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Everyone agrees that we should stop people smuggling ventures which exploit asylum seekers and place them in danger. No one wishes to see asylum seekers board unreliable vessels and risk their lives to reach Australia. However, penalising desperate and vulnerable people, who have not committed any crime and are in need of protection and assistance, is not the answer. Policies which put people at risk, inflict harm on asylum seekers or deliberately impede access to effective protection are not acceptable ways of addressing the problem.

Asylum seekers are drawn to Australia because it has been seen as one of the few countries in the region which respects international law and human rights, treats people humanely and protects refugees and asylum seekers from being returned to situations of danger or persecution. These are not “soft” policies but responses built on basic standards of human decency. Australians should be proud that Australia has enjoyed an international reputation for respecting human rights . Attempting to change this reputation by treating asylum seekers inhumanely would make us little better than the countries from which they are fleeing.

In any case, the “push” factors that compel refugees to flee their homes will always be more compelling than the “pull” factors in countries like Australia. Refugee flows are primarily affected by war, unrest, violence and human rights violations. Most people do not wish to leave their homes, families, friends and everything they know and hold dear. They do so as a last resort, to escape persecution and find safety and security for themselves and their families. For many refugees, this search for safety does not end once they have escaped their country of origin. Many countries fail or refuse to provide effective protection to refugees and conditions are often very difficult; sometimes, conditions are little better than those from which refugees originally fled. These conditions drive many people to seek protection elsewhere in the hopes of finding genuine safety and effective protection – including through enlisting people smugglers and undertaking risky journeys at sea.

So long as refugees aren’t getting the protection to which they are entitled, people smugglers will have a product to sell. To put the smugglers out of business, we need to ensure that people who need protection actually get it by working with other countries to improve conditions for refugees and asylum seekers.