When conflicts intensify around the world, and particularly in our region, Australia will inevitably receive a small share of people who cannot find safe haven through official resettlement programs. Some countries deal with thousands arriving directly by land routes over borders; Australia intercepts small numbers of asylum seekers coming by boat and air.
In desperation people sell everything they own, or they borrow money from distant relatives, friends or unscrupulous money lenders, to buy their way to safety. Numerous refugees escaping their homelands in 2001 risked dealing with people smugglers, or “agents”, because they knew of no other way. Some travelled by boat to Australia because it was the cheapest of the options offered by agents, not because they knew anything about Australia or about our policies.
The Opposition’s current claims that the Rudd Government’s policies are causing more people to come by boat lack credibility and reek of political desperation. Agents are not at all interested in whether their human cargo is processed in Nauru or Christmas Island or if people will receive a temporary or permanent visa, and they rarely tell asylum seekers the truth about what they will encounter in destination countries anyway. The often impoverished Indonesians employed to drive the boats are equally exploited and seldom understand the heavy penalties they will face once intercepted by the Australian Navy.
But perhaps more significantly, the message of “softer policies” that the Opposition is inadvertently sending out around the world may cause some people to contemplate making the dangerous journey.
While the Rudd Government has, without too much public fuss, brought in a somewhat more humane approach to dealing with asylum seekers on arrival, Malcolm Turnbull’s Opposition has for many months claimed that current policies are sending a message that we are “open for business” for people smugglers. Most vocal has been Shadow Immigration spokesperson Sharman Stone broadcasting ad nauseam that the Government’s policies are sending a “green light” to people smugglers to “come on down” and that Australia is now a “soft touch”.
Whether vulnerable people are actually acting on these comments is difficult to discern but there is no doubt that the Opposition’s claims have now been more widely advertised around the world in the aftermath of the recent boat explosion. It is a risky political game to be playing and if the Opposition is genuine in their concern about sending the right messages to asylum seekers and people smugglers they should perhaps choose a quieter strategy.
In a world where conflict and persecution remain rampant and millions of people are displaced, it seems highly unlikely that people smugglers will ever be driven out of business. Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia are just a few of the countries in our region where finding an agent is always easy. If you are desperate and can put together enough cash, someone will get you to wherever you need to go. Passports and visas can be easily purchased and customs officials bribed for seamless passage over any border.
There are of course many people who will never find enough money or a process to reach safety and they will likely suffer for long years in desperate situations. The world is not offering solutions for most of these people, officially or unofficially, regardless of whether people smugglers are in business or not.
A recent worldwide surge in people seeking asylum has meant an intensification of the people trade close to Australia but this has not happened overnight and it did not begin under the Rudd Government.
In February 2007, under the Howard government, 83 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were intercepted and taken to Nauru via Christmas Island. I spent many months talking to these men in Nauru and only one person I asked had ever previously heard of Nauru or the Pacific Solution. No one seemed to know anything about temporary protection visas and even if they had known, most said, they still would have come anyway.
In 2006 the ongoing civil conflict in Sri Lanka had intensified significantly with greater numbers of people displaced and increasing reports of minority Tamils being persecuted. These 83 men trying to reach Australia were just a few of those who had fled from their home country during this time, desperate to find a secure and safe life.
In Indonesia in 2006 there were already many agents offering places on boats to Australia. With nowhere else to go in a world where less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees ever secure a formal resettlement place, the boat trip seemed the only option for the Sri Lankans. Two of the men had already received refugee status in Indonesia but it would take many more years before a safe country “might” even consider taking them.
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