Our obsession with stopping boat people

I’ve written a short piece on the Asian Correspondent website about the Australian media coverage of Julia Gillard’s visit to south-east Asia.

I’ve been frustrated, but not surprised, that the majority of the coverage – at least amongst what I’ve seen – has been focused on the issue of a few thousand asylum seekers who arrive here in boats, and so little on the significant economic, human rights, environmental, social and security issues which are important in our future relations with our neighbouring countries.

According to the UNHCR’s global trends report of 2009, Malaysia has over 76 000 refugees and asylum seekers, plus another 100 000 people of concern.  This report estimates there are over 400 000 in Thailand. There must be some bemusement about how big a panic Australia goes into about trying to stop a few thousand from reaching our shores – yet as this report notes, we are dragging the chain even on resettling 500 from Indonesia, which makes it more likely refugees will take their chances on a leaky boat.

Working to economically strengthen our region and building better ties is a valuable long-term way to reduce human rights abuses and improve the capacity of other countries to better deal with asylum seekers. Strengthening trade opportunities and education opportunities are just a couple of key areas which have also been on the agenda in talks between Australia and neighbouring countries, but it seems stopping boat people is what matters most.

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  1. Dear Andrew,

    Most of our illegal immigrants arrive by air and overstay their visas etc., but at least they complete some sort of paperwork and identity check. We all know of cases such as Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvaraez who were not Australian citizens but successfully eluded detection by the DIMIA by using forged passports and false names, but by and large they left a paper trail by virtue of legally entering this country.

    Boat people are quite different. Usually they have no papers of identity and many are suspected of deliberately getting rid of their identities. That is why the vast majority of Australians are opposed to their illegal entry. We might be letting in the enemy.

    The UN has vast refugee and asylum seeker camps and has processed most of them who await acceptance into a country such as Australia. The simplest solution to the problem of illegal boat people is to put them back in the queue.
    We ought to send them to a UN Camp, put them at the end of the queue and take a similar number of processed asylum seekers from the head of the queue.

    We would not need to create another refugee camp or build expensive billets on far away lands as the plan would be housing neutral and the UN could then process the boat people and establish their identities in the normal manner, before we accept them into Australia.

    This plan would stop the illegal trade in boat people, as it would guarantee a passage straight to the end of a queue in a UN Refugee Camp. No longer would people die in unseaworthy boats trying to make passage to Australia. We know of 170 drowned recently, but how many really drown without us knowing?


    Geoffrey R. Kelley

  2. Geoffrey:

    Your idea is not unlike the policy of the DLP. I’m not sure if the camps on the Thai/Burma border are UN camps, but the DLP would exchange 1 asylum seeker picked up from a leaky boat for every 2 processed refugees from there.

    This would be cheap and effective, would reduce many Australian people’s phobic reactions and would not put the people running the camps offside.

    It makes sense for the people who have been sitting in camps for the longest to get out first. We are told there is no queue for asylum seekers, but creating one that moves along quickly would be a good idea.

    I think the UN should put more effort into creating peace in war torn areas, instead of allowing global entities to redistribute populations by negative means, such as mass starvation and civil war. This would eliminate the need for refugee camps.

  3. there it is a simple solution to an ever growing problem .
    iv seen photos of the type of craft that is being used now to make the 24 hour trip to christmas island yes thats correct 24 hour trip thats all it is .
    the navy boarding craft can do it in 7 hours from flying fish cove .
    the boats are not as good as they have been in the past and i predict that there will be a lot more ppl drown from this type of craft .

    i think the un camp idea is sound because is it not the u.n. that is responsible for these ppl anyway .

  4. Andrew, I know you have said this before, but can you please summarise the facts about how asylum seekers in camps are chosen to come here? I know it is not on the basis of length of time in a queue, and of course we all know there simply IS no queue in some coutries, let aone the homeland of genuine refugees.

    I hear this sort of thing all the time at work and socially, and I’d appreciate a factual answer I could memorise about just how misguided this “end of hthe queue” myth is, if you have time.

    The ignorance oen comes across is so breathtaking sometimes that oneis left stammering incoherently – at least, I am.

    Thank you.

  5. I hear and read a variety of comments such as this on a pretty regular basis. 1. How exactly does a person join a ‘queue’? If so, where exactly is it? 2. define the term ‘normal’ as in: “establish their identities in the normal manner”, and 3. How does a person from the Middle East or Africa join the kind of ‘queue’ you describe? There are literally millions of displaced people from all over the world, many of which will born and die in refugee camps, if they are fortunate enough to reach one in the first place. Once there, they have to contend with the squalid conditions associated with thousands of people and too little food and medical supplies to sustain them. then of course there are the blockades established by countries attempting to interfere with UN humanitarian activities for their own agenda, occurring in many places, one such example is the Egyptian border of Palestine.

