On Monday 13th April the Haydon Allen Tank was packed beyond capacity, with people finding perches on stairs and side-railings in order to catch a glimpse of The Canberra Refugee Action Committee’s event – “The Truth Behind Operation Sovereign Borders & The Alternative To It”.

The seminar featured two guest presenters; Geraldine Fela, an ANU student and member of Rainbow RAC, and Professor Bill Maley of the Refugee Council of Australia.

Fela began by explaining Operation Sovereign Borders and its cost to the Australian taxpayer. She made a detailed and emotive case against the Abbott government’s border policy, with particular reference to the much publicised Moss Report and the deaths of Reza Barati and Hamid Kehazaei as examples of the inherent risks of the policy.

Fela opined that the government’s policy of deterrence could not hope to prevent these kinds of harmful outcomes. Indeed, she emphasised that harm to asylum seekers was facilitated by the policy.

Fela invoked the marked change in public opinion towards illegal boat arrivals from 2001 and 2007 Newspoll surveys and concluded by encouraging the crowd to become advocates for asylum seeker issues.

Professor Maley, a distinguished academic, Barrister, member of the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific and Vice-President of the Refugee Council of Australia, discussed historical and philosophical developments of Australia’s refugee policy. Professor Maley criticised the leadership of the Australian political class for distancing themselves from the UN Convention and Protocols on Refugees and disagreed with arguments that Operation Sovereign Borders, and “stop the drownings at sea”policies, saved lives. He instead argued that those policies would have repercussive effects outside our own region, making the case that “turning boats back” to prevent drownings at sea would not guarantee preventing deaths in the countries they are returned to.

Professor Maley suggested alternatives to the government’s current policy, including more settlement places and improved efficiency in processing claims. The funding for which, he suggested, would amount to the same costs currently incurred by running detention centres and initiating boat pullbacks.

Speaking from his experience of talking to asylum seekers across the globe, Professor Maley emphasised that nobody wants to get on a boat. If you live in a country where you and your family face death on a daily basis at the hands of a corrupt government or suicide bombers, Professor Maley suggested it is clear which path the rational person would take. Maley cited statistics from the Immigration Department that for refugees seeking an offshore visa in Afghanistan and Pakistan through the proper channels, fewer than 25% will be approved. Moreover, those whose applications are approved have an average finalisation period of 65.5 weeks. Meanwhile, people smugglers are able to move people within five days of receiving their down payment.

Both speakers also highlighted the need for different perceptions of people smugglers, with Fela stating that “the demonisation of people smugglers is something we need to challenge all the time, they are actually doing really important humanitarian work”. To which Professor Maley added: “these labels are designed to denigrate, to marginalise, If my life were at risk I would rather go to a people smuggler than go to bureaucracy.”

The passionate and eloquent presentations very clearly struck a chord with the audience, the mass of raised hands begging to ask questions at the conclusion of the event causing it to go overtime. Many people then stayed around further for a chance to talk one-on-one with Fela and Professor Maley and to converse with other audience members.

The Canberra Refugee Action Committee will host their next general meeting on Tuesday 28th April. To find out more, visit http://refugeeaction.org.au.