A better road for refugees
20 April 2009
Yesterday's explosion and fire on board the sixth refugee boat to be intercepted this year is a solemn reminder of just how perilous are the journeys taken by asylum seekers who put their faith in people smugglers.
The three confirmed deaths and 46 reported casualties is the most serious incident involving boat people since 353 passengers on the ill-fated SIEVX drowned on October 19, 2001. It would be a tragedy if panic surrounding these most recent arrivals were to lead to a return to the crude and punitive policies that pertained at the time of that disaster.
The political challenge posed by irregular boat arrivals is manifest. Boat people represent no real threat to Australia's security. Statistics reveal asylum seekers arriving by sea are much more likely to pass security checks and to meet the narrow legal definition of refugee than those who arrive with visas.
Yet boat people touch a raw nerve here. The mantra "We shall determine who comes to this country and on what terms" resonated in John Howard's decisive electoral victory in 2001. The matrix of laws and policies he introduced to quell irregular boat arrivals enjoyed considerable popular support.
The problem is that the human and financial costs of the measures ultimately made them unsustainable.
"Operation Relex" the post-Tampa program for intercepting and returning asylum seekers to Indonesia resulted in the drownings of at least three asylum seekers. Footage taken by the ABC's Four Corners program in 2002 recorded the trauma of the mid-ocean interceptions, and provided evidence of harsh and inhumane measures used to force hack desperate people.
Evidence emerged that the SIEV X disaster was caused by "disruption" activities involving pre-departure sabotage to the boat.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the "Pacific solution", later renamed the "Pacific strategy". About 1600 asylum seekers were sent to Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Despite the government's resolve that none should set foot in Australia, most were ultimately accepted and settled here.
Interestingly, the recent boat arrivals included four of those repatriated to Afghanistan in 2003. This time round, the four gained almost immediate recognition as refugees, suggesting that the status determination procedures on Nauru left a lot to be desired.
The Rudd Government abandoned the "Pacific solution" because it cost a fortune, involved serious breaches of international law, and it was ultimately ineffectual. The boats had begun arriving again before the election in 2007.
There is no doubt that the people smugglers and the asylum seekers themselves are aware of what the Opposition keeps trumpeting as a "softening" of policy. The rise in the number of boats arriving and in the scale of the ventures suggests the traffickers are trying their hand. The real question, however, is how to respond.
Historically, Labor governments seem to have been more subtle than their conservative counterparts, relying on diplomacy rather than on direct "disruption" activities.
At the height of the Vietnamese crisis in the late 1970s, under a Liberal government, barely 1000 Vietnamese boat people reached Australia. Under Labor, boat people came between 1989 and 1993 from Cambodia and Southern China. Australia played a laudable role in restoring order in Cambodia, removing the need for people to take to boats.
The mechanisms for stopping the flows from China were more problematic, but effective nonetheless. Laws were passed declaring China to be a "safe" country, precluding consideration of refugee claims from fugitives from the region. Behind the scenes, arrangements were made with Chinese law enforcement officials. The boats stopped coming almost overnight.
The present government cannot hope to see the same immediate results from its efforts in Indonesia, which is used as a staging post by the people smugglers. However, the approach it is taking appears sound as far as it goes.
Dialogue and co-operation is needed with Indonesia and with other transit countries. The Government also needs to maintain its reform agenda so as to make its refugee status determination processes more efficient. This should mean abandoning offshore processing altogether and the closure of the hideous detention centre on Christmas Island.
Sadly, the politics surrounding boat people make this unlikely.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday 17 April.
Contact: Kath Kenny
Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100