By Walter Wonnacott
New Prime Minister Julia Gillard has now turned to what is undoubtedly Australia’s most incendiary political issue: what should be her government’s approach to new arrivals seeking asylum?
N ew Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been fighting political fires since replacing the ailing Kevin Rudd on 24th June. Her first priority was to overturn the lead in the polls held by the opposition Liberal-National coalition. Her new Minerals Resource Rent Tax, while tipping the balance in favour of the miners, has attracted a generally positive response from most observers and restored the Labor Party’s poll advantage.
Ms. Gillard has now turned to what is undoubtedly Australia’s most incendiary political issue: what should be her Government’s approach to new arrivals seeking asylum?
Particular concern has been raised regarding the recent increased numbers of claimants arriving by boat and also towards the policy introduced in April regarding Afghans and Sri Lankans, when Mr. Rudd declared a freeze on processing asylum claims from these nationals for three months. The new Prime Minister has now delivered a speech aimed at restoring confidence in her Government on this polarising issue. The historical context is key.
Australia is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and has international obligations to meet in this regard. Australian Government policy towards those seeking international protection has been rather strict by international standards. The former Labour Government of the 1990’s introduced a system of detention primarily aimed at asylum seekers. In 2001 under Prime Minister John Howard, the ‘Pacific Solution’ policy implemented the use of offshore detention centres for all asylum applicants.
This policy was incredibly polarising in Australia and beyond. Detainee hunger strikes, reports of mental and physical abuse and long-term detention of families including children were just some of the controversial issues largely brushed aside by the Howard Government. In 2008, the new Labour Government of Kevin Rudd rescinded the Pacific Solution and set about implementing a new approach. Those arriving by boat would still generally be held in detention (to deter others from taking the same route), but children and those considered to pose no threat to the community would no longer be detained while their asylum claims were processed.
While these changes have been widely praised by refugee organisations in Australia and internationally, internal tensions over this policy change have been rising, notably promoted by the straight-talking Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Speaking at an Immigration Detention Centre in May, Abbott stated “The cruellest thing you can do is put in place policies that encourage people smugglers to put desperate people’s lives at risk in leaky boats on the open sea. There is nothing compassionate about policies which encourage people to put their lives at risk and that’s the problem with the Rudd government’s policies.” Critics argue that Abbott’s expressed concern is a smokescreen for his preference to severely restrict the numbers of people able to seek asylum in Australia.
The increasing number of people attempting dangerous journeys to Australia by sea over the past two years has prompted a renewal of interest in the Pacific Solution. The numbers of people arriving by boat has returned to levels not seen since 2001: approximately 2700 arrivals in over 60 boats in 2009 and over 3500 in 75 boats so far this year.
The statistics are hotly contested. Abbott identifies a connection in the reduction of attempted entries by boat after the 2001 policy and an increase since its termination in 2008. Others present the UNHCR’s figures showing a 50% reduction of asylum seekers arriving in all industrialised countries between 2001 and 2006 (down to a 20-year low in 2007) followed by a continual increase after 2007, indicating that Australia’s figures closely matched global trends irrespective of specific policy changes.
However, the increase in asylum applicants arriving by boat has piled the pressure on the government, especially as the easy correlation to make is to the rescinding of the Pacific Solution. It is hardly a coincidence that only Afghan and Sri Lankan nationals were targeted by the recent freeze on assessing asylum claims: these two nationalities make up the significant majority of those who have arrived by boat in the past two years.
Against People Smuggling
There is no likely return to the 1980’s when Australia attracted virtually no asylum claimants arriving by boat. People smuggling has become a lucrative global industry, and the scale has attracted considerable sophistication. Clearly smugglers are able to convince Sri Lankans that the high cost and risks of the journey from, for example, Indonesia will be outweighed by a likely grant of status in Australia.
In this context Ms. Gillard’s speech is potentially a rather astute political announcement, though perhaps only for the short term. Not wishing to relinquish the approach implemented since 2008, she has promised a “frank, open, honest national conversation on the issues of border protection and asylum seekers.”
Her main policy declaration is perhaps unsurprising: “it is to wreck the people smuggling trade by removing the incentive for boats to leave their port of origin in the first place.”
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently announced tough new laws to try to catch people smugglers and deter would-be asylum seekers from attempting the perilous journey, so this approach has strong regional support. Ms. Gillard indicated that progress has been made to establish a regional processing centre in East Timor, though this concept is in its infancy.
Sri Lankan Applications
Considering the UNHCR report on Sri Lanka of 5th July, Ms. Gillard stated that all Sri Lankan applications shall now be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The new UNHCR report withdraws the assertion in the April 2009 Report that all Tamils from the North are at indiscriminate risk of serious harm, maintaining that some groups are still at risk. By withdrawing the recent policy with regard to Sri Lankan claimants, Ms. Gillard effectively betrayed the lack of evidence for the policy’s introduction in the first place. It appears that the freeze on processing Sri Lankans’ claims was rather a stalling tactic in the expectation of a UNHCR report more restrictive in its guidance, which could then be applied to refuse the increased number of claimants.
Therefore, despite this apparent conciliation Ms. Gillard included the following abrupt statement: “So I have a message for people in Sri Lanka who might be considering attempting the journey to Australia. Do not pay a people smuggler, do not risk your life, only to arrive in Australian waters and find that far, far more likely than not you will be quickly sent home by plane.”
When considered in the round, the circumstances should be broadly encouraging for Ms. Gillard. The increase in numbers of arrivals is not unique to Australia (Italy saw an increase in asylum applications from 2007-2008 of 144%). The increased activity and success of the people smugglers is being tackled by new laws across the region and the different approach to how asylum applicants are processed has improved Australia’s reputation internationally and attracted considerable internal support.
Ms. Gillard is likely to have weathered the storm for the time being, her speech identifying key areas in which the Opposition’s approach may appear naïve. However, Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott, both immigrants to Australia from the UK, are little closer to resolving this most controversial of subjects. The Australian election is scheduled for October 2010.