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Australia turns its back on ‘boat people’

July 24, 2013

WHEN the Australian Labour Party (ALP) dumped Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010, his parting words included the admonition that the government must avoid “lurching to the right” on its policy towards asylum seekers. He might as well have added: “Don’t do it without me.”

Less than a month after his dramatic return to the helm, Rudd has instituted a strategy described as hitherto the harshest response to the refugee dilemma, decreeing that henceforth the question of resettlement in Australia simply will not arise for asylum-seekers arriving by boat in Australian waters.

The fate that awaits them is immigration detention in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where their claims will be processed by the local authorities.

If they are deemed to be genuine refugees, they will be afforded the opportunity to settle in PNG — a nation with high rates of unemployment, crime and, more generally, despair, and with a poor record in spheres such as health and education. If not, their options extend from indefinite detention to returning to the country they fled from, or any other state where they may be allowed to reside.

The choices are intentionally unattractive. Deterrence is the name of the game. The standard excuses include the valid argument that the journeys on rickety vessels from Indonesia to the nearest Australian territory, Christmas Island, are invariably hazardous; it is no doubt utterly appalling that more than 800 children, women and men have drowned since 2009.

And “people-smuggling” has become a lucrative cottage industry for enterprising Indonesians, who are believed to charge would-be asylum-seekers something like $5000 each for the dubious privilege of a berth on what is all too often an un-seaworthy boat.

It’s fairly obvious that such journeys would not be undertaken if the passengers in question had a better alternative — such as purchasing an airline ticket for a fraction of that sum and hopping aboard a flight to Australia.

Those who are able to do so, and thereafter apply for refugee status, face considerably less contempt and cruelty than “boat people”. “For those who come across the sea/ We have boundless plains to share,” says one of the more absurdly anachronistic verses in Australia’s national anthem. A more relaxed visa regime, meanwhile, is an option that’s not even up for debate.

An even more crucial factor that almost never enters the national debate in Australia is the level of desperation that persuades people in, say, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq or Sri Lanka to attempt a journey that entails a series of serious risks and the depressing prospect of discomfiture.

Those of us living in relative comfort can barely imagine the degree of despair that drives such decisions. And most of us don’t even try.

Is it particularly surprising, then, that the domestic argument in Australia focuses on “border protection”, as if its status as a relatively popular destination for refugees somehow poses an existential threat?

Sure, in terms of political geography Australia is something of an anomaly.

Until four decades or so ago it only welcomed immigrants who broadly fit the pattern of its racist White Australia policy. It had, like most other countries at the time, initially turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the depredations of Nazi Germany.

Boat people first became an issue in the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the Indochinese conflict. Malcolm Fraser, the conservative prime minister at the time, says he was advised to set up mandatory detention centres but turned down the “barbarous” proposal.

It was the supposedly social-democratic government of Paul Keating that introduced mandatory detention, although the present saga essentially dates back to conservative prime minister John Howard’s rule.

He chose to be ruthless, and pandering to xenophobia proved to be a vote-winner — not least because Howard voiced the idea, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that there may well be “terrorists” among the asylum-seekers.

It is easy to forget that most of those stranded, as a matter of policy, on the island of Nauru turned out to be legitimate refugees, and many of them were eventually able to settle in Australia.

What’s easily remembered is that a few boats were towed back to Indonesia, and for a while the boats stopped coming — never mind that this coincided with a sharp drop in refugee numbers across the world.

Howard’s heir Tony Abbott, who expects to become prime minister within the next couple of months, has said he intends to repeat his mentor’s tactics.

He may, however, have been trumped by Rudd in the race for the lowest common denominator. Abbott has felt obliged to condone the “PNG solution”, while predicting — or should one say hoping? — that Rudd will not be able to implement it.

Human rights activists and lawyers, meanwhile, have raised the valid concern that by subcontracting its obligations to one of its poorest neighbours (and its only ex-colony), Australia is violating international treaties to which it is a signatory, and the policy is likely to be challenged in court.

Not long before the new policy was announced, Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, declared — without citing any evidence — that many of the supposed asylum-seekers were anyhow would-be economic migrants, seeking better prospects (as if that were somehow an unpardonable crime) rather than fleeing political or religious persecution.

He cited “middle-class Iranians” in particular, and Rudd subsequently echoed the view.

Never mind the question of where Australia would be today but for those who populated it to improve their prospects, in the decades after it was initially colonised to house criminals.

Neither such insinuations nor Rudd’s new policy can be expected to cut much ice with Hazaras trapped in Indonesian limbo, to whom even PNG seems a better bet than returning to the likelihood of a violent death in Quetta.