Stop the boats

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Today I want to write about stopping the boats—not the annual event that results in spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars to rescue supposedly well-trained crewmembers of high-tech, ocean-going yachts that make the voyage on the treacherous waters of the Tasman Sea and Bass Strait from Sydney to Hobart—the illegal trade in smuggling people seeking refuge from their homelands to find a better place elsewhere; the euphemistically-termed "irregular maritime arrivals".

While every person who participates in the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race is well aware of the risks involved, and our rescue operations are geared to assist people and vessels that get into difficulties on the high seas, the issues for asylum seekers are very different.  In the case of asylum seekers, we Australians are not so "accommodating".  For the most part, our politicians seem more concerned about political points-scoring rather than having a more genuinely sympathetic understanding of the need to address the real concerns of those fleeing persecution, seeking asylum in Australia—a land of opportunity for those willing to contribute to it.

It is unfortunate that, in this discussion, the victims are the asylum-seekers (or the taxpayers who have spent—perhaps wasted would be a better word—billions of dollars) whose welfare is hardly the primary concern of our Government.  I'm not suggesting, of course, that the Government is unconcerned about the welfare of taxpayers.  I'm also not suggesting that there isn't a willingness by Government to look at ways we can accommodate the tens of thousands of people who want to migrate to Australia, either.  The real question is more about whether we, as a country, understand what's at stake.

I haven't met anyone who does not have a view on this subject.  There are those who believe we need to grow our population through increased immigration just as there are those who fear that increasing our immigration intake will only add to this country's problems.  There are opposing views on the benefits and costs, both in economic and cultural terms, taken by both sides of this discussion.  Will an increased immigration intake improve or disadvantage us as a leading first-world nation?  That's a question every one of us must answer for ourselves and I don't think there's any simple "right" answer to that question.  The reason why I am writing this article is not to answer that question but to look at what this new Australian Government is doing and how well it is succeeding to that end.

Undoubtedly, during the previous Labor Government, Australia's response to these "irregular maritime arrivals" was unsuccessful overall.  Before the Labor Government took office in 2007, the previous Liberal-National Party [LNP] coalition Government's retaliation to these "irregular arrivals" was to declare parts areas of Australian territory exempt from processing applications for immigration—the "Pacific Solution" as it was then termed.  People arriving in these exclusion zones were generally held in detention for indefinitely long periods of time but were eligible for settlement in Australia under a Temporary Protection Visa [TPV] scheme while their asylum claims were processed.  The LNP Government believed that this was acting in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Refugee Convention although it was also argued that the treatment of asylum-seekers being held in detention was contrary to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights insofar as it failed to treat these people with dignity.  Therefore, the previous Labor Government abolished TPVs and instead reverted to a combination of "off-shore" processing and "permanent" visas.  Off-shore processing basically means that, if you arrive somewhere "off-shore" (e.g. Christmas Island), you would be left there while your refugee status was be assessed and, in all likelihood, allowed to settle in Australia under a Permanent Protection Visa.  This created further problems when these "off-shore" processing centres became overcrowded and detainees had to be transported elsewhere; elsewhere usually meant mainland Australia because no-one else in the region wanted to take these people.  This was like a godsend to the people-smuggling trade which could offer refugees the opportunity to gain a foothold and likely become a permanent Australian resident.

So, during the Labor Goverment's term of office from 2007 to 2013, the number of "irregular maritime arrivals" rose dramatically while the real beneficiaries of this activity were the people-smugglers who profiteered at everyone else's expense.  Perhaps it would be cynical to suggest that the LNP's fortunes also benefited from Labor's policy failures but I'll leave that for you to query the reasons why the LNP, when in Opposition, stymied the Government's attempts to address the problem of how to stop the flood of people entering the country illegally.

Should we be trying to stop the boats?

I think there are two main reasons why the present Government is pushing this "stop the boats" agenda:  (1) to reduce the incidence of unseaworthy vessels that are likely to capsize or sink on the open sea putting at risk the safety of those who travel aboard them and those who attempt to rescue them and (2) to drive down the illegal people-smuggling trade by making the market non-profitable.  As far as the present Government is concerned, it seems to be a matter of playing the numbers game.  It's not so much a question of what is the best humanitarian response to those who find themselves forced into a situation where lives are at risk nor is it a question of what is the best value for money in terms of the relief we send in these emergencies when they arise.  A simple five-word promise "We will stop the boats" is, probably, what people want to hear and one reason why the LNP Coalition was elected to Government.

But I think we're over-simplifying the issue.  Our history of success in "stopping the boats" has not been something to celebrate.  The Labor Government's plan under Paul Keating was mandatory detention and the Australian electorate rejected that plan in the 1996 election.  The LNP plan under John Howard was the "Pacific Solution" and the Australian electorate rejected that plan in the 2007 election.  The Labor Governments of Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were a mish-mash of off-shore processing and attempts to engage the region in a refugee exchange program.  The Malaysian "solution" failed in a High Court challenge because Malaysia was a non-signatory to the UN Charter on Refugees and the East Timor "solution" failed because someone forgot to ask the East Timorese if they were willing to participate in those plans.  Until Kevin Rudd returned to being the Prime Minister, the Labor Government was foundering in the "irregular maritime arrivals" crisis as yet another failure in a growing list of their non-achievements.

