The Nauru Solution

Peter Mares
12 September 2001

Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard said “keep out!” and the people roared their approval. At last Australia was standing up to the people smugglers and the “illegals”, the legions of would-be immigrants who see us as a “soft touch” and who are out to exploit our generosity and gullibility.

It is a bit like the children’s story about a puny kid who gets bullied on the way home from school until the kindly uncle/neighbour/older brother takes him aside and teaches him how to box. The next time the bullies swoop, the kid fights back and shows his mettle.

But who is the true bully in this story, and who the victim? There is no doubt that Australia is being targeted by people smugglers, just like every other developed nation in the world. There is no doubt that, in recent years, the smuggling operations have become more sophisticated, bringing larger numbers of people to Australia’s shores in bigger boats. But the size of the problem, in relative terms, remains small. Just 4,170 “boat people” arrived in Australia without authorisation in the financial year 1999-2000. More than double this number of asylum seekers landed at Australia’s airports during the same period.

Most of these “aeroplane people” arrived with valid visas and were stamped through immigration before lodging their applications for refugee status. The “boat people” were locked up in remote detention centres, while most of the “plane people” were allowed to live freely in the community and many were granted work permits. Statistically, the “plane people” were much less likely than the “boat people” to meet the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Convention, but, despite being far greater in number, the “plane people” never emerged as a focus of public concern.

Neither were the Australian public overly worried about the estimated 13,000 people who arrived in the country lawfully in the last financial year and then overstayed their visas (many of them British or American citizens), although technically, they too were illegal immigrants.

Threat to the Australian psyche

It is something about the sight of boats on the horizon that sets the collective Australian pulse racing. It might seem incongruous that a nation of immigrants, a nation born of the unauthorised landing of boats, should be so alarmed by the fact that others would seek to come here in the same manner. This apparent contradiction lies at the heart of the issue.

The “boat people” awaken deep-seated insecurities in Australian society. Perhaps, at some subconscious level, they remind us of the way in which this land was taken from its original inhabitants, and make us fear for our own security of tenure. Unauthorised boat arrivals give the impression that our long coastal borders are unprotected, reviving well-worn notions of an “empty north” that is vulnerable to hostile attack.

The “boat people” bring to the surface the same kind of anxieties that attached to Chinese immigrants at the end of the 19th Century, who, like today’s boat people, were described as “flooding” into the territories in “waves” and threatening to “inundate” us. The fear of Chinese migration gave rise to the White Australia policy, which was one of the first pieces of legislation introduced to the new national parliament after Federation in 1901, and which remained in place until the end of the 1960s. The notion that we must control the border is a fundamental strand in the weave of Australia’s political fabric.

This helps to explain the overwhelming popularity of the federal government’s decision to take a stand on sovereignty, and refuse to allow the Norwegan freighter Tampa to land its cargo of rescued asylum seekers at Christmas Island.

With an election likely in mid-November, international criticism of Australia’s actions will count for little. John Howard and his colleagues in the Coalition have their eyes fixed on the opinion polls, and their ears tuned to talk-back radio. The response to the Tampa has polarised public opinion, but there is no doubt that the Prime Minister has the vast majority of voters on his side, and if he can keep the asylum seeker issue running through to November, then he stands a strong chance of winning a third term in office – a feat that appeared all but impossible just a few months ago. The Coalition parties need no longer debate the advisability of an unseemly deal with Pauline Hanson’s ultra-nationalist One Nation Party. In the wake of the Tampa, the second preference of One Nation supporters, if not their primary vote, is probably in the bag.

The government’s tactics have wrong-footed the opposition Labor Party. Unwilling to take a principled stand on defence of international norms and fundamental rights, Labor risks losing votes to the minority Greens and Democrats. But this is of less concern than the potential losses Labor could face in key marginal seats if it were to oppose the government’s handling of the issue. The Coalition parties stand to garner vital electoral support as swinging voters swoon to the image of a resolute John Howard talking tough. The best Labor can offer is damage control. The opposition has sought to minimise the electoral fallout of the Tampa affair by accommodating the government’s increasingly bizarre endeavours to restrict the operations of the Refugee Convention.

Labor supported the government’s refusal to allow the Tampa. to land at Christmas Island. When the Federal Court ruled that the government acted outside the law by deploying the SAS and detaining the Tampa asylum seekers on board the ship, Labor hinted that it might back retrospective legislation to smooth the legal problem away. Labor has also offered in principle support to a bill that would exclude far-flung pieces of Australian territory from the “migration zone”. This would prevent asylum seekers who land on Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef in the Indian Ocean from seeking refugee status, although the Indonesian sailors who aided their passage could still be prosecuted for people smuggling.

The government hopes this latest measure will act as a deterrent to boats setting sail from Indonesia. Equally though, it could spur the people smugglers to new levels of daring – and expose their desperate passengers to even greater risks – as boats endeavour to make it all the way to much more distant Australian mainland.

The problem of what to do with asylum seekers who do wash up at Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island remains. Granted, they cannot seek asylum, but what is to be done with them? Indonesia will not take them back, and the tiny island of Nauru, which has agreed to take them, will surely tire of being Australia’s dumping ground, despite the AU$20 million incentive package it has negotiated. Australia does have a proud tradition of resettling refugees. Some 10 per cent of the 6 million people who have migrated to these shores since the end of World War Two have come here for humanitarian reasons, and, per capita Australia continues to resettle more refugees than almost any other country. Evidence – so Canberra would have it – that Australia shoulders more than its share of the international burden of displaced people.

But when asylum seekers arrive unannounced, and seek to claim protection on shore under the 1951 Refugee Convention, they become ‘queue jumpers’, who are willing to consort with criminals to subvert Australia’s laws and must be stopped at any cost. The federal government is spending an estimated $20 million dollars a week deploying an extra three navy frigates, two support ships and four Orion patrol aircraft in the waters between Australia and Indonesia. According to one calculation, the government has already spent at least $70 million on the Tampa asylum seekers, or around $160,000 a head.

Now, in the wake of the assault on the World Trace Centre and the Pentagon, and the identification of bin Laden as a prime suspect, attitudes are likely to harden even further. Many of those crossing the southern seas are Afghanis. What better unspoken gift could there have been for Prime Minister Howard to confirm his hard line, than the fact that the regime they are fleeing harbours the terrorist-in-chief? The logic of prejudice is likely to prove impervious to the point that they are trying to get away from the country that does this. Such is the nature of guilt by association for those who already have, at one level or another, a guilty conscience.

Australia is using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. Admittedly the issue of people smuggling is a tough nut to crack, but the application of ever-greater force rarely produces the desired outcome.

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