Government seeks ‘middle-ground’ on asylum

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says Australia must adopt a “middle position” on asylum seekers and reject “cheap talk of turning the boats back”.

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He also said that an offshore processing centre, such as the one Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants in East Timor, would only work within a regional framework.

“An offshore processing centre without a regional framework is not the solution to a regional problem,” he said on Friday.

Mr Bowen – who leaves on Monday for East Timor, Malaysia and Indonesia – said the issue would be a hot topic of discussion because it had the potential to set the framework for managing the next wave of asylum seekers.

In his first address as the portfolio’s new minister, Mr Bowen said there was no room for extreme views within the asylum seeker debate.

“Some in the community feel that all who arrive by boat in this country are economic refugees who should be immediately put on the first plane back,” he said.

“There are also plenty of people who feel that all people who arrive by boat must always be found automatically to be refugees and that we should have completely open borders.

“Neither position stands up to analysis.”

‘This won’t be popular’

Mr Bowen advocated a “middle position”, with Australia complying with its refugee convention obligations and rigorously checking claims within “as orderly and fair process as possible”.

“(This) will not be popular with either side of a polarised debate,” he said.

“But it is the only sustainable policy… The cheap talk of turning the boats back comes easily but doesn’t mean much. Sound policy takes more thought.”

Giving the keynote address at the opening day of the Migration 2010 Conference in Sydney, Mr Bowen said a regional framework for dealing with asylum seekers wouldn’t be achieved quickly.

“I will not return from the region next week with a final agreement but it is an idea that is worth every effort to bring to fruition,” he said.

The government is facing renewed pressure over its border protection policies and overcrowding in detention centres following the apparent suicide of 36-year-old Fijian detainee Josefa Rulani at Villawood last month.

This was followed by two separate rooftop protests.

The opposition seized on the developments at Villawood, linking the incidents to delays in processing visa applications and capacity issues across the detention network.

There are now 4934 people in immigration detention in Australia – 2577 on Christmas Island and 2357 in facilities on the mainland.

Of those in detention on the mainland, 2,149 arrived in Australia by boat.