The Rudd Government’s attempt to soften the Howard Government’s policy of offshore detention of boat-people by abolishing the “Pacific Solution”, has been followed by a sudden upsurge in the number of boats arriving at Ashmore Reef off the north-west coast of Australia, the detention in Indonesia of a boatload of 255 people originally from Sri Lanka, and a further 78 people who were taken aboard the Australian customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, off the coast of Java.
Further arrivals are expected off the coast of WA in the near future. Despite government claims to the contrary, the increase in asylum-seekers over recent months is a clear response to changes in government policy which were meant to be more humane than the former government’s policy, called the “Pacific Solution”.
The “Pacific Solution” was implemented following a rapid increase in the number of boat people arriving in Australia in 2001, causing widespread concern that the federal government was incapable of controlling entry to Australia. Over 5,000 boat people arrived in that year.
In the run-up to the federal election in December 2001, which took place in the shadow of the Tampa affair, the Howard Government promised to excise some hundreds of islands from Australia’s migration zone, and to process asylum-seekers offshore.
Australian law gives preference to those who reach Australia, hence the Howard Government’s “Pacific Solution”.
The promise of firm action was strongly supported by the electorate, and the Howard Government was returned with an increased majority. Many Labor Party members and supporters believed that the Howard Government’s policy shift had been driven by cynical electoral calculation; but the fact is that most Australians were deeply concerned at the ease with which thousands of people were coming to Australia in small boats from Indonesia.
Subsequently, under the “Pacific Solution”, the number of boat people fell to a trickle.
Labor’s determination to dismantle the “Pacific Solution” can only be understood in the light of the events of 2001.
Since changes to Australia’s migration policy were announced last year, the number of boat people arriving off the coast of Australia has risen dramatically. Nearly 2,000 people have arrived this year, filling the Christmas Island detention centre to overflowing, and undermining the Rudd Government’s claim to have introduced a tough yet humane policy towards asylum-seekers.
The Rudd Government’s recent decision to give permanent residence to the Afghan people on a boat which was deliberately set on fire by some of those on board last April, sends the message that Australia will accept boat-people no questions asked.
Now, faced with a further influx of boat-people, Mr Rudd is asking the Indonesian government to detain potential asylum-seekers in Indonesia, and to aggressively prosecute the people-smugglers who are making fortunes in shipping desperate people to Australia.
As Paul Kelly of The Australian wrote recently, “Kevin Rudd has substituted the Indonesian solution for the Pacific Solution.”
The fact is that the Howard Government repeatedly asked the Indonesian Government to deal with the issue, but Indonesian assurances were largely ineffective. It required direct action by Australia to put a stop to the people-trafficking.
There is no prospect that Indonesia can stem the tide of boat-people, if only because the large amounts of money involved in people-smuggling, coupled with the culture of bribery and corruption, makes it impossible. The fact that President Yudhoyono is well disposed towards Australia is largely irrelevant, because decisions are made at the local level.
A further complication is that the situation of the Sri Lankan asylum-seekers is quite different from that of asylum-seekers from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Tamils who are fleeing Sri Lanka are victims of ethnic-cleansing by the majority Sinhalese, following the bitter war which ended in the total defeat of the Tamil Tigers early this year. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been rounded up brutally, and are now imprisoned indefinitely in their own country. Repeated protests by bodies such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International have been ignored while the Sri Lankan Government claims to be purging Tamil Tigers from the Tamil population.
Those who have fled undoubtedly fear for their safety. Unlike refugees from Afghanistan or Pakistan, the Tamil boat-people have not been able to apply for refugee status at an Australian diplomatic mission after leaving their home country. Their claim should therefore be dealt with more sympathetically and more expeditiously than others.
Australia has had a generous policy towards refugees since World War II; but that policy was never an “open door” policy. Those who come in boats should have no prior claim to permanent residence in Australia ahead of those who apply at embassies and consulates abroad.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.