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The Nub of the Houston Report

I’m far from an expert on asylum seekers, and am still trying to wrap my head around all the stuff in the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers (the ‘Houston Report’). Here’s the nub of the matter, though, as far as I understand it – this is essentially thinking out loud, so please do correct me if I’m wrong.


Problem: Asylum seekers are risking, and losing their lives coming to Australia by boat – as ‘irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) – rather than waiting to be processed in transition countries.

(N.B. Most people who become asylum seekers (or at least, most refugees) are motivated to do so by ‘push’ factors, i.e. conditions in their home countries. Asylum seekers policy is thus less about whether they come than how they come.)

Cause: Asylum seekers believe (rightly?) that they and their family members will be accepted as refugees in Australia more quickly than if they went through the ‘proper’ channels.

Proposed solution: IMAs should not get any advantages over asylum seekers coming to Australia through approved channels, so they will instead be taken and processed somewhere else, with no chance of arriving in Australia more rapidly than if they’d used the proper channels. The deterrent is that boat trips no longer grant any advantage in how quickly you (or your family) reach Australia. (And no higher chance of being settled in Australia vs. another country?)

The processing centres “somewhere else” should include centres all throughout the region, including but not limited to Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, but we should start with Nauru and Manus Island (PNG) because they’re closest to being ready. We should also do a lot more to get regional processing centres elsewhere up and running.


Problem: the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island under the Howard-era ‘Pacific Solution’ sucked. Conditions weren’t great, people were there for years, and many developed mental health problems.

Proposed solution: Don’t replicate the Pacific Solution: improve the conditions, and speed up the processing by doubling our intake of refugees. Process people rather than detain them, i.e. no barbed wire fences, guard dogs, etc. Provide legal aid and oversight services. Use Nauru and Manus Island only until regional processing centres in Malaysia and Indonesia are ready.


Is that about right?

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Reader Comments (6)

One thing that should be acknowledged is the woefully poor outcomes for people who use the 'approved channels'. My simple calculations last year on data from the UNHCR suggests that (averaged across the whole planet) it would take over 70 years to process all current applications for asylum - in the last day, I've seen a figure of over 150 years for people in Malaysian refugee camps. And remember, this is not like a Woolies queue where the person at the front is automatically selected next - countries like Australia routinely select the most desirable people from the queue eg. elderly refugees have no chance of being selected by Australia.
So, if confronted with the reasonable prospect that you will end your life in a refugee camp, your children will become adults and also die in a camp and your grandchildren might, just might, have a chance of a normal life, then it's entirely rational for people with the means to risk their lives for a better outcome.
The concept of a "queue" makes us feel like their is an orderly process, that if people just wait their turn then something good will happen. It helps us to feel good about what we're doing.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAS


I agree that, even under the Houston Report's plan, there will be people for whom a perilous boat journey is more attractive than awaiting selection from a refugee camp. However, I don't think a black-and-white viewing of the situation helps us.

Instead, I would ask whether the proposed policy would improve the current situation (if not bring us to the best of all possible worlds). I feel as though it does; as though fewer people would die trying to get to Australia by boat if it were implemented.

The trade-off is that more people will be processed offshore. Will they be worse off than being processed in Australia? I see that question as probably the most important after "will this policy save lives", and, my current answer is, "possibly".

The Houston Report clearly doesn't want to go back to the terrible practices of the Pacific Solution; hence the specific emphasis on processing, not detention. I haven't yet gotten involved enough to figure out what other measures would be necessary to make offshore processing palatable to humanitarian advocates; perhaps that'll come out in the political debate.

August 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterMCJ

My understanding is there is no time limit stipulated within the proposed amendments as to the maximum detainment within the centres. This alone is enough for me to condemn the plan.

Furthermore, the presumption that these proposals will have any impact on the propensity for people to choose to attempt to arrive via boat is, in my view, not well supported by logic or fact. I do not believe that there is any accepted evidence to show that Howard's Pacific Solution was directly responsible for a decline in the number of boats that arrived, and it does not follow that this plan, essentially a variant of the same, will have any impact.

