AUSTRALIA'S IMMIGRATION DEBATE

Feature

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Oct. 15, 2009) – The continued arrival of boats carrying asylum seekers trying to enter Australia has created a heated political debate over the country's immigration policies. Australia's Liberal Opposition says the Labor Government isn't doing enough to stem the flow of illegal migrants. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the the increase in asylum seekers is a regional problem, and is due to international conflicts in Afghanistan and other countries.

This handout photo released by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service on September 17, 2009 shows a boat carrying asylum-seekers off the northern coast of Australia. Officials said on September 17, 2009 that an Australian patrol has stopped a boat carrying 48 asylum-seekers off its northern coast, the fifth such incident in the past 10 days.

Australia's Government is under political pressure to do more to stop an increased flow of people smuggler boats carrying asylum seekers.

At least six more boatloads of people were being tracked by the Australian navy making their way to the country this week.

So far in 2009, around 1,700 people hundred have arrived in Australia illegally by boat.

Australian Immigration department figures show that more than 48,500 people were in Australia unlawfully as of last July, the latest figures. They are mostly visa overstayers, but attract little political debate.

In contrast, images of rickety boats crowded with asylum seekers have pushed the problem of illegal boat entries to the top of Australia's political agenda.

Political clash

While Australia's Liberal Opposition has criticised the Labor Government's approach, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says Australia is maintaining the right policy balance.

But Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull says the Prime Minister has undone "a very carefully-constructed fabric of [Coalition] policy that enabled us to have protected borders and little or no illegal arrivals," he said.

The Prime Minister says his Government is taking a tough line on people smuggling, with current efforts amounting to one of the biggest operations by an Australian government in peacetime.

The Government says the increase is due to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

"This is a continuing challenge for all governments," Mr Rudd said.

"We have a policy. The Liberals are split right down the middle. It's very easy to criticise, but what's the alternative policy?"

Mr Turnbull has rejected as a "falsehood" the Government's reasoning that the increase in asylums seekers is due to international conflicts.

"That is the greatest humbug," he said. "He's laid out the welcome mat and he's held the door right open."

Regional collaboration

Australia's Home Affairs minister Brendan O'Connor has told Radio Australia he has held talks with several regional counterparts and regional police commissioners on the people smuggling issue.

This happened on the sidelines of an Interpol conference this week in Singapore.

Mr O'Connor says better regional co-operation is vital to stopping the people smugglers, who he says deliberately exploit the vulnerable.

He says organised syndicates are involved in most of the vessel arrivals to Australia.

Opposition proposals

Australia's Opposition Liberal party is continuing to press for further measures.

Liberal MP Kevin Andrews, who was immigration minister in the government of former prime minister John Howard, is heading a review of Liberal party immigration policy.

He says an option is to return to a policy similar to that used under the Howard government which controversially kept boat arrivals under detention on the Pacific island of Nauru, though an agreement with a second country would be needed.

Mr Andrews also says he could recommend a new visa category for what he calls illegal arrivals.

Under such a plan, a person granted the visa would receive temporary protection in Australia but would be required to return to their homeland before being able to apply for full refugee protection via usual avenues.

"If there is a conflict in another country then we look at the temporary nature of that conflict, rather than just saying as this Government does, well basically we're going to give you an entry card into Australia," he told ABC's AM program.

Opposition policy decisions will not directly affect government decisions but the discussion is helping to keep political pressure on the government.

Another former Howard era immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, has also jumped into the debate.

He claimed the Rudd government had lost control of the country's borders and that a pipeline of 10,000 asylum seekers were waiting to make their way to Australia because Rudd government policies were seen as soft.

Mr Ruddock's critics have accused him of being an alarmist, but he dismisses the charge.

"I think people expect to be informed in relation to these sorts of matters, and when the government has clearly lost control of our borders, you're entitled to ask, 'What are the likely implications if we don't act?"'

Tamil boat in the spotlight

The Opposition increased its focus on the issue after it was revealed earlier this month that the Prime Minister telephoned Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and personally requested that Indonesian authorities stop a boat in its waters that was carrying almost 260 Tamil Sri Lankans destined for Australia.

