refugee policy

Story highlights

  • Australia has detained hundreds of men, women and children asylum seekers
  • Recent polls show Australians are in favor of a smaller refugee intake

Peter van Onselen is a professor of politics at the University of Western Australia. He is a contributing Editor at The Australian newspaper and on Sky News Australia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)People must wonder what all the fuss is about when the Australian government maintains a hard line on asylum seeker arrivals.

After all, as a wealthy island nation with abundant natural resources and a relatively small population, Australia is never going to face the challenges destination nations in other parts of the world must confront.
    But despite criticisms from the United Nations and various international aid agencies, there is little prospect of a change in policy.
    The most recent controversy is a stand off between local authorities and 580 asylum seekers hauled up in a decommissioned detention center in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
    The Australian government pays for offshore centers in nearby minnow nations such as PNG and Nauru to prevent asylum seekers making their way to the mainland by boat.
    They do so to try and prevent activist lawyers from accessing the Australian legal system to challenge Australian treatment of asylum seekers who, more often than not, are formally assessed by the United Nations to be genuine refugees according to international standards.
    Within the next 48 hours the PNG police plan to remove the asylum seekers by force, shifting them to another still incomplete facility.
    The protesting asylum seekers claim it isn't safe, citing previous violence by locals against refugees. The Australian government argues that the protest is nothing more than an attempt to pressure for a change of policy which would ultimately lead to asylum seekers being allowed to settle in Australia.

    Australia's refugee 'problem'

    To the rest of the world Australia doesn't have and indeed never had, a refugee "problem." Even at the height of arrivals years ago when thousands of people were trying to make their way to Australia by boat, the flows were modest by world standards.
    As an island nation, Australia doesn't face the sorts of challenges of significant refugee flows or illegal immigration that Europe or the United States deal with on their southern borders.
    But the mantra of being "tough on border protection" has been an edict both major parties in Australia are eager to stick to. Despite protests this past week which saw signs hung on the Opera House and interruptions at the Melbourne Cup (Australia's biggest annual horse race), major party politicians aren't for turning.
    The opposition Labor Party doesn't want to be seen to support a softening of hardline policies lest its current dominance in the opinion polls fades. It was when Labor was last in government, from 2007 to 2013, that the flow of asylum seekers escalated.
    The Coalition government has long shunned international laws when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers, going right back to the interception of the MV Tampa -- a Norwegian vessel that had picked up asylum seekers whose boat was sinking on the high seas -- back in 2001 when former conservative Liberal Party leader John Howard was Prime Minister.
    Both political parties are to some extent following the will of the Australian people, at least if polling is to be believed.
    An online poll by Essential in 2015 found a third of Australians (30%) thought Australia took in more refugees than other nations, while 58% said they wanted the refugee quota left the same or reduced.
    In a poll a few months earlier, almost half of Australians (43%) said they did not believe refugees who arrive by boat were "genuine" refugees.
    Despite most boat people (as they are often referred to in the Australian media) having been assessed to be genuine refugees, Australia still won't include such asylum seekers in its annual quota for intake. The political argument is that doing so will "put sugar on the table" as consecutive immigration ministers have described it.
    The official refugee quota has been lifted as a sop to some Australians concerned about a lack of humanity in government policy, and it makes Australia one of the world's most generous nations when it comes to the size and diversity of the intake.
    But anyone seeking asylum who proactively tries to make their own way to Australia won't be assessed. This is despite international law stipulating that refugees have a right to bypass nations which haven't signed up to UN refugee conventions. Indonesia has not, and it is from there that refugee boats flowed.
    When Australians were polled in October 2016 by Essential on whether they supported the government raising the refugee intake, 44% opposed the move while only 39% were for it.
    Refugees protest at the Manus Island detention center in November, which they currently refuse to leave.

    Refugees left in limbo

    The flow of boats has significantly reduced since the return to hardline policies of turning boats around at sea and housing asylum seekers offshore.
    But offshore processing with a blanket refusal to settle refugees in Australia has created a standoff, with genuine refugees left in legal limbo: unable to be settled in Australia, unwilling (understandably) to be returned to homelands they fled, and in negotiation with the government to find alternative places to settle.
    PNG has signed the relevant UN refugee conventions, meaning that in theory asylum seekers could be settled there. But local resistance and the impoverished nature of PNG mean that very few refugees want to start a new life in such hostile economic and social conditions.
    A deal has been done with the United States to take up to 1,250 genuine refugees, but only after a security vetting process, and so far only handfuls of candidates have been settled in the US.
    The Australia government recently rejected an offer from New Zealand to settle 150 of the stranded refugees because of fears that loose immigration rules between Australia and New Zealand would see asylum seekers ultimately settle in Australia. The rejection of this offer saw one of the few cracks in the bipartisan tough policy settings, with the opposition criticizing the government for not accepting the New Zealand offer.
    Irrespective of how the standoff between asylum seekers and authorities ends on Manus Island, the Australian government won't budge from its tough border policies. Asylum boats will continue to be turned around at sea, and offshore centers will continue to cater for arrivals which slip through the net.
    It's a bipartisan policy of ignoring international norms when it comes to the treatment of genuine refugees: an international shame which is domestically very popular.