Boat problem takes to the skies

Asylum seekers find new way to land Down Under

Boat problem takes to the skies Source: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

Cynics claim that winning the last three Australian federal elections has been relatively easy. The Liberal (Conservative) Party and its rural partner the National Party only needed a four-word slogan:

“We stopped the boats.”

The sentence makes no sense to people apart from Australian electors. Here’s a translation:  

Our party’s policies to deter Afghan, Iranian, Sri Lankan and other asylum seekers from heading to Australia on fishing boats mainly launched from Indonesia have been effective. So unless the opposition Australian Labor Party relaxes the rules there’s no need to be afraid.

Winning an election in a mature democracy is far more complex than one catchline, yet fear is a great driver in politics everywhere. The image of armadas heading Down Under, every creaking craft packed with distressed Middle Easterners, has terrified the occupiers of a continent settled – or invaded, as some claim – more than two centuries ago by boat people. They came from Britain.

Now the route is by air from Southeast Asia – yet the electorate seems unworried; tens of thousands have been successfully getting years of residence and work in Australia on claims for asylum later judged false.

The emotion in election campaigns – the latest this year – was foam-flecked with ocean imagery, like “opening the flood gates” and “being swamped by aliens.” However all major parties support policies of preventing refugees from sailing south and ensuring the few who are successful will never be admitted to Australia. 

Here are the facts according to an impartial source – the Federal Parliamentary Library in Canberra: Between 2002 and 2008 there were just a few seaborne arrivals, but in 2011 there was a surge of 403 boats carrying 25,173 people who boarded in Java.

Most had originally flown to Indonesia helped by criminal syndicates promising a swift passage to an imaginary welcoming Australia, allegedly hungry for workers.

New tactics to thwart the trade were introduced under the rubric The Pacific Solution.  

The Australian Border Force of naval and coastguard ships patrols the Arafura Sea and turns back “illegals”. The term resonates with voters but it’s wrong; international law allows asylum to be sought in another country.  

A heavy publicity campaign including cartoons was run in Indonesia warning against dealing with people smugglers. There are now around 14,000 failed asylum seekers stranded in the Republic, mainly around Jakarta.

In the year to last June, the Library reports three boats carrying a total of 45 passengers and crew were turned back.

These policies, bundled as Operation Sovereign Borders, have drawn praise from immigration authorities in Europe and the US struggling with similar problems.

Those who get through the cordon are held in Australian-funded processing centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea until they’re repatriated or resettled elsewhere. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, 647 remain in the centers.  Most are young men; some have been there for more than five years. 

Unlike Indonesia and other countries in the region Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee. This means it’s legally required to help those with “a well-founded fear of persecution” once they’re on Australian soil.  

The trick has been to keep foreign feet from treading Aussie beaches and so allowing claims for protection. It worked with the boats – though not with the planes, 

A new racket has been exposed and so far the government has been unable to resolve the problem. More than 95,000 have sought asylum after arriving on scheduled commercial flights in the past five years.

Most have been from Malaysia exploiting flaws in Australia’s immigration system.  Unlike Indonesians, Malaysians can apply for tourist visas on line and don’t get closely vetted.

Australian officials at Kuala Lumpur airport are reportedly turning away people from departure gates who don’t have enough money to cover their stay or have shonky travel plans. 

Those who do pass all checks and get to Australia wait till they’re out of the airport before revealing they’re not tourists or students but asylum seekers alleging they’ll be persecuted in their home country so need a temporary protection visa (TPV).

This allows them to stay for three years, work, study and access services like the government welfare system Centrelink. If eventually rejected they can seek a review. 

Immigration Minister David Coleman told journalists this month that 25,000 people are in Australia appealing against negative decisions. The process can take years.

The jobs the asylum seekers get are usually on the economy’s dark side, often through illegitimate labor hire companies supplying pickers and packers to the horticultural industry.

Others find work in brothels and Asian restaurants. Although often unlawfully paid below the Australian minimum wage of AUD 19 an hour, salaries are higher than in their homelands.

Even if the TPV holders’ bids to stay are ultimately unsuccessful many return home with full wallets after a long working holiday.

Curiously the arrival by air of an average 65 asylum seekers every day doesn’t seem to strike the same terror in voters – perhaps because the newcomers don’t look like the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They dress well and seem unthreatening.  Many are young women.  

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton dismissed suggestions that sea or air arrivals caused the same concerns

"If you've hopped onto a plane, you've got travel documents. We know who you are," he told the ABC. "We're able to work with Interpol or the country of origin to determine whether that person is a threat. We can look properly at their backgrounds.”

The claim that the government knows about the asylum seekers is debatable as people can move freely from city to city. In a multicultural community Asians don’t stand out. The police can only stop and question when they reasonably believe a law has been broken.

Australia takes 18,750 refugees a year under its Humanitarian Program, but these people are hand-picked from camps elsewhere in the world and helped to settle.

By international standards the Australian figures in this story are miniscule. The aid organization World Vision says Syria has 6.7 million refugees and Afghanistan 2.7 million. Several countries have more than half a million foreigners camped within their borders.

But for Australian electors the numbers still frighten – as the politicians know well – although only if the asylum seekers come by sea.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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