A Line In The Water
A fateful stand-off in August 2001 saw Australia’s treatment of boat arrivals shift from deterrence by example to deterrence by force. In this piece for Inside Story Peter Mares, Cranlana’s Lead Moderator, refreshes our memory of the Tampa affair, a decisive moment in Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and draws parallels with what is happening now as Afghans try to flee the Taliban regime.
The history of the Pacific Solution policy shows that offshore processing did not in fact “stop the boats”. Rather the success in deterring boats can be attributed to changes in Australia’s engagement with vessels at sea — namely “turnbacks and takebacks”.
If the Howard government hadn’t intervened on the Tampa, the boats would have kept coming, and probably in growing numbers. The increase in arrivals under Rudd and Gillard is evidence of that. This presents a dilemma for governments of any stripe when voters want them to secure Australia’s borders and maintain an orderly migration program. Yet leaders could make a greater effort to explain that Australia’s obligations under the international refugee convention don’t disappear simply because they are inconvenient.
On the other hand, to argue that we should simply deal compassionately with anyone who manages to make landfall in Australia is to risk lives at sea and let money and smuggling networks determine who gets protection and who does not. If we were to go down that route, then we would be better to fly refugees from Indonesia to Australia by plane — but that would encourage more and more desperate people to move there.
So the key question is how can we maintain an orderly migration program, making sure that people don’t die on perilous boat journeys, and fulfil our obligations under the international refugee convention?
As Mares notes “The choices aren’t simple. But we do know that interception and turnback doesn’t solve the refugee challenge; it simply pushes it elsewhere and forces people to take other risks or endure lives in limbo. (…) The real challenge is to work harder to build a coordinated regional response to refugee flows that treats displaced people with dignity and respect. If we committed the $1 billion-plus dollars a year we spend on offshore detention to supporting efforts in that direction, then who knows what we might achieve?”
Inside Story, 28 August 2021. Read the full article here.
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