COVER STORY - People on the move: vexed question for government, nation
by Richard Egan
News Weekly, March 11, 2000
There has been a dramatic escalation in the number of boat people arriving in Australia over the last twelve months. Of the 7,500 boat people to be taken into detention since 1989 over 3,000 have arrived since June 1999.
The national origin of the boat people has also changed over the years from 1989. In 1989 and 1990 Cambodians predominated. Then, until mid-1996, the majority of arrivals were Chinese, including over 1,000 Sino-Vietnamese, exiled from Vietnam to China in 1979 and fleeing to Australia after Chinese authorities demolished their shanty towns in Beihai.
Beginning in September 1996 Iraqis and Afghanis became the most common arrivals. Nearly all the 3,000 arrivals since June 1999 are Iraqis and Afghanis.
As well as boat arrivals, some 325 Iraqis arrived in Australia by air without proper documentation in the year 1998/99.
Who are these people and why are they coming to Australia?
Iraq is ruled by the dictator, Saddam Hussein. The human rights abuses of the regime are well documented and include arbitrary arrest, use of torture in interrogation (including torture of the victims' children), executions and mutilation.
Groups at risk include anyone dissenting from or opposing the regime and military deserters. Ethnic and religious minorities are not necessarily at risk although minority status may exacerbate any other difficulty with the regime.
This applies to Shiite Muslims, Assyrian or Chaldean Christians, Turkomans and Kurds. The northern part of Iraq, largely populated by Kurds, is not under the direct control of Baghdad but has a regional Kurdish government under UN supervision. Kurds are bitterly divided between two factions, the PUK and the KDP, backed respectively by Turkey and Iran.
Of the Iraqi population of about 25 million over 4 million are living abroad, many as refugees. About 500,000 Iraqi refugees live in Iran and 50,000-200,000 in Jordan. Over 30,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Europe in 1999.
Iraqis, processed in Jordan or other Middle Eastern countries, have been successful in gaining acceptance to Australia as part of the humanitarian and refugee programme under which we accept some 12,000 migrants annually (compared to 70,000 on the family reunion and skilled migrant categories).
Afghanistan is presently under the control of the ruthless Taliban régime, which is implementing its own brand of Islamic law, with particularly harsh restrictions on women's freedoms. For example, it is illegal to give girls any education whatsoever.
More than 2.6 million Afghans are refugees in neighbouring countries, including 1.4 million in Iran, 1.2 million in Pakistan, 16,000 in India, and 8,000 in neighbouring Central Asian republics. Afghanis are in fact the world's largest refugee population and have been so since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Afghanis are also well represented in Australia's off-shore humanitarian and refugee program. Some 3,000 applicants were allocated in 1998/99 to Middle East and South West Asian applicants, predominantly Iraqis, Afghanis and Iranians.
Why then are Iraqis and Afghanis coming by boat or air to Australia?
Firstly, Iraqi and Afghani boat people are extraordinarily successful in their refugee applications. Over 85% of applications by Iraqis and over 72% of applications by Afghanis to the Refugee Review Tribunal are successful compared to 11% of overall applications and 7% of Chinese applications.
In fact, since the first Iraqi and Afghani boat people arrived in Australia in 1995/96 not a single one has been removed from Australia.
Of course, given the appalling human rights records in Iraq and Afghanistan, their general success in refugee applications is not surprising.
One factor in the success of Iraqi applications has been a Tribunal view that applying for asylum in a Western country itself creates a danger of persecution if returned to Iraq. On this basis some applicants, otherwise found to be not credible or to have ill-founded claims, are succeeding.
Another factor in the success of Iraqi claims was a Federal Court ruling that Jordan could not be seen as a safe third country to send back Iraqis who had spent some time there as Jordan was not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.
This finding was overturned by the Full Bench of the Federal Court in October 1999 (on the basis that Jordan was, in fact, not likely to forcibly repatriate Iraqis) and may pave the way for some Iraqis to be sent back to Jordan.
