An Open letter from over 200 Australian Academics with concerns about treatment of Asylum Seekers – and proposed solutions

21 07 2012

The weblink for this letter is available at the bottom of this posting.


We are academics who have serious concerns about the protection of asylum seekers under the proposed legislation presented to Federal Parliament in the week prior to the winter break. The undersigned represent a substantial proportion of Australia’s leading experts in refugee and asylum seeker research. The strength of our concern is indicated by this unusual cross-disciplinary alliance and our wish to express our views.

The two major political parties claim that the most effective solution is to ‘stop the boats’. However, stopping boats of asylum seekers reaching Australia (if that is even possible) does nothing to address the reasons why people flee persecution in their own countries. Neither does it address the needs of asylum seekers to find a durable solution elsewhere. We argue, therefore, that none of the solutions proposed by either major political party is in fact a solution.

Reasons for our opposition are outlined below. We would prefer a different approach to this issue with a focus on protection to provide durable solutions for asylum seekers and refugees in the region. Refugees must have viable alternatives to jumping on boats; we outline these alternatives at the end of this letter.

Four “solutions” to the “problem” of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been suggested by the two major political parties. All of them fail to address the needs of asylum seekers and undermine Australia’s obligation to implement its responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention in good faith. Furthermore, they are unlikely to be successful.

The proposed policies and reasons for our opposition

Returning boats to Indonesia. Experience with this policy under the Howard government showed how dangerous it was for both asylum seekers and Australian Navy personnel. Many lives were put at risk; for example, according to a Four Corners report, when SIEV 7 was returned to Indonesian waters in 2001, three men disappeared, presumed drowned, while trying to swim ashore from their stricken boat. There is also the question of incompatibility of the policy with the obligation to rescue those whose lives are imperilled at sea. Furthermore, Indonesia has indicated that it will not accept the towing back of asylum seeker boats to its shores and former Defence Force chief Admiral Chris Barrie has serious reservations about the proposed policy. In short, he does not believe that it will work.

Temporary protection visas. Refugees granted temporary protection visas under the Howard government were precluded from applying for family reunion. Thus, rather than deterring asylum seekers from taking boat journeys to Australia, evidence indicates that these visas encouraged many women and children to do so. For example, most of 353 asylum seekers who died in 2001 when the vessel SIEV X sank en route to Australia were women and children; many of whom had husbands or fathers on temporary protection visas in Australia. Furthermore, those of us who engage with refugees from that era have ample evidence of the mental harms done to individuals because of temporary protection visas; some persisting to the present day.

The Pacific Solution. 1,231 asylum seekers were detained on Nauru under the Howard government; many for a period of years. 484 were eventually resettled in Australia and 274 were resettled in other countries, all either as refugees or on other humanitarian grounds. 473 were returned to their countries of origin, mostly to Afghanistan. Evidence suggests that many of those returned to their country of origin fled soon after they arrived as it was still unsafe for them. Some of these asylum seekers have since returned to Australia and have now been accepted as refugees. Finally, the evidence is clear that asylum seekers (including many children) are being harmed psychologically, particularly when they spend a long time in offshore facilities.

The Malaysian Solution. Refugees’ human rights cannot be adequately protected through this scheme. Malaysia is not a party to the Refugee Convention and does not protect the rights of refugees in practice. For example, refugees have no guarantee that they will not be returned to their countries of origin to face further persecution. If Australia sends asylum seekers to Malaysia without first assessing their refugee claims, it may breach the core prohibitions against refoulement in the Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture. It would also demonstrate a lack of good faith in the implementation of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and other core human rights treaties.

We propose the following:
1. Australia should implement its UN Refugee Convention obligations in good faith by processing those asylum seekers who come to Australia and seek protection. We should not shift them to other countries. We cannot encourage other nations to respect the Convention if we blatantly disregard it ourselves. Seeking to move asylum seekers to other countries may achieve short-term domestic political gain, but it will undermine Australia’s efforts to develop a viable regional framework, as it reinforces regional perceptions that Australia is interested in exporting its refugee ‘problem’ rather than collaborating in a genuine multilateral process.

