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Analysis: The great Asian immigration conundrum

The 'boat people' problem sends Australia's PM in search of solutions

<p>An asylum seeker rescued off the coast of Indonesia in August, 2012 (AFP photo by Bay Ismoyo)</p>

An asylum seeker rescued off the coast of Indonesia in August, 2012 (AFP photo by Bay Ismoyo)

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • Australia
  • July 1, 2013
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The next two weeks may well prove vital if there is to be any progress on a regional approach to the enduring problem of asylum seekers.

Why? Because that is about all the time the new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has to fix a long running political sore for Australia and an ongoing challenge especially for Indonesia and Malaysia.

The sore and the challenge is the almost daily arrival of ‘boat people’ to Australia including the regular enough tragedy of boats capsizing and the occupants drowning.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Rudd heads to Jakarta to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to address the issue.

If he doesn’t get a satisfactory result, he heads into the Australian election in the next two months without the resolution of an issue that the opposition will surely use to punish him.

But what is the solution? Everyone – in Australia and regionally – is agreed that only a regional approach to a shared problem will produce any durable outcomes.

What is bizarre about this issue in Australia is that for years the number of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat is outnumbered by those arriving by air, sometimes by a factor of three or four. Yet the almost exclusive focus of the media, political parties and public discussion remains on the ‘boat people’ and this distorts the focus of the issue.

Indeed, the largest numbers of ‘illegals’ in Australia are Americans and British tourists or workers who overstay their visas. Moreover, when compared with the large numbers of asylum seekers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, Australia’s problems are small.

But politically, the issue is a lightning rod for whichever party is in power because the boat arrivals are perceived as a policy failure.

For the ‘boat people’ themselves, their risky travel provides no happy landing. Yet their numbers grow every year. Motivated by the fear of persecution (mostly in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan) and the desire to migrate to a more stable and prosperous country, the only explanation for their readiness to risk is surely their desperation.

Not all asylum seekers want permanent resettlement in Australia or any other third country, as the large numbers of displaced people along the Thai-Myanmar border will attest. Those refugees ultimately want to live in peace and harmony in their home, Myanmar.

And some, like the minority Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar, just want to find anywhere in the region that will give them a place to settle free of the abuse they receive in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.

But, over the last year, the number of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat has grown to over 25,000, offering plenty of fodder for TV news cameras and scope for critics of the Australian government.

Most leaving Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan come through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to board often unseaworthy vessels for the precarious last leg of the trip to Australia.

The issue has been a political football in Australia for 15 years, with all shades of the political spectrum using the issue to their own advantage while usually neglecting any common humanity or legal duty to the asylum seekers.

Now that Rudd is about to face an election, he can’t go to Australian voters without a solution to this enduring problem.

This is not simply an issue of Australian racism. There is a lot of fear and ignorance of Asia in Australia still, even with the bulk of migration coming from countries in this region. Chinese is now the second most spoken language in Australia after English. That’s quite a change for a country that has the largest Greek-speaking city outside of Greece in Melbourne.

The issue is the policy response to this shift in the nature of Australian society, and unfortunately most policies have failed.

The John Howard government (1996 – 2007) adopted a variety of deterrence measures costing billions of dollars that created detention centers in remote and inhospitable parts of Australia and processing centers in Nauru and Manus Island closer to Papua New Guinea than Australia.

In the assessment of the bureaucrats running these programs, this policy failed. It was judged unmanageable, too expensive and ended with 92% of all ‘boat people’ designated as refugees and being settled in Australia. And asylum seekers kept coming, albeit not in the same numbers.

The Rudd government (2007 – 2010) softened that approach, closing the processing centers and excluding children from detention. But that fueled the numbers of people coming over.

The Julia Gillard government (2010 – 2013) sought to develop an agreement with Malaysia that would see all those arriving by boats immediately sent there to be processed, repatriated or resettled.

This went up in smoke because critics of the Gillard government – inside and outside parliament – argued successfully that since Malaysia was not a signatory to any UN Conventions on refugees and the bilateral agreement itself had no binding force or sanctions, it was immoral and put asylum seekers at risk.

The deal suffered a death blow when Australia’s High Court ruled that it was in violation of Australia’s signed commitments to UN protocols for the protection of refugees.

The bottom line is that Australia is incapable of addressing this issue on its own. It is international in origin and regional in solution. Australia can only approach the issue in concert with regional partners, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. That’s what the Rudd visit this week is about.

There is a mighty precedent for how this approach can work. In the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese took to boats and fled their country to land in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

Through agreements and joint work, the governments of the region (Australia included) and the UN High Commission for Refugees resettled hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese all over the world – 140,000 of them in Australia.

It has been done before – a regional solution to a regional issue – but can it be done again?

 Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of UCA News.com

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