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Australia: Stemming the tide of boat people

The prime minister is seen as repeating the sins of his predecessors by rejecting asylum-seekers.

Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, detained by the Indonesian Navy, sit on their wooden boat at the Cilegon harbour in Indonesia's Banten province, Oct. 21, 2009. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, keen to curb a growing number of asylum-seekers sailing to Australia via Indonesia, will hold talks with Asian leaders on the issue that has become divisive ahead of 2010 elections. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

SYDNEY, Australia — On the evening of April 8, a leaky wooden boat began to sink in the Indian Ocean. It was spotted 81 miles southeast of Christmas Island. On board were 70 asylum-seekers, including pregnant women and children. An Australian navy rescue boat was nearby and four crew members jumped into the water to rescue those fleeing the sinking boat.

All those aboard the vessel, which departed from Indonesia, were taken for processing to a refugee detention center on Christmas Island, considered in Australian territory.

Far from being dramatic, this type of incident has become almost routine. It was the 38th boat this year to be intercepted along the well-charted route from Indonesia to Australia. And the detention center on Christmas Island, 310 miles south of Jakarta, is now full to the brim with refugees eagerly awaiting visas in Australia. 

The only remarkable thing about this particular incident is that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hopes to make it one of the last. 

On April 9, Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced that Australia would no longer be processing any asylum-seeker claims from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, due to “evolving circumstances” in the two countries. Applications from both countries would be reviewed in six and three months respectively, he said.

''We still expect boats to arrive,'' Evans told press, but added that he hoped the new law would deter the people smugglers who organize the dangerous, makeshift transport to Australia.

But a more sinister threat exists, according to human rights groups and political analysts alike who claim the policy shift heralds a return to the conservative Liberal Party-era under John Howard.

What's more surprising, they point out, is that after Rudd took office in December 2007, one of his first priorities was to abolish Howard’s widely condemned Pacific Solution. This was the Liberal Party’s answer to the flood of refugees arriving to Australia by boat in 2001. Instead of processing visa applications in Australia, Howard banished asylum-seekers to detention centers on islands in the Pacific Ocean, for indefinite periods of time, while their applications were considered. Amnesty International described this policy as offensive to human dignity.

Rudd closed the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island shortly after becoming prime minister, diverting asylum-seekers to Christmas Island — an Australian territory. He changed the law to ensure applications for asylum were handled faster — within 90 days — cutting their time in status limbo. Those granted asylum were to receive permanent humanitarian visas, rather than the temporary visas allocated to successful applicants under Howard.

Toward the end of the Howard administration, the number of boat people entering Australia was low. In 2007, his last year in office, just 148 made the perilous journey from as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan, usually via Indonesia.

Since Rudd came to power, 4,500 attempted to enter Australia via smuggling routes, 2,700 of them in 2009 alone. Most fly to Indonesia from politically turbulent regions and then pay a smuggler to arrange a fishing boat to take them to Australian waters. The rickety vessels are usually intercepted by Australian naval vessels before they reach the Australian coastline and those on board taken to Christmas Island.

The bulk of the refugees are Hazaras — an ethnic group persecuted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and ethnic Tamils who are oppressed in their native Sri Lanka.

The Federal opposition blame Rudd for the apparent surge in people smuggling. “People smugglers are openly mocking Kevin Rudd as every additional boat arrives,” said Michael Keenan, the shadow minister for justice, customs and border protection, in a recent press statement. “Border Protection Command is now operating a meet and greet service for people smugglers as they struggle to cope with the consequences of the failure of Labor policy."

In the middle of March, Rudd’s approval rating dropped to a record low of 48 percent, and with a federal election to take place within a year, analysts believe that the decision to suspend visa processing was made to secure Rudd’s popularity.