Politics and Panic over Oz's Boat People Problem

Australia is now sending refugees again to the bedraggled island of Nauru just like the Howard government did almost a decade ago. Accommodations there are makeshift tents with little ventilation and very basic conditions. Desperation has led to cases of self-mutilation, hunger strikes, and attempted suicides.

The Australian government talks about the facility in Nauru being a "Best Practice " with recreation and sporting facilities, internet, and excursions, etc. In reality the Nauru camp is not much more than a prison camp in hot and humid conditions where people are denied access to basic amenities and confined to their tents. There is little transparency as the Australian authorities have closed off the facilities to the media. In addition the government just last week began resending refugees to Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

According to 2011 UNHCR figures there are about 23,500 refugees in Australia. Most boat people come from Afghanistan (1,613), Iran (1,549), Iraq (542), and Sri Lanka (362), where some academics speculate that Australia's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was partly the trigger for these flows of refugees coming to Australia on boats. 5,175 refugees arrived by boat in 2011 which accounted for only 49 percent of total refugees coming into Australia.

The other 51 percent or 6,316 refugees tend to have more financial means of support and are able to obtain tourist visas and arrive by plane from China (1,122), India (555), and Egypt (427). but the numbers of boat people have increased dramatically, to more than 12,000 this year, bringing a sense of panic to the Gillard government.

When one considers that Australia's total migrant intake each year is around 180,000, the number of refugee arrivals by boat is relatively an insignificant and has required an over-proportion of resources to set up and operate detention camps in far off places like Christmas Island and Nauru. In addition a number of motels have been converted into makeshift detention centers around Darwin. putting upward pressure on accommodation costs for locals.

Very little is done by authorities about those who come into the country by plane and overstay their tourist visas. This is actually a much more serious matter as unlike the boat refugees, those who have flown into the country have deceived Australian authorities at the time of making their visa applications.

These issues are basically ignored by the media because higher costs for accommodation in Darwin and immigration incompetence in screening visa applicants doesn't make as good a story as the country being swamped by people arriving by boat. To some degree the media has replicated the government's line, but at least over the last few months some investigative journalists are now seeking the truth, which the government appears to be covering up and the opposition doesn't want to talk about.

Both sides of Australian politics while in government have played on the fear of being overrun by refugees. The government has played up the fact that refugees are paying for passage and trying to circumvent Australian immigration rules, painting them as opportunists rather than refugees. "People smugglers" predominate the narrative by the minister and immigration spokespeople giving a narrow and distorted view of the whole issue of refugees, while visa over-stayers are hardly mentioned, where a great lapse in enforcement exits in this area.

The Australian Human Rights Commission voiced concern about the physical and mental health services for people in immigration detention and concern over the prevalence of self-mutilation and suicide. The commission has also voiced concerns that the government is also trying to avoid its international obligations by transferring asylum seekers to third countries.

The government has made policy on the assumption that if it goes soft on boat arrivals the country will be flooded. This Austro-centric view has been long in the Australian psych ever since the days of the old white Australia policy where "everybody" wants to come and settle in the country.

The reality is that most refugees prefer Europe, the United States or Canada to Australia, which is evident in the much larger number of refugees that are now in those countries awaiting processing. In the UK alone there are almost 10 times the number of refugees awaiting processing as in Australia.

However this policy is very useful for winning votes, and probably won John Howard the election in 2001 when he falsely claimed refugees were throwing their own children overboard to seek asylum.

In response to a rapid rise in refugees arriving by boat, Prime Minister Gillard has turned 180 degrees implementing her version of the "Pacific Solution" identical to the Howard policy she condemned in 2003 as "costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle." Gillard blames factors like the Sri Lankan civil war, which actually ended more than three years ago. But as Howard knows facts never gets in the way of good rhetoric that can emotionally sway the Australian people. Innuendo about asylum seekers concealing terrorists has turned the Australian public against boat people, encouraging the government to take firm action.

Just recently three eminent Australians led by the former Defense Chief Angus Houston strongly criticized the billions of dollars spent on enforcement and the unnecessary lives lost through the government's policy. The panel went on to say that Gillard's policy is truly costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle, in the same rhetorical language Gillard used in 2003.

In addition the math behind the governments logic is dubious to say the least. In the "Malaysian solution" mooted last year, which failed to pass the Senate earlier this year, Australia agreed with Malaysia to take 4,000 people registered as refugees in Malaysia for 800 refugees sent by Australia for offshore processing over four years. However this deal fell through when human rights lawyers pointed out that Malaysia was not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention or UN Convention Against Torture. In Nauru, it will cost A$1.7 billion to house 700 refugees for four years.

The irony, if not hypocrisy of the story is that Australia just introduced a new immigrant visa that will be granted to anybody investing A$5 million in Australia, exempting requirements for family ties, language, and professional qualification requirements. This takes all fairness and equity out of immigration policy, the justification made in the first place for the "Pacific Solution." What’s more, the annual bill to the Australian taxpayers for the "Pacific Solution" is in excess of A$2 billion per annum, not forgetting more than 700 deaths on the high seas.

The immigration debate in Australia has sacrificed humanitarian concerns for politics, with the government ignoring outright criticism from human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International. Will the Pacific and Asia be strewn with Australian detention camps in the near future?

(Murray Hunter is an Australian academic teaching at a Malaysian university.)