2. Australia should immediately increase its yearly humanitarian intake to 25,000 and resettle refugees from both Indonesia and Malaysia. It should consult with UNHCR to make protection available to asylum seekers who would otherwise seek their own solutions. This should include refugees already en route (that is, in Indonesia and Malaysia) as well as UNHCR priority groups in other countries.

3. Applications should be promptly assessed by the UNHCR in Indonesia and Malaysia so that refugees have viable alternatives to jumping on boats. The more people who do not need to jump on boats, the less deaths there will be at sea. The UNHCR needs to be given more funding by Australia to achieve this. Alternatively, Australia could process asylum seekers in Indonesia themselves and then transport the refugees safely to Australia.

4. Australia should bring an end to the mandatory detention policy and – after health and security checks – allow all asylum seekers to live in the community while their refugee claims are processed. This would follow the Labor Government’s recent initiative of offering bridging visas and community detention to asylum seekers not considered a risk to the community. Legislation should be adopted to enshrine this policy and to ensure that detention is used as a last resort and is not of indefinite duration.

5. There should be judicial oversight in cases where long-term detention is sought. To give but one example, there are over 50 (primarily Tamil) refugees in indefinite detention who have been found to be refugees but have also been assessed to be security risks. This is in part because of a lack of judicial oversight; these refugees are not even aware of the allegations made against them.

To conclude, we believe that any policy should preserve rather than compromise the human rights of asylum seekers – including their right to seek asylum. We need humanitarian policy responses that share responsibility rather than shift the burden.


This is already a very long post, so I have taken off the names of the academics. The names, their positions and University affiliations can be found at this web address , which is also the source of the letter.

Please share this letter. We need some rational and compassionate debate to take the place of the shameful political point-scoring we have seen for at least the last ten years.

People are dying.

(bolding in the article is mine to aid readability)

Vale Stephen Covey

21 07 2012

Management guru Stephen Covey, best known for his worldwide best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, died on June 16 2012 from injuries sustained in a bike crash. He was 79 years old.

I read this book quite a few years ago. At the time I was in a bit of a self-help jag and while the idea of seven principles was very appealing, the content was not so very much different from a number of other self-help / management books at the time. Perhaps better organised.

But when I heard of his death it took me to a place when, as a teenager, I discovered Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, possibly the first of the great self-help books. I suspect that those a few years younger than me probably felt that Covey’s tome was the light for them, the way Positive Thinking was for me.

The self-help books were the start of a journey. They told me that anything was possible, that if I tried, I could make my life what I wanted. They gave real-life-stories of people who changed their lives (and I am still a sucker for a good “I-turned-my-life-around” story. And as I move into mid-life crisis territory, the idea of infinite possibilities appeals even more.)

I had the advantage of good health, reasonable intelligence, good education, a supportive family and being born into a western society in a period of peace and prosperity. If anything, my “problem” was too much comfort. There was no burning platform to make me strive to save myself from a life of misery and starvation. Unlike Stephen Covey, who grew up on an egg farm and as a teenager suffered a severe illness that turned him from athletics to academia, my life was comparatively easy and straight forward. If I studied, I got good marks. If I didn’t then the results were variable. I didn’t have to do physical labour and I didn’t have to worry where the next meal came from.

Since my teenage years I read a lot of self-help books until I got to the stage when they all seemed to say the same thing. When I started buying books for their titles and not reading them, I knew I’d done enough. I have listened to tapes, done courses, abseiled and walked on fire (yes really and no it doesn’t hurt). I like to think I have integrated most of what the books had to teach me and discarded the rest (it has to be said some of them are/were a little too new-agey airy-fairy for me. Take what works, discard the rest. It’s not a religion, you can pick and choose.)