Iraqis arriving in Australia, by sea or air, are travelling a route organised by professional people smugglers. Asylum seekers pay thousands of dollars to Saudi and other Middle Eastern operators for false documents to fly out of Amman, Jordan and other cities either direct to Australia or to South East Asia for transport by boats crewed by Indonesians.
The boats head for Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island where they are intercepted by Australian vessels and the passengers detained.
Most Afghanis travelling to Australia have spent some time in Pakistan. Some Refugee Review Tribunal decisions have rejected return to Pakistan as an option on the basis of information that Afghanis are at risk of harm due to factional, political and tribal rivalries within the refugee camps in Pakistan.
What can be done to stop or reduce this process?
It is generally agreed that large scale arrivals by boat are undesirable. Although the majority of boats are detected well before they land (only four or five boats have avoided interception since 1989) there are valid concerns about the security of our borders, about quarantine procedures and so forth.
The high cost of detection, interception and detention (especially prolonged detention) are also factors.
Asylum seekers arriving by boat or air without documentation are seen as queue jumpers. This perhaps applies more fairly to the Iraqi and Afghani boat people than it ever did to Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese boat people, who were never in a position to apply for asylum at Australian consulates. Iraqis and Afghanis can apply in Jordan, Pakistan or other countries and many are accepted under our humanitarian quota.
The Government has focussed its efforts in several areas.
Firstly, it has sought to make onshore refugee applications less attractive by reducing the permanent residence visa to a three year temporary visa. The main effect of this is to remove the opportunity to sponsor the family to Australia. One result has been that more women and children are now coming on the boats!
Secondly, the Government has increased penalties for people smugglers, with some Indonesian crew now receiving substantial gaol terms.
This increases the risk for operators but has not yet appeared to be a sufficient deterrent. It may increase the practice of people dumping, as seen in some cases already, with one group abandoned by the crew on Ashmore Reef without food or water for over a week, and another case where a small Indonesian vessel towed a larger vessel towards Christmas Island and then cut loose and headed for Indonesian waters.
Some asylum seekers have already drowned as a result of such practices.
Thirdly, the Government is seeking to work back along the smuggling pipeline to encourage third countries such as Indonesia and Middle Eastern countries to intervene to stop the people smuggling operations. Given the pervasive nature of bribery and corruption in such countries, success may be hard to achieve.
Indonesia is the immediate point of embarkation for boat people. It may be in Australia's interest to work with the Indonesians to set up a detention facility in Indonesia to process intending boat people before they depart. They could be assessed as refugees for acceptance into Australia or deported to an earlier point of departure.
It may be necessary to invoke safe third country legislation - introduced to curb successful refugee claims by Sino-Vietnamese and applied rigorously to deny all Sino-Vietnamese entry to Australia - to declare Pakistan a safe third country for Afghanis, and Jordan and other points of embarkation safe third countries for Iraqis.
Diplomatic negotiations with these countries will be necessary, perhaps including a willingness to take in an orderly fashion a larger number of refugees from these countries.
What about the hard line alternatives?
Some Australians advocate refusing entry to all boat people by simply provisioning them and turning them back to Indonesian waters. If enforced rigorously this may prove a sufficient deterrent to stop attempts at arrival this way.
The procedures need to be thoroughly thought through. For example, will we open fire on boats that seek to defy an order to turn around? What will we do if there are sick or injured women and children on board?
It may be premature to consider this approach. It is easy for Australians to over-react to an increase in boat people numbers. Refugees and displaced persons are a fact of life throughout the world.
Our status as an island continent means that we have never been faced with hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees arriving by foot over land as many other countries have been. Most countries of first asylum are poorer and less equipped to handle an influx of refugees than we are.
While protecting the integrity of our borders and maintaining the right to control entry into Australia, we also need to demonstrate our maturity and confidence as a nation to handle what, in the overall scheme of things, is a relatively minor flow of refugees for a country as spacious and prosperous as we are.