Peter Mares is a long time follower of refugee issues and critic of the problems inherent in the former government’s approach to asylum seekers in boats. He wrote a piece in The Age which emphasised a point about the Howard’s government asylum policies which does not get highlighted enough.
former treasurer Peter Costello wrote in these pages that the only way to prevent asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat is to ”stop the sea trade”. He is right. This may sound surprising coming from a critic of Howard-era policies towards asylum seekers, but history supports Costello’s view. The effective deterrent was not lengthy detention on Nauru: it was the policy of turning back boats. In late 2001, in the weeks after the Tampa, the Australian Navy returned to Indonesia four boats carrying more than 500 asylum seekers. (my emphasis)
Of course, Mares rightly pointed out that an automatic consequence of a blanket approach such as this is also that “Costello should recommend that Australia withdraw from the Refugee Convention, since such actions contravene our international obligations.”
Interestingly, Greg Sheridan in The Australian pointed out the same thing. Ignoring his pointed and repeated use of the inaccurate and demonising term “illegal immigrants” to describe the asylum seekers, he rightly states that a “pivotal moment” in the Howard government’s approach was when “the Australian navy intercepted four boats of illegal immigrants (sic). The Indonesians agreed the Australian navy could force these boats back into Indonesian waters. They were forced to land in Indonesia.”
He then goes on to point out the big mistake that Kevin Rudd made when he says
“the Indonesian co-operation was also based on the understanding that the Howard government would not say anything about it publicly. There was to be no boasting.”
This isn’t strictly true, as it certainly was made public that the boats were pushed back. However, it’s true there was no boasting, at least not of the sort that suggested that the Indonesians would do our bidding at the behest of a Prime Ministerial phone call from Australia.
Sheridan then goes on to run some of the standard Howard-era distortions, including some Philip Ruddock quotes and some obligatory Malcolm Fraser bashing, including the disgraceful claim that Fraser “pioneered his own Pacific solution” to “make sure no boatpeople got to Australia”. Fraser slowed the boat flow precisely by developing a regional resettlement solution which included taking a large number of Vietnamese refugees – the sort of approach you would think someone decrying boat arrivals would applaud.
In any case, there’s not much point trying to engage far-right mythmakers and history warriors on facts or context. None the less, it is notable that people on both sides of the debate have acknowledged or recognised that towing or pushing back the boats was the key thing that halted the flow of boats for a while, not sticking people on Nauru and certainly not counter-productive and harmful measures such as prolonged mandatory detention or Temporary Protection Visas.
Mares also puts forward a rational workable solution to the issue of asylum seekers in boats:
Successful co-operation with Indonesia requires a massive boost in UNHCR resources so that asylum cases can be processed swiftly and must ensure that there are resettlement places for those found to be refugees. The bulk of those refugees will have to come to Australia, but even if we increase our humanitarian program by 50 per cent it will still be smaller than it was in the early 1980s (the Fraser era). If resettlement places are not available, then interception in Indonesia is pointless since those assessed as refugees will still engage smugglers to attempt the crossing to Australia.
Improved co-operation with Indonesia could reduce boat numbers and orderly resettlement would help take the political sting out of the issue.
A similar approach is recommended by Jessie Taylor in her recent report into conditions in Australian funded detention centres in Indonesia. She suggests a dual approach of installing “a controlled, robust and fair assessment and resettlement process direct from Indonesia to Australia (most logically through bolstering the capacity of the UNHCR)”, along with an increase in Australia’s refugee resettlement intake.
No solution will ever work over a prolonged period in stopping all asylum seekers arriving in boats, but there are approaches which can reduce this without breaching human rights standards or our own standards of common decency towards our fellow human beings.