    I do not know the specifics about the boat people issue in SE Asia, but I do know that the crisis of relocating people is virtually insurmountable due to sheer numbers of refugees displaced from their homelands. Processing this number of people is a gigantic, time consuming task. Perhaps prosecuting countries which execute and alienate whole subgroups within their population in an international court might be a start, or at least might pay for some of it. The oversimplified ideas stated above contain numerous flaws, perpetuate myths about the refugee crisis, and reinforce the idea that we have the right to refuse entry. We are obliged under international law to take in refugees, because we signed the UN Refugee Convention, so we had better work out how to achieve this is the most humane, decent manner possible. If we don’t, we forfeit our self-assumed right to perceive ourselves as superior to totalitarian regimes and despotic dictatorships. Screw expediency.

  6. In the meantime, people might like to read this, and follow the links to the information in ohter sites.

    The problem is that when you get people like Abbott and all the right-wingers saying “Ilegal” about refugees then it is very hard to get past that. The ignorant and the frightened and the smug cling to that label and off they go on rants that are uninformed and which expose their xenophobia.

    Abbott went to the Adelaide Hills site yesterday and said that it was a “picture postcard” … that people living there would encourage others to make a run for it from their home countries on some kind of whim.

    God help us if he ever becomes PM. Does he want asylum seekers to be punished for being what they are? Has anyone ever heard of the Dunera Boys? History repeats itself in this country – it’s depressing.

  7. I think Jazz raises some excellent points.

    Whoever has been stuck in a refugee camp for the longest should be the first to get out, also taking into account the special needs of the sick, the pregnant, the very young, the frail elderly and those in need of specialist medical attention.

    I agree that the United Nations should get out a whip and crack it very frequently, where cruel dictators and greedy skulduggerous superpowers are concerned.

    But I am largely against individual countries having their sovereignty diminished by global “police” dictating trading arrangements and controlling the financial market.

    Tony Abbott even admitted on national television that Jesus would never have led the Liberal Party (dead right). Then he laughed. I don’t consider him to be much of a Christian at all. If he was, he wouldn’t even be thinking of paying women earning $150,000 a year their full wage to spend 6 months at home with their newborn babies. I’m sure they would have enough wealth to tide them over indefinitely.

    At the political forum to discuss the Millennium Development Goals in the seat of Brisbane, I think it was clear that the Liberal candidate (who won the seat from Arch Bevis, Labor) had no interest in people living on the streets in Australia either.

  8. I don’t imagine the queue in a refugee camp to be anything like a queue in Australia, viz. a line of people waiting to board a bus. In fact we should NOT taking the oldest inhabitants of the refugee camps, as these people are the recalcitrants who refuse to help the UN establish their identity.
    Instead we should accept the advice of the UN and only take refugees who have been processed satisfactorily.

    One of the problems of trying to sanction the governments that cause their people to seek asylum is that the governments such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are left-wing governments with power within the UN, so the fox is in charge of the ckookhouse.

    Geoffrey Kelley

  9. we signed the UN Refugee Convention
    i think that was signed in the 1950s was it not
    if so is it not a different world in 2010 . mabe it should be looked at againe
    the people comming on boats now are economic asylim seekers not refugees .
    the govt knows this
    but not to worry they will be comming to a camp near you sooner than you think .

  10. Red Crab – you seem to overlook the fact that there have been detention centres in “the East’ for a long time .. possibly longer than any in the West – Maribyrnong and Villawood opened in the 60s and 70s, though their purpose was different then – they were not high security then. Port Hedland was opened in 1991, and others, in SA, offshore, Darwin etc since 2000.

    So in fact WA was late in getting centres, and the only reason you did, IMO, was the distance factor from sympathisers in the more crowded cities in the East, once it was realised that the way people were being treated had spiralled into very inhumane conditions indeed.

    I have lived very close to 2 centres, and a half-hour from another, and have visited people there regularly. I have also worked with post_baxter people and can assure you that they were very far from all (or even mostly, as I observed them) from ebing economic refugees. But it is easier to put a difficult question out of your mind by labeling them as ‘undeserving’ or ‘illegal’. Whynot put your mind to urging the government to give more support to those trying to improve conditions in the homelands where people are discriminated against and forced to flee? Or would that be too complicated? It’s simpler to just try to pretend we don’t know tha people do not risk life and limb for a simple upgrade in taxation bracket.

