Cover Story: Lessons of the influx of 'boat people'by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
, September 8, 2001
The sudden arrival of hundreds of "boat people" on remote Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island, and the stand-off regarding the future of some 400 "boat people" rescued by a Norwegian container ship near Indonesia, have raised the question of Australia's treatment of refugees and illegal immigrants, but more fundamentally, of the inadequacy of Australia's maritime defences.
Australia is a party to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees,
and like almost every other country, has an obligation to consider applications for refugee status by anyone who arrives in this country.
The Convention was drawn up in the wake of the tragic situation in which millions of people were displaced from their homelands during World War II, and the subsequent Communist occupation of Eastern Europe, and was an enlightened attempt to give stateless people the opportunity to rebuild their lives.
It applies to any person who is outside his land of origin, and has well-founded fear of persecution if he returns to that country. It obliges the country in which a person claiming to be a refugee resides (as opposed to an illegal immigrant), a reasonable time in which to establish that status, the right to seek citizenship, and all the rights of foreign residents in a country.
The Convention contains a presumption in favour of a person claiming refugee status, a presumption which is very attractive to people who would like to jump the restrictive conditions on entry as immigrants. It is therefore pointless to talk about deporting the "boat people".
Across the world, partly due to improved communications and transport, but also due to the impact of wars in the Balkans and in central Africa, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people claiming refugee status.
There has also been a growth in illegal migration. At the end of 1997, there were nearly 400,000 Indonesians illegally working outside the country - over 300,000 of them in Malaysia alone.
In 1998, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that there were some two million illegal immigrants in South-East Asia alone. There are at least 100,000 illegal immigrants entering the United States every year, and probably many more entering Western Europe.
In comparison, the numbers entering Australia are small. The problems which Australia currently faces should therefore be seen as a part of major population movements which affect many countries in the developed world.
Over the past 50 years, Australia has had a generous policy towards refugees, taking millions of people from communist Eastern Europe after World War II, from Vietnam and Timor in the 1970s, from China in the 1980s, and from the Balkans in the 1990s, to name a few. One blemish on Australia's record was the Whitlam Government's appalling action in refusing entry of Vietnamese refugees in 1975, before it was consigned to the dustbin of history.
The latest influx of "boat people" from Indonesia, however, is different. If, as reported, they originated in the Middle East - in Iran, Irak or Afghanistan, for example - they have passed through countries with which Australia has diplomatic missions before arriving in Indonesia. They did not apply in those countries for entry to Australia as refugees; nor did they seek refugee status in these countries.
On arrival in Indonesia, they appear to have been part of an operation in Indonesia conducted by people smugglers, who were willing to make huge profits from desperate people to land them on the shores of Australia.
For the Commonwealth Government, there is an obligation to protect Australia's borders.
One aspect of this is the problem of separating refugees from illegal immigrants. Australia must apply a fair but firm policy, which protects the country's longstanding reputation in accepting refugees.
Far more important are the flood of imported illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, due to under-resourcing the Customs Service even in the capital cities, and the very real danger of the entry of exotic diseases, arising from inadequate quarantine.
The lesson of the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Europe is that a similar occurrence in Australia would cause billions of dollars worth of damage, and could devastate Australia's livestock industries.
The boat loads of people arriving from Indonesia confirm the fact that Australia's borders are being routinely breached.
In view of the length of Australia's coastline, the proximity of the Christmas and Cocos Islands to Java, and more generally, the proximity of Australia to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Australia clearly requires a substantial upgrade in its maritime defence capabilities to protect its borders.
Australia also requires the closest co-operation with Indonesia - however uncomfortable many may feel about it - in order to end the people smuggling rackets.
The arrival of "boat people" from Indonesia is a reminder that Australia's defences, Customs and Quarantine services are inadequate, and must be upgraded urgently.- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council