In August 2013, Kevin Rudd announced a complete turnaround in Labor asylum-seeker policy.  Under this new arrangement, people arriving illegally would denied entry to Australia under deals signed between Australia, Papua New Guinea and Nauru.  There has been a major decline in the number of these "irregular maritime arrivals" since then.  The question is whether the last Government can claim that it had "stopped" the boats—or, at the very least, slowed them down—or whether the incoming LNP Government can rightfully lay claim to this as the result of their military-style Operation Sovereign Borders [OSB] initiative?

None of the reasons I have suggested tackle the core problem that is how to address the pressure on Australia's immigration policy in response to a growing humanitarian problem.  On one hand is a border-protection issue:  the right of a sovereign nation to determine who is a "desirable" candidate to become part of that nation and enjoy all the rights, benefits and obligations that go with it and, at the same time, defend the nation's boarders against "undesirables".  The other issue is an immigration one and how we determine who should be allowed into the country is not just about the desirability of taking in people who will enrich our society with their skills but also to assist (as this county has always done) to find homes for people displaced through circumstances beyond their control.

But should we be trying to "stop the boats"?  The reason why no-one has been able to answer this question adequately is because our major political parties avoid defining the problem for what it really is.  In my opinion, the problem is not about asylum seekers.  If the problem were only about asylum seekers, refugees, hardship, freedom from persecution and the genuine reasons why people seek refuge then we would not be so much concerned about cutting down on the numbers of migrants who want to settle here.  In my opinion, the problem is that we're not tackling the real problem:  the real problem is the illegal people-smuggling trade.  If, instead, we changed the catch-cry from "stop the boats" to "stop the people-smugglers" we might have more engagement and more commitment not only here in Australia but, more broadly, around the region

As soon as we reframe this issue around the illegal people smuggling racket, instead of confusing things with the multitude of genuine reasons why our immigration policy is just not working properly and why people feel compelled to attempt to bypass the long waiting queues because our intake of foreign migrants is so pathetically small, this changes the whole dynamic of the situation.  If, instead of saying "stop the boats"—which just sounds like political spin for "stop the asylum seekers"—and turn our attack on those involved in the illegal racket then everything changes and we have a lot more options.  But, while we're bogged down with blaming the asylum seekers and treating them as criminals, looking back on the lack of success by our Government is like watching doctors debating the symptoms of a disease while the patient is dying.  Perhaps, instead of "stopping the boats" we should be making better efforts to to find safe havens—new homes—for the world's displaced populations?

Turning around the boat trade

Unreliable estimates of the price that people have paid to go on a rickety old boat from west Java to Christmas Island are put at around $2,000 with some families paying over $10,000 for tilt at freedom.  Leaving aside how it is possible for these people to possess such amounts of money when many of them arrive with little more than the clothes on their back and precious little else, $2,000 sounds like something you'd pay for trip on a cruise ship instead of what these folk endure.

The voyage from the southernmost region of west Java to Christmas Island is about 200 nautical miles (380 km) which is about the same distance by ship from Melbourne to Devonport (210 nautical miles or 390 km).  Whereas the voyage from Melbourne to Devonport via the Spirit of Tasmania takes between 9-11 hours and the cost of a deluxe cabin is $550, conditions aboard an Indonesian fishing boat are far different.  Most of these vessels are incapable of speeds over 10 knots which means that the Java-Christmas Is. voyage would probably take around 20 hours.  There's not fancy survival equipment on board these boats; there's probably no fancy GPS navigation system or functioning radio.  These vessels are not inspected regularly (if at all) by the authorities for seaworthiness.  In fact, instead of being the cruise of a lifetime for piled about these craft it's probably their worst nightmare.

Here's a radical idea.  Instead of the Australian Government spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on rescue operations, patrolling the Indian Ocean and doing whatever it is that our Navy does to intercept the boats, why not turn the whole thing around and legitimise the market?  The Coalition Government is always harping on about how to reduce waste and red-tape and how to incentivise and welcome new innovative opportunities for Australian business.  If that's the case, why doesn't some enterprising Australian shipping company start a ferry service out of Christmas Island?  Apparently there's no shortage of passengers willing to pay the fare and, if the cost of purchasing a one-way "first class" trip from Java to Christmas Island is truly around $550 we could clean up the trade in next to no time.

Remember, too, that Australia needs all the help we can get to promote world-class tourism.  The current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, was the former head of Tourism Australia and was responsible for the "Where the bloody hell are you?" advertising campaign.  I'm fairly sure that, when refugees in their hundreds step off the gangplank on arrival at Flying Fish Cove, they'll probably be asking themselves that very question—"Where the bloody hell are we?"—and book return passage on the next ship back to Java unless we have world-class tourist facilities waiting for them on their arrival.