There is a body of work now that says that the positive thinking, “I can overcome in any circumstances” attitude has not been a wholly positive thing for society. The would-be lover who will not take no for an answer becomes a stalker. The terminal cancer patient who refuses to accept that they are dying spends their last days struggling and suffering, losing the opportunity to say goodbye and to enjoy the last part of their life.

The underlying assumption is the Great American Dream – that if you work hard enough, or clever enough, you can be wealthy beyond you wildest dreams, a captain of industry, 100% delirously happy all the time, or whatever your dream is. This assumes that we all start with an even playing field – equality of opportunity. And this is plainly not the case. Those born without health, without access to food, safety, education, are not starting on the same playing field. This does not mean that they cannot also succeed or change their lives but their journey will be much harder. And it ignores the intervention of random events – the car-crashes of life, the luck, the lack of luck. Yes your attitude determines your life – but to use the technical language, sometimes shit happens.

The assumption that the life you lead is a direct result of your own efforts leads to a blame-the-victim mentality. If you can’t support yourself and your family, if you haven’t got the health and wealth you need to survive, then it must be your fault. Therefore you do not deserve compassion, or financial support. No unemployment benefits, no single parent benefits (blame the mother, bad luck to the children), no public health care, no decent public education.

And then we become an uncaring society. Society suffers – all of us. Desperate people do desperate things. Don’t make them desperate.


This blog took an unexpected turn in the middle. I don’t intend it to be a commentary on Dr Covey’s works per se, more an exposition and exploration of the assumptions and results of the self-help industry which was so very prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s when I was in my teenage years and early twenties.

I personally feel I got a lot out of various authors but I recognise that there is a debate to be had on the effects of self-help philosophies at a societal level.

For those wanting a quick refresher on the Covey 7 Habits, here they are:

Habit No. 1: Be proactive. Know yourself, be responsible for yourself and your own actions and effects. If you want to achieve something, do something about it.

Habit No. 2 Begin with the end in mind. Often used as the basis of visualisation, but more literally, just know your goal when you start out.

Habit No. 3: Put first things first. This habit is about time management.

Habit No. 4: Think win/win. “seek mutual benefit in all human interactions”.

Habit No. 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This one is about being focussed outwards.

Habit No. 6: Synergise. where the whole is more than the sum of the parts (for example, some teams achieve more because they “bounce” off each other than the sum of all their individual efforts).

Habit No. 7: Sharpen the saw. Keep yourself fit, educated, seek new information.

Not rocket science, but it was pretty good at the time.

If you would like to see Dr Covey in action, have a look on YouTube.

Gatsby is coming!

8 07 2012

I found high-school English to be a scarring experience. I loved reading, I loved books – but I found the deconstruction of books, themes and stories to be soul-destroying, and story-destroying.

Luckily for me, The Great Gatsby was never one of the books on our reading list.

I love Gatsby. I love most of F Scott Fitzgerald’s work, but I particularly love Gatsby. So when I heard it was being made into a movie (again) I was somewhat nervous. Would they destroy it? Would they turn it into a pedestrian work, or a self-conscious “moral of the story” tale of modern morality? Would they try to update it?

Well, I have now seen the trailer and it looks fabulous. All the amazing new-world belle Époque, art deco – it’s all there. One brief trailer and I wished I was there – not just watching the movie, but in the story, in the era. Sigh


A year in blog-land

7 07 2012

I started blogging approximately a year ago.

I had been intending to blog for some time, and had even started a couple of times on various topics, then abandoned them when I decided that the topics were too self-indulgent and really of no value or interest to anyone other than myself. And even my interest was fleeting.

The decision about topics was problematic for me – I wasn’t intending for it to be a work related blog, it wasn’t to establish my credibility or expertise in a field. But the types of things I was interested in were many and varied and really didn’t hang together very well, except in that they interested me.

Analysis Paralysis.

