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3 October 2013

Asylum seeker policy - Surely we can we do better


"Many of us believe that Australia can do much better than simply pretending that the flow of millions of refugees in troubling circumstances can be ignored by affluent countries like ours. There are no easy answers to this problem but I am certain we can devise an approach that is more humane and more effective than being as uncaring as possible to those who make it to our shores."

Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO, leader, Australia21 Asylum Seeker Policy project

This newsletter has two purposes - to keep you up to date with our new project on asylum seeker policy and to give you the opportunity to support this project through the Pozible crowdfunding platform at

Why asylum seeker policy is important for all of us
In recent weeks two more asylum seeker boats have sunk en route to Australia with at least 50 lives lost. Because of the new government policy limiting official information about asylum seekers details are sketchy, but the pictures of drowned bodies and of distressed and confused people are real. Regardless of your political affiliation, you were probably discomforted by these scenes and may well be wondering whether this is the best a country like ours can do. The recent election revealed  little difference between the harsh approaches of the two major parties. Both offered a 'solution' based on punishing individual asylum seekers at the end of their journey, leaving many Australians thinking there has to be a better way.

Asylum seeker policy is complex and strategically important for Australia. If left in its current state it is likely to cost our country dearly both in economic terms and via our international reputation. It is also likely to remain divisive with detrimental effects on the national psyche for generations to come. Whether or not current or future policies have the desired outcome of reducing the flow of boats, there is an urgent need for Australia to develop a coherent and humane policy in the face of growing numbers of refugees fleeing dangers arising from political oppression and the impacts of war and climate change. 

Away from the heat of politics, we need to develop a framework for coherent national strategy that is both sustainable and compassionate. It needs to take account of legitimate concerns about irregular immigration and to be consistent with our international obligations as an affluent world citizen and a foundation party to the Refugee Convention.

Part of the problem with this debate is failure to focus on what the objectives of our asylum seeker policy should be. There is also a need to assist ordinary Australians to “stand in the shoes” of refugees who face intolerable living conditions without human rights protection in situations of persecution, war and famine.

Australian people are the same decent people who presided over earlier waves of immigration, including, particularly, the influx of Vietnamese boat people. Faced with a demonstration of the reality of the current situation and the development of sensible alternatives, they are likely to act with decency and compassion yet again.

About the new Australia21 project
Australia21's project on asylum seeker policy aims to find an approach that takes more account of humanitarian issues without compromising Australia's legitimate interests and international standing. It will bring the best and most experienced minds in Australia to bear on this difficult issue, so that together we can find that better way.  It  aims to:

  • Define the problem in an intellectually sound way – concentrating on the core issues (how does the world reduce the number of people being displaced and resettle the ones who have been displaced) rather than just focussing on the the symptoms
  • Set out a roadmap to what a sustainable solution to the refugee issue might look like (at two levels: regional and global)
  • Develop a decent humane response that is within Australia’s control and consistent with all of our international obligations.

The first stage of this three part project will comprise a book of short essays written by a diverse group of up to 20 leading thinkers in this field. It  will be designed to raise awareness on various aspects of the issue. Our team will be led by Australia21 Director, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO, who will all also edit the publication. Other team members, drawn from Australia21's Board,  include Mr Paul Barratt AO, Chair and former Secretary of Defence, Dr Steve Cork, Chair Australia21 Research Committee, Ms Molly Harriss Olson, Chair, World Fair Trade Association, and Mr Mick Palmer AO APM, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner. People who have already committed to contributing to the book of essays include:

  • Dr John Hewson AMJohn is a former federal leader of the Liberal Party, an academic and economist, a businessman, a political advisor, columnist and commentator.
  • Admiral Chris Barrie AC (Rtd.)- Chris was Chief of the Defence Force during the "Children Overboard Affair" of 2001, a high-level political controversy which occurred during an Australian federal election campaign.
  • Ms Widyan Al Ubudy - Widyan is a young Muslim Australian, who spent four years in a refugee camp before coming to Australia with her family at the age of seven. She is completing her Masters degree in journalism and is radio host of PopAraby on SBS. For more about Widyan watch this interview. 
  • Professor Louise Newman - Louise is the Chair of the Detention Expert Health Advisory Group an independent body providing advice to government on the health needs of asylum seekers. She has also been involved in research into the impact of immigration detention on child asylum seekers.
  • Dr David Corlett -  David has worked with refugees and asylum seekers for about two decades as a case worker, researcher and advisor. In 2011 and 2012, he was the host of the controversial and highly acclaimed documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From (SBS Australia). 
Following the launch of the book of essays, Australia21 plans to produce a well-researched discussion paper on the options as the second stage of the project . We would like this to be the forerunner to a day long expert roundtable discussion aimed at developing recommendations for practical change.

Your opportunity to help find a better way
If you are one of those Australians who feels uneasy about how our country is handling asylum seekers, this is your chance  to do something about it. We would welcome your support of this project at any level. 

Very importantly we need money. Because many of you have told us you would like the opportunity to make a contribution on this issue we are using a crowdfunding approach to raise funds for this project using the Pozible platform and our target is to raise $7,500. The project team and the authors will contribute their time pro bono. We will use this money to supplement our budget for the development of a print, HTML and pdf version of the book of essays, to design an effective media strategy - including social media - and to help cover the costs of distributing the essays to all Australian federal politicians and other stakeholders and opinion leaders. The $7,500 will help, but obviously we could do with much more. We estimate that the total for the three stages of the project will be around $75,000.

So, if you can, please make a financial contribution via this link

You can also help by telling your friends and colleagues about the project and this fundraising campaign.
Thank you for your support. We will keep you updated on progress.


Australia21 is a small not for profit organisation which seeks to create new frameworks of understanding about the strategic issues facing us in the 21st century.
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