An Inconvenient Truth
By Kevin Andrews - Australian Polity - Volume 1 (Number 3)
The government’s muted reaction to the significant increase in unlawful boat arrivals demonstrates it has little idea about how to stem people smuggling operations.
With the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister missing in action, it was left to Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus to call on Indonesia to take action.
In opposition, the Labor Party was high on rhetoric. The Howard government’s so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ was unnecessary. Labor would abolish it – and stop the lucrative trade. The detention camps on Naura and Christmas Island were closed. Lawyers were provided. Permanent residence was extended to those arriving unlawfully.
The result is clear. The people smugglers got a clear message to resume their lucrative operations. The tragic events this week are an indirect result of the government’s flawed policy. In the two and a half years to January 2002, some 12,000 people arrived in Australia by boat. The Howard government’s response had a clear impact. Since 2002, there were less than 250 illegal boat arrivals.
The arrival of twenty boats in Australian waters should be a concern to us. This is in addition to the people detained by Indonesian authorities before they could leave that country.
The smugglers closely watch what is happening in Australia. They know, for example, that Labor changed the detention policy. They know that they will get to Christmas Island where free legal advice will be available.
“I think there’s a perception that we may have (softened), they’re not quite sure,” an immigration official said last year. “They’ve certainly read statements, particularly by minister Evans, and I think they’re interested in testing it.”
“The main change that they would have picked up is that we now don’t have this temporary visa, we’re moving straight into permanent protection,” the official said. “That would be seen by them, I’m sure, as a softening, or as indicating a relaxation.”
These comments would have been informed by intelligence reports from our region.
Confirmation was provided by Steve Cook, chief-of-mission for the International Organisation for Migration in Indonesia, who was reported as saying: “People smugglers have clearly noted that there has been a change in policy and they’re testing the envelope,” he said. “Up until about a year ago there was very little people smuggling activity. Over the last year there’s been a considerable kick-up. There have been boat arrivals in Australia, there’s been interceptions here. There are rumours of a lot of organizing going on.”
The change in policy was seen as an opportunity to test the resolve of the Australian government. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars to be made from these operations. And there are sufficient people who will pay exorbitant sums of money to start a new life elsewhere. Some countries in our region have permeable borders that people can easily move through.
It is also clear that the smugglers are using increasingly sophisticated equipment to escape the scrutiny of Australian authorities. Nor do they care much about the people concerned, putting them on leaking, unsafe boats for the hazardous journey to Australia.
Labor’s response shows how different it is to govern than criticize. The Labor government believed that a philosophical approach to people smuggling would work. They could remove the disincentives, such as detention and temporary visas, and still discourage the illegal operations. This was naive at best, and negligent at worst. They were warned last year that it had sent a signal to the smugglers to boost their activities.
Australia must take a realistic approach to the issue. Policies are judged not by their intention, but by their consequences. We have witnessed how tragic the consequences of a misguided policy can be. Yet the government wants to keep its head in the sand. It’s a result of the conflict in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, they claim, as if these conflicts have not been going on for years. If only the Indonesians toughened their laws, the people smuggling would cease. Or claim that more people claiming refugee status arrive by air. This claim overlooks very different circumstances. People seeking to stay in Australia after arriving by air generally have flown here on a validly issued visa.
Most claims for refugee status are made not at the time of entry into the country, which is the traditional convention, but towards the period of their visa or when they have already overstayed. Additionally many of these claims are unsuccessful because they have no substantive basis.
Australian governments have had co-operation from Indonesian authorities for many years. There is an irony in urging the Indonesians to do more when we are running up the white flag to this trade in Australia.
The Rudd policy is a blue-print for immigration based not on established need, but on economic opportunism. Australia’s strict immigration policies have allowed us to be one of the most generous nations in the world in resettling refugees.
The people of Australia deserve better than a Prime Minister who goes missing for 48 hours while he gets his pollsters to find out what his position should be. They deserve more than the Rudd government’s usual slogans. They want a policy that discourages these immoral activities, not more of what has occurred in recent months.