Australia: Stemming the tide of boat people

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.

"In Sri Lanka we used to use the term 'competitive chauvinism' to describe how the major political parties tried to outflank each other by whipping up anti-Tamil feeling," said Suvendrini Perera, an associate professor of cultural studies at Curtin University of Technology, in Perth.

“In Australia perhaps we should speak about 'competitive xenophobia’: who can make the most noise about protecting our borders, and who can generate the greatest fear and loathing about
asylum-seekers, either by casting them as terrorists and criminals, or by insinuating that they are undeserving and deceitful freeloaders who trade on Australia’s generosity.”

Human rights advocates are enraged the gates have been closed to Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees. “It’s regressive,” said David Manne the coordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Center in Melbourne. “The policy constitutes a clear-cut and flagrant betrayal of government reforms, and detention reforms, which promised that Australia would bring an end to arbitrary, indefinite, and inhumane detention of asylum-seekers that occurred in the past.”

Furthermore, Manne is concerned that banning asylum-seekers from specific countries is radically at odds with Australia’s human rights obligations. The Refugee Convention prevents discrimination on the basis of a refugee's race or country of origin.

While refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are banned due to the “evolving circumstances” in their home country, little has evolved for Australians wishing to visit either area. The Australian government advises Australian nationals not to travel to Afghanistan and to
reconsider plans to visit Sri Lanka due to the “volatile security situation” there.

“I am at a loss, as to how the government will need six months to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan, when Australian troops have been there for eight years,” said Manne. “This policy is arbitrary. The detainees on Christmas Island are bewildered. Why do those that arrived to Australia a week ago receive visas on the basis that they face danger in their home country, but those that arrive today don’t?"

"This completely trivializes their plight, and the very real dangers that they face at home.”