By: Elliott Brennan

Despite evident dangers, irregular maritime migration through Southeast Asia tripled between 2012 and 2014, with countless people dying. Often, rather than finding refuge, these people are sold into sex slavery or other forms of modern-day servitude by people smugglers. Indeed, human traffickers have profited greatly in trafficking in this human misery. 

In recent years, few countries have been able to engage in meaningful debate on the issue without a descent into the rancor or populism on either side of the popular discourse. Governments the world over have for years floundered over the issue. As a result, rather than expanding refugee intakes from source countries, those seeking asylum have had to embark on treacherous and often deadly sea voyage.

Europe has been divided by the issue, figuratively and very literally in the Brexit, where immigration was a core concern. Most recently this was demonstrated in the election victory of U S President-elect Donald Trump, a win forged in the fires of xenophobia.  Nations have been torn apart by the same putrid stuff.

Australia Flip-flops

 Australia, historically a favored destination country for irregular migration through Southeast Asia, has itself for decades flip-flopped to its detriment, and the lives of many, on the issue of irregular maritime migration. Indeed, the issue has been dragged through election after election. Successive government policies that saw offshore processing and detention facilities as panacea and attempted to treat symptoms, resulted in bad policies that have punished individuals rather than addressing root problems.

That dilly-dallying, which encouraged dangerous voyages and allowed the proliferation of human trafficking, became an institutional failing of successive Australian governments. A raft of new policies by the Turnbull government in 2016 offers a sign that Canberra may have found the mettle for common sense policy. The policy includes the emptying of detention facilities in Nauru and Manus Island through a unique deal with the US. It is, stressed Prime Minister Turnbull, a “one-off agreement – it will not be repeated.”

Under this “one-off” deal, the US will include those deemed refugees from these facilities in their annual UNHCR refugee intake, with a priority on vulnerable refugees such as women and children. Those refugees that don’t accept the resettlement will stay on Nauru or Manus Island. Those that don’t receive refugee status, such as economic migrants, may be returned voluntarily to their home countries. Under the stated policy, others will be granted a 20-year visa on Nauru and restricted from travel to Australia. Detention of any new arrivals by boat will remain on Nauru.

Canberra talks tough

This one-off policy has been reinforced by tougher new statements from government that emphasizes that the “door is closed” for boat arrivals to Australia. The message from the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders was clear, stating:

“To the people smugglers, my message is simple: we have re-enforced our offshore law enforcement and intelligence cooperation…your boats will be intercepted and they will be returned safely.”

Supporting this tough stance and the one-off policy announcement, Australia has reinforced its on-water and surveillance posture, operating the “largest maritime operation” in its peacetime history.  Up to a dozen patrol boats and a supporting Royal Australian Naval warship, as well as offshore patrol vessels from the Australian Border Force have been deployed to create what the government has termed a “Ring of Steel.” 

The government has emphasized that any people smuggling boats attempting to reach Australia will be intercepted and turned back.

The recent one-off policy announcement comes as part of a series of new policy this year, including:

  • introduction of legislation on a lifetime visa ban on those who arrive through irregular means, such as by boat to Australia, meaning these individuals will not be able to travel to or visit Australia at any point in the future; and
  • an increase in the country’s refugee intake through regular, non-maritime arrivals, i.e. through the UN system.

These responses are a clear break from previous dilly-dallying and mixed messaging from successive Australian governments.

Australia, and the region more broadly, needs to tackle the root causes of migration. Rancor aside, refugee policies can be compassionate and tough. Indeed, if Australia’s policy is to avoid mass deaths at sea, as were seen in 2015, it cannot be compassionate without being tough. If Australia is to remain a bastion of progressive democracy in the region, its policy can’t be tough without being compassionate.

Hitting the reset button

The government’s one-off policy to empty detention facilities hits the reset button and allows it to strike the right balance between those two attributes. Legislating a lifetime visa ban on arrivals by boat supports the upholding of the regional rule of law that supports a UN-led refugee intake system. It also simultaneously helps break human trafficking networks and dissuades people from taking an often-deadly sea voyage across treacherous waters. Similarly, improvements in surveillance and patrols support national security objectives and the government’s increases to regular refugee intakes support it being a good global citizen. 

These measures offer a new approach from Australia. But irregular migration is a regional issue with regional implications, not the least the enrichment of trafficking networks and the proliferation criminality they support. In order to prevent the scourge of human trafficking in the Asia and the multiplication of human misery it supports, regional cooperation is needed to tackle the root causes of irregular migration.

Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Sweden.