Arguments in Australia as irregular migrant flow becomes an election issue

Rowan Callick, in The Australian, 12 August 2013, where the title is “A Different Destination

callickTHE drama of this especially intense election campaign is being shadowed by a more bitter struggle being played out in the tropical zone to Australia’s north, on perilous seas and in remote islands. The characteristically bold – or impetuous – Kevin Rudd solution to the asylum-seeker dilemma initially shook up the opposition as much as it did the people-smugglers, threatening to prise away Tony Abbott’s popular grip on the issue, as intended.

146788-asylum-seeker-boatIt may not fully unravel by September 7, nor is it likely on present evidence to demonstrate sustained success by then, despite the claims of Immigration Minister Tony Burke that asylum-seekers in Indonesia now “realise that what they have paid for is no longer available to them”. About 1900 have arrived since Rudd’s Papua New Guinea-Nauru solution was struck, but numbers have moderated in recent days.

The context that counts, and that will continue to count long after the detritus of this election campaign has been swept away, is encapsulated in the distressing photo published on the front page of The Australian two weeks ago. This showed the tiny white coffin of 10-week-old Abul Fazal Jafari being carried into the hold of a plane on Christmas Island. He was one of about 100 people who paid for a passage to Australia on a rotting boat that sank 108 nautical miles north of the island.

Such detail as has emerged of the asylum-seeker deal so far has been chiselled out painfully by journalists, more through Rudd’s partners in PNG and Nauru than through Canberra. Far from a fully thought-through policy, it remains distinctly a work in progress, its ultimate success to be assessed by the number of asylum-seekers who continue to be lured into risking their lives at sea by the people-smugglers – and by the scheme’s impact on Australia’s relations with its close neighbours.

Indonesia, the source of most of the boats, holds the key to success or failure. Poor political judgments in recent years over Indonesian relations have precluded solving the issue via Jakarta. Springing the ban on exports to Indonesia of live cattle, the constant emotive carping on consular issues, often concerning Australian drug smugglers, and the vociferous lobby for independence for West Papua have all undermined Canberra’s ability to convince Jakarta to invest political capital in a solution.

If Canberra won’t invest its own political capital – for instance, by leaving consular issues to officials to deal with, or by defending continuing cattle exports – why should it expect the leaders of its far bigger neighbour, with challenges of its own, to do the same? The window of opportunity is closing fast, with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the most Australia-friendly president Indonesia has so far produced, required to stand down at next year’s election.

The asylum-seeker story starts far away from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, in a very different zone. It begins in a band of countries stretching from South Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Iran and Iraq. People who wish to leave these troubled lands, for myriad reasons, are flying in their thousands to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. They have no intention of settling in Malaysia or Indonesia, but they are aware that, especially as members of the ummah, the great Muslim global community, they will be assured of at least a degree of hospitality as they prepare for their more momentous step.

That is the journey to Australia, their destination.

Indonesia and Malaysia accept visitors from predominantly Muslim countries without requiring visas, though Indonesia is making an exception in the case of of Iran from August 20, and Malaysia is reducing the visa-free stay permitted for unnamed nationalities from 90 days to 14 days.

The push factors naturally shift. The recent election as President of Iran of Hassan Rowhani appears a mild victory for the disaffected middle-class from whose ranks most of the asylum-seekers come. But as asylum-seekers diminish from one source, those from another tend to grow. Even now, four years after the 26-year civil war ended in Sri Lanka, Tamils continue to pay to come by boat to Australia, although a safe haven is only a few kilometres away in India’s Tamil Nadu.

The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan may make life even more hazardous there for the Hazaras, another major source of asylum-seekers, increasing that flow.

The move to inject PNG into the centre of this core human and electoral issue has been attributed to Rudd alone. But it was PNG’s own can-do Prime Minister Peter O’Neill who suggested it. Since becoming Prime Minister a year ago, he has entrenched his authority, today commanding the support of 101 of the 111 MPs. He has steadily seized the initiative in PNG’s key relationship with Australia, commanding the agenda at talks with Julia Gillard in May and then with Rudd.

This has enabled the long-sought recasting of aid priorities along lines desired by the PNG government, and is being pitched in PNG as an act of charity by Port Moresby to bail out its former coloniser at a time of need.

“We are helping resolve an Australian issue,” says O’Neill, confident that his own country is considerably more stable politically right now than his neighbour down south. His chief migration officer, Mataio Rabura, believes that PNG’s newly trained assessors can determine within three to four weeks – far faster than the norm in Australia – whether an asylum-seeker is a bona fide refugee, allowing the genuine cases to be freed from detention, granted new special visas, and shifted swiftly into hostels, able to seek work.

This PNG Solution was presented, initially, to send a message that the mere prospect of having to live in such a country would so horrify asylum-seekers, they would give up. Critics suggested that the scheme would founder on hostility within PNG and on the numbers overwhelming its implementation capacity.

The former has no credibility, despite a demonstration by students. The latter may be tested in time, but there are no signs of panic as yet.

Fiji’s Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola, given ministries by successive military regimes, seized the opportunity of an invitation to visit Australia to denounce the O’Neill-Rudd deal: “History has shown us that such instability will have far-reaching ripple effects for not only PNG but the rest of the region.”

The tragic narrative of asylum-seekers and of the often desperate solutions devised to counter them is indeed unsettling for the whole region. The evidence indicates, however, that it is unlikely to rival the effects of seven years, and counting, of authoritarian military rule in Fiji, the country that has been the hub of the Pacific.

Nauru, like Manus, is eager to benefit economically from hosting processing centres. But it is one 100th the size of Manus and has less than a quarter of the population. To have 3000 asylum-seekers detained there would be the equivalent of a million people in camps in Sydney or Melbourne.

This is certainly now a regional issue, one that is proving educative for Australians about the neighbourhood, its remote islands and its sea routes.

Those who would accept all-comers castigate those who wish to restrain the flow as immoral and cruel. Those who favour strong deterrence point to the 1000 deaths at sea under the Rudd and Gillard governments as the epitome of immorality and cruelty.

But this election is being fought under new circumstances for what has been the most divisive issue confronting Australia this century. For tacit agreement has emerged within both major parties that tough measures are essential, for moral as well as for pragmatic reasons.

The fight, however bitter the rhetoric, is now essentially over the detail and, as the Coalition stresses, the capacity to implement, rather than over the strategy.

Does that mean that the asylum-seeker issue is already settled in the minds of most Australians? Not while the navy still needs to acquire specialist body-recovery equipment for its patrol boats, as The Weekend Australian’s Cameron Stewart revealed on Saturday. Not while Christmas Island still needs its tiny coffins.

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