EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Boat people: Labor's policy backfires
, July 11, 2009
The latest arrival of over 190 boat people intercepted near Christmas Island, off north-west Australia, challenges the credibility of the Rudd Government's approach to the continuing problem of asylum-seekers.
This is the 15th arrival of boat people this year, and the largest. The latest arrivals are understood to be Tamils from Sri Lanka, where the government recently defeated the Tamil Tigers in a war which has left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands of Tamils living in appalling conditions in detention centres in Sri Lanka (see Dr John Whitehall's article in this issue
In light of the virtual imprisonment of the entire Tamil population in Sri Lanka, it would be hard to reject their claims for political asylum.
The boat people have been transferred to the Christmas Island detention centre, Australia's only off-shore detention facility. It can hold 800 people at a time and is nearly full. Meanwhile, intelligence from Indonesia indicates that more boats are on the way.Soft policy
This poses a major threat for the Rudd Government, which has significantly softened Australia's treatment of what it calls "unauthorised arrivals" by closing the off-shore facilities in Nauru and Manus Island; softening the mandatory detention regime to ensure that people were not subject to unlimited detention; abolishing temporary protection visas; and, most recently, amending the law which required people in mandatory detention to repay the cost of their confinement.
The former Howard Government's policy was introduced in response to a massive increase in boat people after 2000, particularly people being brought to Australia by professional people-smugglers operating out of Indonesia. The policy had the effect of reducing the number of boat people almost to zero.
Abandonment of this policy has been followed by a steady increase in the number of boat people, from a trickle to a torrent.
The Labor Government's repeated claim that it would provide strong border security while treating desperate asylum-seekers fairly, is now under threat.
What needs to be done? The Government's soft policy is clearly not working. No foreign national should be permitted free access to Australia, except where there exists government-to-government agreement, as happens with citizens of New Zealand.
People who arrive without visas in Australia, from whatever country, should be detained. Australia's refugee laws are much softer towards people who arrive on the Australian mainland than those intercepted at sea, and it seems impossible to change that.
As a result, mandatory detention off-shore, pending settlement of boat people's asylum claims, will remain a necessary part of separating bona fide refugees from illegal immigrants.
If the facilities at Christmas Island prove inadequate, the Government should look to re-open facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, if agreement can be reached with the respective governments involved.
Further, the Government promised transparency in dealing with these issues.
Yet it has refused to release any information relating to the circumstances of a fire aboard a boat containing asylum-seekers last April, in which a number of asylum-seekers died. A number of Australian naval personnel from HMAS Albany
were aboard the boat when it caught fire, so the Government would have had detailed information about the matter within hours of the tragedy.
At the time, the Prime Minister promised that full details would be released as soon as they became available. Months later, nothing has been revealed.
It has been widely reported that boat people are instructed to destroy all their documentation before arriving in Australia. In my view, any evidence that a person's documents have been destroyed suggests an attempt to conceal relevant information relating to the person's identity, nationality or history. Unless a person has identity documents, or a good reason for not having them, their claim for refugee status should be refused.
Australia has a relatively generous refugee program which permits the entry of some 13,000 people as refugees every year. It can be argued that it should be increased, but whatever the size of the program, there will always be more people wanting to come to this country, because of its political freedom, its social and economic development, and the opportunities it has offered to generations of new arrivals.
The program is based on the assumption that refugees will apply for refugee status at Australia's diplomatic missions in countries adjoining those from which people have fled.
Many of the boat people have by-passed the procedures put in place to assist the most deserving people by flying from countries like Pakistan to Malaysia or Indonesia, and then paying a substantial amount to be carried to Australia.
Boat people should not have priority over other deserving claimants for refugee status.Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.