  11. Geoffrey:

    I liked your comment about Robert Mugabe, and “the fox being in charge of the chookhouse”. I think this guy (who is approx. 86 years old now) is a perfect example of the adage: “Only the good die young.”

    After reading your comment, I think the UN has got to be the global fox in many chookhouses, also setting the cat amongst the pigeons, as are all of the other global organisations to which successive Australian governments seem to have sold us out.

  12. There is an issue that almost always never get mentioned in relation to asylum seekers. We usually see the situation as a tragedy rather than the factors that have long contributed to what is the end result of humans doing what humans do – breeding with no thought of the consequence and little or no interest in the wider community until things become “uncomfortable” – by then, the rollercoaster is well underway and things get progressively worse. As such, we’ll see short government terms and growing dissatisfaction with our government as we progress towards increasing instability.

    Australians are by and large of the opinion that we can continue with our population growth and not face the same consequences. To this, I’d suggest you take a moment to consider that Australia is a large desert with relatively few areas of good rainfall coupled with good soil and in order to grow enough food for 50 million we rely heavily on cheap fertilisers produced from oil. The boat people issue will likely disappear either as fuel becomes unavailable or as Australia’s overpopulation issue becomes a reality in the face of diminishing oil supplies and being forced to adopt GMO crops rather than seeking to stabilise our population at sensible levels and cultivate a healthy organic farming industry. In other words, once Australia’s standard of living has declined to the same or worse than it is where these people are fleeing from, the inward migration will stop. There are billions that would happily come here at the moment and certainly, we’ll continue to absorb more and more. But of course, this will only serve to break Australia rather than make a dent on the poverty/starvation famine issues. Our leaders (including the UN) have long avoided actually addressing the core issues for too long because it’s suited our growth at any cost corporate agenda.

    So, I really wouldn’t worry about quibbling over what Abbott and Costello are doing – we’re on a path to the destruction of Australia’s current way of life – give it about 3 years or so and you’ll see what I mean.

  13. Thanks Andrew,
    I agree that we have more important things to worry about than what the Department of Immigration refers to as Irregular Maritime Arrivals.

    We need the leaders of the country to show some leadership and the media to stop acting like children. I can’t see this happening any time soon.

    We, Australia, have signed an agreement with the UN to provide asylum to any persons within our borders who claim asylum. This agreement includes requirements of proof of identity and allows us to validate these people claims.

    What we are doing is intercepting them before they get here so that we can welsh on our agreement. This is exploiting a technicality on a national scale and is abhorrent.

    Going to simplify and repeat that.
    We signed a humanitarian agreement.
    We found a loophole to avoid our responsibility.
    We have been exploiting this loophole for almost 20 years.

    The government, media and public need to stop the bullshit and face facts. We are a democratic society and our government should be representative of the population therefore the majority opinion should be followed.
    If the majority of Australians disagree with the humanitarian agreement and believe we should withdraw from it then we should do so and accept the consequences.
    If the majority of Australians agree with the humanitarian agreement we should honour our commitment.
    This agreement is not mentioned by the major players or the media, nor is the dishonourable and deceptive nature of our actions in technically avoiding our responsibility.

  14. MATTM:

    The water issues in Australia can be easily overcome with a water grid which moves rainfall from the northern tropics to desert areas.

    The idea that the world will have a huge population blowout is completely false. With Millennium Development Goals due to be met within a few short years (including access to contraception), a blowout is not a likelihood at all.

    I invite you to study Age Pyramids and Zero Population Growth.

    Then you’ll understand that by 2050, populations across the world will decrease very markedly, with a huge crash occurring in China due to 30+ years of a One Child Policy, and a lesser crash in the western/developed nations.

  15. thanks fisher
    you seem to hit the nail on the head every time
    its what iv tried to say all the time the people of this country never had a say when these agreements were made and according to the constitution a decision of such magnitude and importance should have been put to the people
    i think its time it was .
    i think with the diverse make up of our community’s now there would be a fare and correct decision made maybe it would save the govt if they actually asked the people what they wanted the Govt. to do.
    and do what the people want for a change .

    that’s what there there for isnt it .

  16. if boats can reach the west coast with ease what’s the point of selling Christmas island

    more Facebook donkey comments

    its really interesting how all the do gooders have gone really quit

  17. Yesterday morning’s breakfast program : (asked what could be done to stop the boats coming)

    John Clunies-Ross : I can’t see how they’d ever, ever, ever be able to do it. I mean without making it really unenticing by just taking them to jail and leaving them in there to rot but I don’t think anyone’s going to stand for that, the public won’t stand for that.