For this to have the impact outlined, it assumes an efficiency of communication of the 'disincentive' to attempting to 'que jump' to a disenfranchised population of asylum seekers that is not realistic; ie the people smugglers who still stand to gain by attempting to traffic asylum seekers by boat will not be handing out fliers explaining that there will be no discrete advantage to attempting to expedite their attempt to get into Australia.

It similarly does not take into account the flaws of the actual selection process, as identified above by yourself and AS.
Similarly, it does not take into account the fact that the 'push factors' you describe remain in place and the drive to flee their specific circumstance will thus also remain. Hence the demand may not significantly shift simply by introducing these disincentives.

The ‘it’s safer’ argument also presumes that the only dangerous part of the average asylum seeker’s journey is in crossing the Timor Sea, as it does not ameliorate the danger faced in getting to the detention centre countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, Nauru and PNG.

If safety was the primary concern, let’s go ahead and increase the frequency of naval patrol and SARS availability in the gulf to help save lives directly.

The whole debate also tends to implicitly conflate asylum seekers with illegal immigrants.

The entire argument is merely a political one. From a moral and legal perspective, there is no such thing as an illegal method for seeking asylum, by definition.

The entire debate merely serves to obfuscate the underlying issue of our national humanitarian responsibilities and is the moral equivalent of enforcing an off-deck processing plan for the chairs on the titanic.
Let’s instead focus on fixing the problems with the actual processing of asylum applications and remember that refugees should not have to wait in line.

It’s not immigration, it’s salvation.

Or something like that.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJB


Would the lack of a maximum time frame still bother you if it weren't detainment? Perhaps you think I'm kidding myself, and conditions will be awful, but as a thought experiment, then: if IMAs were simply transported to Nauru, offered food, shelter, and basic services, without restricting their movement other than to prevent travel to Australia, would that be okay? Even if the length of that travel prevention were indefinite?

We can agree that detention is bad and human rights must be respected, but what are the criteria for treating asylum seekers that would make it okay to process them offshore? Presumably we would not want to offer them as good conditions as they would get once they're accepted in Australia, otherwise there'd be no deterrence to the boat journeys, but how little is enough? (And am I a beastly utilitarian simply for framing the issue in this way?)

Of course, If the deterrence is non-existent (detainment or no), then the whole thing is, as you say, only a political exercise, and we can but hope it serves to bring us closer to a 'proper' solution. Which, presumably, is regional processing?

August 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterMCJ

You get that they are literally talking about setting up tent cities to serve as the processing centres? We are talking about people who have committed no crime being placed into indefinite detention in conditions that are worse than the minimums we require from our penal facilities.

So yes, mandatory maximums are a fundamental requirement. Setting aside the issue of whether or not we are open enough to taking in sufficient numbers of refugees (we are not, we are xenophobes and anyway, the coalition has flat out said that it will not support the recommendation to increase the intake numbers) sufficient funding must be allocated to allow timely and expedient processing of these applications.

I am against off-shore processing in all forms, in order to ensure conditions meet our humanitarian obligations the centres must not be out of sight (and thus out of mind). This is a scenario that is fundamentally a political issue, thus must be subject to public oversight in order to keep policy makers accountable.

On the topic of accountability, the proposal neatly divests the Minister of responsibility for unaccompanied minors. Unaccompanied minors must remain the Minister's direct responsibility and under no circumstances are they to be processed off shore.

Similarly, any country that is used to host any offshore processing must be a signatory to the same human rights conventions that we are.

I think that it is genuinely naive to believe that the current policy proposals are in any way motivated by a desire to protect the lives of people making to journey to Australia by boat. This is simply not the texture of the political discourse that has surrounded this issue for the last decade.

We can be better than this, yet we limit the discussion around the practical ways of implementing fundamentally bankrupt policy rather than addressing the humanitarian roots of the problem.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJB

To me, the argument that we need to deter people from making dangerous journeys is hypocritical. For some reason, we in our comfortable world think that a perilous journey at sea is the worst possible option. But it must look better than the prospect of entire generations of your family living and dying in a camp. People need to get real, a refugee camp might not offer the risk of death by drowning, but it can only offer physical subsistence at best - and that's in the safest of camps.
You don't have to scratch too far below the surface to hear the same old xenophobia coming out.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAS

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