The answer was: write about what interests you. Once I decided I had permission for this to be about interesting things rather than being constrained by a specific topic, I was off and running – or writing. In the end it doesn’t seem to have mattered that I have several different topics going. Some weeks I blog every day and sometimes have several new posts in a day. Other weeks I can barely get one post up. And occasionally one topic – for instance the leap second – inspires three posts. (Did you sleep well? , Nostradamus and Y2K and Why the moon rules your life)

As well as what I have posted (this is my 301st post), I have about 70 drafts sitting behind the scenes. Some are posts that I started and haven’t finished because the story petered out. Others are where I just made a quick note about a topic for those days we the topics seem hard to come by.

I am loving the stats page, and particularly the maps. I initially thought I was probably writing for my friends (and thank you for visiting, liking and commenting!) But it turns out that people visit from all over the world, even some small islands I didn’t know were separate countries. It’s really quite interesting to ponder what might interest someone in Belize, Venezuela, Jordan, Iceland, or the Russian Republic, and how someone from Trinidad and Tobago, Malta, Qatar, and El Salvador might have ended up reading an Australian blog. Truly international, and always fascinating to see who has been here.

The topics vary quite widely, but I don’t seem to be able to predict what will attract a broad readership. I loved being able to go through my holiday photos and record and relive some of the places we went and the things we saw. I also love pondering news events and recent studies that I have come across, and the occasional joke or cartoon. Social media, psychology, science (particularly weird science or pseudo-science) usually capture my attention and interest long enough for a post to evolve.

Sharing on StumbleUpon has been a surprising and unpredictable event. A posting on Steve Jobs garnered 9,822 viewings, thanks in large part to StumbleUpon. The general page comes second with 7,958, followed distantly by How to Open a Padlocked Suitcase: A lesson in travel safety for us all with 804, and Imagine what you could do if you thought you couldn’t fail at 597 (this posting was on Moira Kelly, the woman who sponsored Krishna and Trishna, conjoined twins from Bangladesh).

I also post links on Facebook (mudmap) and Twitter (mudmapped) and occasionally on Pinterest, although I have not had much success there. But StumbleUpon has driven the occasional peaks in my stats – a top score of 4,837 views on one day that seems almost impossible to beat and quite bizarre to contemplate. I don’t know how it happened and I can’t replicate it, but it is amusing and rewarding to think that something I wrote “touched a chord” and nearly went viral! (This was some considerable time after the death of Steve Jobs so I didn’t really expect a massive reaction.)

In one year Mudmap has had just under 28,500 viewings (and increasing as we speak). This is a lot more than I probably could have expected if I had written a book – unless I wrote the Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey. I know that some of you are repeat readers. Some of you are my friends, family and acquaintances, others are people I will never meet. Some are fellow-bloggers who stop by and encourage, chat and exchange ideas. Thanks you, everyone!

As a frustrated writer, it is gratifying to be able to write something that someone else will read. And on a good day, you might click “like”. And sometimes you might comment. I appreciate each and every one of these.

Here’s to the next year! (Please drop me a line….)

Flashback: Nostradamus and Y2K

1 07 2012

I admit this has little to do with the topic at hand but is such a cool photo I thought I’d put it up anyway! Think of it as a photo of planes NOT dropping out of the sky. Read on for more…
photo credit: licensed under Creative Commons from Beverly & Pack

Growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, the year 2000 loomed large. It didn’t help that famed soothsayer and bane of the Spanish Inquisition, Nostradamus had predicted the end of the world in the year 2000.

Yes, way before the Mayan calendar, Harold Campling and unnumbered apocalyptic suicide cults, we worried that a middle-ages apothecary and reputed seer had predicted our demise in his obscure and vague quatrains. After all, the year 2000 was a nice round number, some Christian sects felt that God had given us two millennia to get our act together and was probably losing patience with our lack of progress. And if you looked hard enough, with enough confirmation bias, signs of impending cosmic doom could be spotted (fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 symbolised the coming-together of Europe etc).

Spoiler Alert! Earth survived.

However, even for those not prone to flights of fantasy, there was another impending doom associated with this date: the Y2K bug.

