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In the last fortnight two asylum seeker boats have sunk on their way to Australia, killing more than 90 people.  These tragic deaths and the continuing arrival of boats have, unsurprisingly, re-ignited public debate about how to address the “refugee problem”.

What has emerged is a disturbing consensus that Australia has an ethical obligation to revive offshore processing, in order to deter asylum seekers getting onto boats. Opinions are split, and parliament is divided, about whether Malaysia or Nauru is a better “solution”. That difference aside, support for offshore processing seems both widespread and genuine.

There is a bitter irony to the idea that sending asylum seekers to Malaysia or to the desert hellhole of Nauru is a “moral obligation”. That is not to dismiss the moral urgency behind calls to do so. Seeing footage of children drowning or hearing of body counts in the dozens is horrific. It has led many people who genuinely support humane refugee policy to question their position – to wonder whether any alternative is better than the current situation. Understandable as those doubts are, the argument that we must take strong deterrent action to save lives, no matter the human cost, is fundamentally problematic and ethically flawed.

We should stand idly by as asylum seekers drown. If we are genuinely committed to stopping deaths at sea, there are more effective ways than sending refugees to Malaysia or Nauru.

First, we could increase our ocean surveillance and take a more proactive approach to identifying and rescuing boats at risk. We could also provide more support and information to the vastly under-resourced Indonesian search and rescue organisation Basarnas. Only last week the head of Barsanas confirmed that it has only one small fibreglass boat and is unable to conduct effective rescues. Yet Barsanas was left to (unsuccessfully) head the search and rescue for the boat that sank on 21 June, drowning 90 people. Despite the serious inconsistencies between Australian and Indonesian accounts, it is clear that a lack of coordination and resources prevented an effective rescue operation. Why isn’t this at the top of our political agenda?

Second, we could reconsider our approach to people smugglers. The heavy criminal penalties we currently impose are simply leading smuggling rings to use increasingly inexperienced individuals, often children, as crew on asylum boats. Coupled with the fact that the government’s policy of confiscating boats after intercepting them is an incentive to use crowded and unseaworthy ships, this is a recipe for disaster. Decriminalising people smuggling may not be politically palatable, but it would be far more effective at saving lives than the questionable deterrent value of offshore processing.

Third, we could retain our focus on deterrence, but from another angle ...

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