If I have offended people by trivialising the true desperation of people seeking refuge, whatever the cost, I sincerely apologise.  My intention was not to criticise people who will use any means to overcome Australian immigration red-tape but rather to highlight the absurdity of the Government's own uncompromising failure to address the problem.

Slogan-based policies

Attempts by our Government to address the people-smuggling problem with the use of simple slogans like "Turn back the boats" have not worked.  It may even be illegal for Australian vessels to intercept these boats, to turn them around or tow them back to Indonesian waters.  It would seem that such attempts would only succeed if Indonesia co-operated with Australia to allow Australian Navy ships into Indonesian territorial waters with a vessel under escort or under tow and be allowed to dump it there.  The Indonesian Government is not showing signs that it is is willing to co-operate with Australia in such activities at the moment.

Stop the boats. Turn back the boats. Buy the boats. The message was relentless during the federal election campaign. But did the Coalition say asylum seeker boats should be towed back to where they came from?  Given the questionable legality of the matter, the Coalition seems to have done a half-flip on this idea.

So how successful have these slogan-based policies been?  We just don't know.  The public cannot obtain details about OSB because of its military nature and the advice of the military command to not comment on "operational matters".  Before the election, the previous LNP Opposition would pepper the Labor Government with daily questions designed to highlight Labor's failures.  After the election, the LNP Government then announced that "details" would be announced in weekly media conferences.  Instead of full and frank disclosure we only get little spoonfuls of what purports to be the truth.  These weekly media conferences have been universally condemned by the press as a waste of time.

The result has been a war of words between the Government and the press.  This is what the Government has to say:

I strongly suggest that the media should more thoroughly interrogate the sorts of claims that are being represented to you. The government is not ­going to be in the habit of ­responding to every fanciful ­notion which is put forward.Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, press conference 18 October 2013

Whether or not the press has a right to know the details is only one part of the issue.  The bigger issue is whether the Australian people have a right to know whether the "Stop the boats" policy is working.

If you want to be a minister in this parliament, if you want to be accountable to the Australian people, they have a right to know. They have a right to know through the press gallery and through the media and they certainly have a right to know under the Westminster system within this parliament and on the floor of this Parliament.Tony Burke MP as quoted on Media Watch 18 November 2013

From "Stop the boats" to "Hide the boats"?  The electorate voted for this Government on the basis that it would address the problem and we just have no way of knowing if they're succeeding as much as whether they're going about things in the right way.

Is there a workable strategy to stop the boats?

Irregular maritime arrivals 1998-2013Looking at "irregular maritime arrivals"—Minister Morrison wants these to be called illegal arrivals—the bald figures seem to suggest that some strategies have worked better than others.  The graph at the left only shows total arrivals per calendar year and does not really show how trends have changed dramatically in 2013.

In the dying weeks of the previous Labor Government, Prime Minister Rudd announced a total change in policy direction from "off-shore processing" with the prospect that people arriving "illegally" would eventually be granted Permanent Visa status, to implementing a program of relocating these "illegals" to other countries that had agreed to take them, namely Papua New Guinea and Nauru.  One month, between making this announcement and the election on 7 September, was insufficient to gauge the effectiveness of this new strategy.

Following Labor's defeat in the election, the new Coalition Government has taken the moral high-ground by continuing to repudiate Labor for its total failure to do anything and taking total credit for all success as the result of its OSB initiatives.  Can the Coalition rightly make those claims?  This is again a controversial subject that has been hotly discussed by political analysts and opinion is divided on that question.  The ABC Fact Checker suggests that Minister Morrison may be right to claim that Coalition policy has been effective but that he may also be drawing a long bow to suggest that the effectiveness is solely because of the incoming Government's approach or, at least, he's not telling the whole story.

Asylum seekers arriving by boat: weekly 19 July - 29 November 2013The graph on the right gives a more detailed picture of the situation for 2013 and it's interesting to compare the reduction in illegal arrival activity with the Government's claims that OSB is the reason for that reduction.  The graph shows that illegal arrivals were already trending downwards before the Coalition implemented OSB.

It's taken me several days of searching for information, double-checking the facts in order to try to piece together this jig-saw puzzle about who is right and what is right.  I admit that I have not admired the political "solutions" put in place by any governments over the last decade or longer but, neither, am I an advocate of some more extreme views, like the Australian Greens—which is close to removing all restrictions on immigration—or the Australia First Party—which wants us to close our border to all persons claiming refugee status.

Whatever the solution, I'm just as confused as everyone else in the country about (a) what our Government is trying to do, (b) how our Government is going about doing it and (c) keeping us in the loop.  No real answers here; just a lot more questions.

The Coalition's pre-election promise was unequivocal: in the first 100 days of office, it would take ''immediate action'' to reclaim control of Australia's borders.

Its Real Solutions policy blueprint vowed: ''We will immediately give new orders to the Navy to tackle illegal boat arrivals and turn back the boats where safe to do so.''

But in no other policy sphere has the government's soaring rhetoric crashed more forcefully into reality than in its boats policy.Stop the boats policy all talk, no action", The Age, 15 December 2013
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