BORDER PROTECTION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Abbott stops illegal boat arrivals on Australia's shores
, March 1, 2014
When the Abbott government was elected last September, one of the most intractable problems it faced was the flow of boat arrivals on Christmas Island, just off the coast of Java, by people from the Middle East seeking refugee status in Australia.
During the period of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, the trickle had become a flood.
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the late 1990s and sectarian conflict on the Indian sub-continent, the number of asylum-seekers heading to Australia rose rapidly. Throughout the 1990s, the number of people arriving in Australia by boat had been counted in the hundreds per year. It rose sharply in 1999 to nearly 4,000, and up to 5,500 in 2001.
Faced with wide public concern that asylum-seekers from the sub-continent were queue-jumping to take advantage of Australia’s lax immigration laws, the then Prime Minister John Howard announced that all boat-people’s asylum applications would be processed from off-shore.
Further, he replaced the system of permanent visas with temporary protection visas, which envisaged that asylum-seekers would return home when the political/military situation improved.
This policy was immediately successful, and the number of boat arrivals fell to fewer than 100 per year between 2002 and 2006.
Refugee campaigners and the ALP criticised the policy as inhumane and claimed it breached Australia’s international obligations. But while John Howard remained prime minister, the policy was unchanged.
When Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister, he pledged to maintain the Howard government’s strong border-protection policy. But once in office, he set about dismantling it by abandoning off-shore processing of asylum-seekers — closing both the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres — and abandoning the temporary protection visas.
The result was predictable. The number of boat arrivals sky-rocketed to 2,726 in 2009, then to 6,555 in 2010, the year of a federal election.
Among the issues which caused the collapse in public support for Kevin Rudd was his failed asylum-seeker policy. Shortly before he was forced to resign as Prime Minister by Julia Gillard, Rudd promised that there would be no “swing to the right” on asylum-seekers, under his administration.
Gillard remained Prime Minister after the 2010 election, with the support of the Greens, and claimed that she would stop the flood of boat-people. In the following year, the number dropped to 4,565.
However, it became obvious that, with the Greens exercising the balance of power, the floodgates were open. In 2012, the number of boat arrivals shot up to 17,000, and in the first half of 2013 the number of arrivals rose to more than 13,000.
Labor’s failed border-protection policy was one of the issues which led to a collapse in its public support and to the leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd in June 2013. At the time, Opposition leader Tony Abbott pledged to “stop the boats”, using a variety of methods, including off-shore processing, turning boats back to Indonesia “when safe to do so”, winning Indonesian support for a joint effort against people-smuggling, and the reintroduction of temporary protection visas.
The policy was roundly condemned by most sections of the media, the ALP and the Greens. Even some former defence officials described it as “unworkable”.
When Rudd returned to the prime ministership, he immediately announced that he would toughen Labor’s border-protection policy, with the immediate reintroduction of off-shore processing of asylum-seekers.
After Labor’s defeat in September 2013, the incoming Abbott Coalition government immediately set about implementing its own program.
On September 23 last year, incoming Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, unveiled Operation Sovereign Borders.
The new government made its relations with Indonesia the top priority, with visits from Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and others immediately after the election.
Among other things, the Australian government has offered to assist Indonesia to repatriate people from the Middle East who had gone to Indonesia expecting to buy places on people-smugglers’ boats.
Several such boats have been towed back into Indonesian waters, prompting a few asylum-seekers to claim they had been tortured by Australian naval personnel — an allegation which was picked up and repeated by the ABC, before being strenuously denied by the government.
Significantly, the Indonesian navy is now patrolling the coastline of Java, adjacent to Christmas Island.
The results of the new policy are now being seen. There has been a dramatic decline in boat arrivals over recent months, although seasonal factors (particularly the cyclone season) make this a time of fewer arrivals. There were no arrivals last January, and only two early in February, the latest period for which information is available.