Mr Rudd won't publicly disclose the details of his conversation with the President, but said the call had to be made.

"I make no apologies whatsoever for working as closely as I need with our Indonesian friends and partners to get the results we all need in terms of illegal immigration," he said.

Indonesia turned the boat around, and the boat remains moored in the Indonesian port of Madang.

The asylum seekers are of all ages.

Though they say they have been treated well by Indonesian authorities, as of October 14, they were refusing to leave the boat for an Indonesian immigration detention centre.

The Tamils at first said they would blow up their boat if not allowed to pass, but recently have changed tack.

They told ABC News that if they cannot enter Australia, they want to be settled in a third country.

"We're just people without a country to live in," a Tamil man named Alex, said.

"I'm not sure how many people have experience that kind of life, but I'm sure the media has gone around the world and seen countries like our country. But the situation in our country right now I'm telling you, Tamils do not have an opportunity to survive in Sri Lanka."

The Tamil asylum seekers said their boat left Sri Lanka at the end of July. The group spent one month hiding in the jungles of Malaysia before their journey brought them back out to sea, where they stopped before reaching Australia.

"We had no shelter, we were only given garbage bags to put on top of their head," Alex said of the group's time in the jungle.

Detention centre stress

Another pressure point for the Rudd government arises because its asylum seeker detention facility on Christmas Island, off the country's north west coast, is nearing its capacity of 1,400.

Canberra is shipping 81 portable buildings to Christmas Island to increase the detention centre's capacity.

The buildings are due to reach Christmas Island by mid-October.

The Opposition says with so many more boats heading to the country, the Government will be forced to consider other options.

Christmas Island is legally Australian territory but for the purposes of asylum seekers arriving by boat, it remains excised from Australia.

This deprives asylum seekers of a range of legal options they would otherwise have if they could make it to the Australian mainland.

Possible backlash

The asylum seeker issue remains deeply sensitive for both sides of Australian politics.

The hard-line approach of the previous Howard government was popular and is credited with winning the 2001 election for John Howard.

But it eventually turned to a political negative.

In one incident in 2001, the then-government was found to have been wrong when it made a sensational claim that some asylum seekers had deliberately thrown their children overboard in a bid to boost their chances of being taking to Australian shores.

The Howard government's use of Nauru to detain asylum seekers was also controversial.

[PIR editor’s note: Australia’s detention center in Nauru was closed in December 2007 to the relief of many critics who saw Australia’s "Pacific Solution" as callous to refugees – some of which pined away on the remote island for years. However, the closure of the facility left Nauru without the jobs and income it had brought to the struggling nation, nearly depleted of phosphate, its only resource, by decades of mining by foreign companies.]

Advocates' concerns

Australian legal advocates for asylum seekers have mixed views on the issues.

David Mann, the principle solicitor for a Melbourne-based Refugee and Immigration Centre, says the alarmist nature of the political debate is contrary to the relatively small increase in numbers of boat arrivals to Australia recently.

"What we're looking at here is a small increase in numbers recently and overwhelmingly those who are coming here are coming from places where they're fleeing from acts of gross brutality and being found to be refugees, people who under stringent testing have been determined to be refugees who need our protection," he said.

The world is experiencing a surge in asylum seeker movements he says because of what are called "push" factors, such as the worsened security situation in Afghanistan and the end of the military conflict in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamil Tigers.

David Mann argues that the focus should be on ensuring the responsibility to protect such people is met under Australia's obligations as a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

He says sending asylum seekers back to Indonesia does not meet that responsibility. Indonesia is not a signatory to the convention and has been criticised often for its treatment of asylum seekers.

Another refugee advocate, Marion Le, recently told Radio Australia that the best way for Australia to ensure the boat-loads of asylum seekers do not keep arriving is to spend a lot more to speed up the processing of asylum applicants around the world.

Many are forced to wait long years in camps for processing and then for resettlement once they have been determined to be refugees.

Australia's government says it is doing its bit by accepting thousands of refugees a year. For 2009-10 Australia will accept 13,750 under its refugee and special humanitarian program.

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