This was going to end our (increasingly computer-dependent) lives as we knew them. So the story was this. Apparently computer programmers in the late 1980s and 1990s didn’t realise that the year 2000 was coming. Seriously. It snuck up when no one was looking and all the computers that had a date in their programming were going to stop working. At least that was their story.

Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Water filtration and pumping was going to fail leaving cities to die. Banking systems would crash. Medical life-support machines would expire. And worst of all, having recently come out of the cold war, missile “defence” systems would malfunction and cause world war three, the nuclear version. Truly apocalyptic.

We responded in the normal rational way we humans always react. People stockpiled water, canned goods and medicines. Some built underground bunkers. Some left the cities or holidayed in the country at the fateful time. Staff were trained, emergency plans were formulated and put in place, back-up communication systems were tested, generators were on stand-by. People stayed at work overnight “just in case”. Computer programmers no doubt found themselves in great demand – job creation, perhaps?

Midnight New Year’s Eve came and went with the usual fireworks and sense of disappointment.

Nothing. No-thing. Not-a-thing. Nothing happened.

We all went back to our lives with a sense of mild embarrassment alleviated only by our commonality with others. If they didn’t mention it, we wouldn’t either. What to do with casks of water? Gradually the canned supplies dwindled away and we moved on with our lives. The only issue that remained was whether the new millennia started in 2000 or 2001. And really, who cared?

All in all, the 30 June 2012 leap second caused more drama, bringing down the airline booking system in Australia, Reddit, Linked In, Gawker, Foursquare and Yelp. Again one assumes the computer programmers didn’t know about leap seconds. There have only been 25 since 1972.

So when the Mayans (or latter-day crackpots) predict the end of the world – well, some of us have seen it all before.

Did you sleep well?

1 07 2012

Did you wake this morning feeling especially rested? Or did you toss and turn all night wondering why the night was taking so long?

Either way, you were right. Last night we had an extra-long night (30 June 2012), thanks to a leap second.

Yes, our official time (courtesy of the atomic clock which measures time via atomic vibrations) gets slightly out of synch with “real” (solar) time, by which I mean the natural time set by the rotation of the earth around the sun. Again, the moon is at fault; the tidal surges, waxes and wanes are causing a slight slowing and wobbling of the earth’s rotation. Hadn’t you noticed the wobbles?

We could adjust the length of the unit we call a second to account for this, a minuscule lengthening. But then counting “one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus” etc might not work so well. And it’s not even regular about how often the atomic clock needs adjusting. It has been adjusted 25 times since such accurate time measurement began in 1972. The first year saw two leap seconds (June 30 and December 30), followed by seven years of one second per year. The last three adjustments were 1998, 2005 and 2008.

So instead we wait until a whole second has accumulated and add a leap second, just as we add a leap year, thereby adjusting our inflexible human system of measuring time to the mutable system that exists in nature.

And so we got an extra second last night, to sleep, toss and turn, or party, whatever you happened to be doing at 11:59:60 last night, which fell between 11:59:59 and 12:00:00 (midnight at the International Dateline).

Hope you enjoyed it! And if you wasted it, don’t worry another one is sure to come along sooner or later!

UPDATE: Latebreaking news! While the Y2K bug turned out to be a fizzer, the leap-second has actually had consequences! For those who are too young to remember the Y2K bug, this was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse caused because computer programmes in the 1980s and 1990s apparently didn’t have the forethought to realise that eventually in the not too distant future, computers with a clock in their functioning would need to click over from 19XX to 20XX. People (who would now be called preppers) stocked up on water supplies and canned goods and built underground bunkers. Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Nothing happened. Complete fizzer.

The leap second on the other hand has managed to bring down the airport check-in system at Australian airports, resulting in airline staff having to check in passengers and luggage by hand, delayed flights and lots of irritable grumpy passengers. Also reportedly brought down, Reddit, Gawker, LinkedIn, Yelp and Foursquare. And according to news reports, this is because the computer couldn’t cope with the leap second (which was 9:59:60 in Australia EST).

Have you heard of any other effects?

Want more? Try…
Why the moon rules your life and..