A problem that will not go away
A ‘wicked problem’ is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because any solution necessarily creates other additional problems.
Refugee advocate and government advisor Paris Aristotle believes the arrival of asylum seekers to Australia by boat is a ‘wicked problem’ and he told this month’s Federation of Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) 2013 Conference just why.
He said that policy makers faced impossible choices when wrestling with the asylum seeker question.
“This is one of those problems which are resistant to resolution, difficult to tackle and never completely resolved. The challenge is to find the least harmful way to deal with it,” Mr Aristotle told the conference.
His presentation included an image of a bombing outrage in Quetta, Pakistan, which showed carnage in the foreground and featured in the background an Australian government billboard advising people not to come by boat to Australia.
Mr Aristotle said that this unfortunate juxtaposition highlighted an ethical conundrum that, boiled down, asks to whether it is better that people risk death by taking to the ocean in often flimsy asylum seeker boats, or risk death or hunger by staying at home.
He said that in Australia the issue was compounded by a lack of political common ground and that the approaches adopted by both sides of politics were flawed.
“What we’ve seen is pure politics. The solutions advanced by both sides are inadequate, unfair and unlikely to succeed. There is no common ground, what we have is something akin to trench warfare,” Mr Aristotle said.
“The current circumstances are a disaster.”
Mr Aristotle, the Director of Foundation House, identified three critical issues embedded in the debate around asylum seekers in his presentation to FECCA.
The first was how the international community is failing in its response to people fleeing conflict.
He said that in recent years the number of civilians who were the casualties or victims of war had risen from 5 per cent to 90 per cent.
Second was the issue of refugee camps. Mr Aristotle said there were now 42.5 million displaced persons around the globe and 15 million people of concern to the UNHCR.
Most displaced persons had very remote prospects of being settled in a third country, he said.
“The idea of a queue for refugees is a myth. There are 15 million people at risk, according to the UNHCR, but just 80,000 places available in third countries,” Mr Aristotle said.
“In the 1990s, refugees in camps were waiting something like nine years for resettlement; now it’s more like 20 years,” he said.
Thirdly, Mr Aristotle said wealthy countries were ‘fortressing’ themselves against asylum seekers.
“They are spending more on protecting their borders than assuring the security of these people who become asylum seekers in their own countries,” he said.
Mr Aristotle gave some insight into the difficult deliberations and soul searching he undertook as part of the Federal Government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.
He said the panel presented a report with an integrated package of 22 recommendations knowing it would take time to implement them and have the desired effect.
The report’s most important components were measures to establish an effective regional processing and protection framework that would build a safer system.
Included were proposals to increase the humanitarian settlement program to 20,000 places immediately and to 27,000 over the next five years; add 4000 places to the family migration stream and provide $70 million dollars to improve regional processing underpins these measures.
However, there were also strong measures designed, not to punish, but to discourage people risking their lives while a better system is created, he said.
They included reintroducing processing on Nauru and Manus Island; building on and implementing the ”Malaysia Arrangement” and increased co-operation with Indonesia.
To mitigate the associated risks the panel recommended safeguards. They included no arbitrary detention, appropriate accommodation, legal assistance and merits review, an oversight group and services such as health, mental health, education and vocational training.
“The panel took the view that we had to do something to stop the deaths at sea but of course, as we have seen, not all of our recommendations have been implemented,” Mr Aristotle said.