    I think what needs to happen is make their homeland actually habitable. You know, why are they leaving Sri Lanka? I’d say that a little bit of work on the ground there would stop them.

    ELIZABETH JACKSON: Cocos Islands local John Clunies-Ross speaking there to our reporter Simon Lauder.

    A bit of work on the ground … as someone living close to the area, I’d say he might be onto something, as I and many others have been saying for a while.

  18. togret you have made my day .

    as someone living close to the area, I’d say he might be onto something, as I and many others have been saying for a while.

    just where do you think the cocos islands are . and yes i have been there

    John Clunies-Ross is just!! a local is he i think that’s an understatement

    there is one thing for Shaw we will find out next week just how strong or week this Govt. is

    there decisions will either give them hope for the next election or destroy any chance they have at credibility at all .

    this issue goes way beyond the asylum problem it has come to the point that one ask s can this govt protect our borders from any real threat of aggression towards our resources in the north at this point i don’t think so .

  19. Red Crab – you seem not to think anyone knows anything other than yourself. Of course most of us know where Cocos (Keeling) islands are … and of course you’ve been there – is there anywhere you haven’t been? (No, don’t bother). Yes, Clunies-Ross is a local .. and yes, we know his history.

    Once again you ignore the actual point: some suggestion about practical approaches to solving the problems that do exist in countries to our north. No comment from you on that?

    You instead choose to comment instead on invasion and our resources – this is not a threat about “the yellow/brown peril” … is there anyone with something relevant to say?

  20. togret you make some good points no i have not travelled extensively. except a couple of third world country’s just as a visitor because i wanted to see for myself.

    just one small question i would like to ask .

    if there is no problem with the huge increase in asylum seekers why dose not the govt house them on the east coast where over 90% end up anyway. and just how many (genuine refugees) have missed out because of these people who we all know for a proven fact some are not who the claim to be .

    if the govt was serious it would fund private rescue boats out of Indonesia who could legally tow boats who call for a free ride in indo waters to the nearest port where ever that is
    as far as helping out on the ground just how would you go about it and where would you start .

  21. Red crab: please name/ give statistics on the asylum seekers who have been found to be “not who they claim to be” … as far as I understand it, the vast majority are found to have valid claims for asylum. Who do you refer to? Please give evidence.

    I see no connection between your comment that 90% of asylum seekers end up on the east coast and the number of them who come.

    If you think that the pre-today law was invented to disadvantage the WA public (a guess on my part as to what on earth you are driving at) I wonder that you don’t understand that Christmas Island (and Naurou and Mannus ISland) are chosen to make it difficult for assistance and suport to be given to perfectly legal asylum seekers. No more, no less. The law was passed to exclude Xmas Island form our law formigration purposeds in a mean and tricky attempt to have them fade out of hte public awareness.

    The Indonesians don’t want to do Australia’s dirty work for it – how hard is this to understand? We are seen in the rest of the world and the neighbourhood as selfish and greedy – and of course that is true.

    What could we do? Put pressure onthe Sri Lankan’s to treat their minorities according to law and humanitarian principles woudl be a good start, although they’d laugh up their sleeves I suppose since we don’t do tha ourselves.

  22. Red crab: please name/ give statistics on the asylum seekers who have been found to be “not who they claim to be” … as far as I understand it, the vast majority are found to have valid claims for asylum. Who do you refer to? Please give evidence.
    i think it was 4corners or some show like that uncovered a whole family living in Canberra they proved the head of the family was a people smuggler who came in via christmas island the rest of the family must have known of this before
    my question is why are they all still here.

    If you think that the pre-today law was invented to disadvantage the WA public (a guess on my part as to what on earth you are driving at)

    no i don’t think that its to disadvantage w.a although it has in some ways .
    i think it is to hide the facts away from the majority of australians who mainly live in nsw vic. and qld only for political reasons
    i also think cost to tax payers could be halved and access to legal help for asylum seekers would be much easier i think you would agree with that .

    The Indonesians don’t want to do Australia’s dirty work for it
    really !!
    why would they we should be looking after our own borders not some other country sefish and greedy ???? stupid more like it

    i wonder just how long it would take for Indonesia to act if Australia sent a patrol boat into there territorial waters other than to relive them of people they don’t want.

    and just how would Australia put pressure on the Sri Lanka i don’t think we have much to bargain with except some aid we supply from time to time and who would be affected only the people who need it most .

    you have to do better .

  23. red crab – still no constructive suggestions.

    _I_ have to do better?!? What nonsense.

    Best wishes for your future. You won’t be seeing me again.

  24. thanks togret
    your ok

    at least you have stuck to you beliefs and not run for cover like some others .

    i respect that

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