Some naive, albeit well meaning, types never learn. Interviewed on ABC metropolitan radio yesterday, the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young defended onshore processing of asylum seekers in Australia. This despite the fact that yet another boat containing asylum seekers sank off Java on Saturday, en route for Christmas Island.
Australia is a wealthy democracy. It has a generous welfare system and excellent, publicly-funded health and education services. Clearly, Australia is a magnet for asylum seekers.
Many asylum seekers – particularly those from North Africa and the Middle East – come in groups by boat, usually after destroying their personal papers and paying substantial funds to people smugglers. The Coalition government, during John Howard’s prime ministership, found that putting up a red flag reduced the number of unauthorised boat arrivals and, consequently, the number of deaths by drowning.
Senator Chris Evans, when immigration minister in 2008, announced a softening of the Howard government’s policy. Labor effectively replaced the Coalition’s red flag with what was an amber flag to some and a green flag to others. The facts speak for themselves. Between 2002 and 2008, a total of 25 boats arrived on Australian shores containing unauthorised arrivals. In 2009, the figure was 61 boats followed by 134 in 2010. Also the number of asylum seekers on individual boats appears to be increasing. Hence the heavy death toll at the weekend.
Since the softening of the policy in 2008, some 300 asylum seekers are known to have drowned and two vessels (containing possibly 200 asylum seekers) appear to have been lost at sea. This works out to at least 500 deaths in just three years. And what solution does Hanson-Young have? Well, none at all. She said yesterday the “best way to smash the people smugglers’ business model is to take away the need for service”.
Hanson-Young seems to be saying that any asylum seeker who makes it to Indonesia or Malaysia, with the intention of taking a boat trip to Australia, should be accommodated under Australia’s refugee and humanitarian intake. Currently Australia takes some 13,500 refugees each year. Hanson-Young’s proposal, if implemented, would fill Australia’s quota with potential boat people – to the disadvantage of refugees who have been processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and are awaiting placement in a host country such as Australia.
There is considerable denial in the current debate on asylum seekers. In an extraordinary interview on the 7.30 program last month, Paul Keating criticised Australia for putting what he described as a fence around the place and (allegedly) declaring: “It’s verboten to cross the border.” Leigh Sales did not see fit to remind her guest that mandatory detention was introduced by the Keating government in May 1992 in order to send a message to Vietnamese asylum seekers that it was “verboten” to arrive in Australia without a valid visa.
Today Keating simply denies that he was the father of policies aimed at discouraging unauthorised boat arrivals. When Keating acted in 1992, the number of boats which had arrived the previous year was a mere six. This compares with close to 20 boats in the last two months alone.
Then there is Malcolm Fraser. Today the former Liberal prime minister is an advocate of onshore processing of asylum seekers. Yet this is not what happened when the Fraser government generously – and wisely – accepted tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees between 1976 and 1982. During the Fraser government, a mere 2059 asylum seekers arrived by boat. This compares with 5316 in 2001 (before the Howard government put out its red flag) and close to 7000 in 2010 (after Labor had pulled down Howard’s red flag).
Today the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, disagree about whether offshore processing of asylum seekers should take place in Malaysia or Nauru. Yet both government and opposition concede the only way to deter the boats – a consequence of which would be to diminish or eliminate the drownings – is to process asylum seekers offshore.
This leaves the likes of Hanson-Young and other well-meaning but naive advocates as the sole proponents of onshore processing in Australia, which serves as a magnet to asylum seekers.
It is understandable why asylum seekers take the considerable risk to win the glittering prize of entry to Australia. But it is reckless for the likes of Hanson-Young, intentionally or otherwise, to encourage such dangerous behaviour.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.