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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2040

‘For Those Who've Come Across the Seas’: Is Australia’s Asylum U-turn sound policy or smart politics?

By Charles Aruliah*

With an Australian federal election set for September, current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has hedged his bets on a series of daring political initiatives in the hopes of - as the Australians would say - ‘having another go’ at office.

Among the relevant issues, the topic of asylum seekers and the validity of Kevin Rudd’s Papua New Guinea or ‘PNG’ solution plays a prominent role in electoral discourse, and was a major source of contention during the most recent televised debate. Rudd’s solution would redirect all asylum seekers arriving by boat to neighbouring countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru, for processing and eventual resettlement should their refugee claims be genuine. The solution would also make settlement within Australia for those arriving by boat in all ways, impossible. But should such a drastic policy be enacted in the first place? Are Kevin Rudd’s calculations sound, or is his PNG solution only aimed at making his Labour party competitive on an issue it has traditionally been viewed as being soft on?

The most prominent justification for the PNG solution has been that it will deter people smugglers and “criminal operations which see children and families drowning at sea.” Indeed, an estimated 1100 people died trying to reach Australian shores since 2008 due in large part to the poor and overcrowded conditions of the boats used by smugglers. By advertising the fact that asylum seekers arriving by boat will not be allowed to be settled in Australia, Rudd is hoping to put smugglers out of business.

Rudd also argues that the PNG solution is necessary in order to “protect [Australia’s] ordered migration system and the integrity of [its] borders.” Since the currently ruling Labour Party assumed power the number of asylum seekers smuggled into Australia has increased from 23 in 2007-2008 to 7,379 in 2011-2012. The first few months of 2013 alone saw approximately 17,000 new arrivals. This dramatic influx of asylum boat arrivals creates a general perception that Australia has lost control of its borders and is facing a border security crisis, and opposition leader Tony Abbott has gone as far as calling it a ‘national emergency’.

Finally, the Rudd government argues that a tougher asylum policy is needed in order to deter asylum seekers arriving in Australia with illegitimate claims. Foreign Minister Bob Carr publicly stated his firm belief that a number of asylum seekers are merely economic migrants, particularly those arriving from Iran and Sri Lanka, and that some boats solely contain those seeking a better economic future rather than those who a genuinely fleeing persecution. Prime Minister Rudd has since voiced his support for Carr’s statement.

However, despite these arguments, there are a number of factors Rudd and his government have left out of their asylum equations. Certainly the Australia is justified in attempting to take action to prevent tragic drownings at sea which occur due to people smuggling activities. Yet despite the risks that accompany such illegal activity, the fact remains that since 2008, approximately 48,000 smuggled asylum seekers have made the journey safely to Australia – meaning that people are smuggled with a 97% success rate. This margin of success is more than enough for those willing to take the chance by boat rather than to be sent back to their home country. Even if the PNG solution works in reducing irregular boat arrivals to Australia, there are numerous other destinations for people smugglers; worldwide, there have been similar surges in asylum seeker arrivals in countries like Japan, Korea, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The arrival of 490 Sri Lankan asylum seekers off the coast of Canada in 2010 demonstrates the extent to which asylum seekers are willing to go for refuge.

Similarly, while the dramatic increase in asylum boat arrivals is certainly a cause for concern, it is a far cry from being considered a ‘national emergency.’ Australia receives a little under 3% of the total asylum applications made in industrialized countries and was only ranked 13th overall amongst industrialized countries in 2011 accepting asylum applications. While it may not be surprising that larger countries like the United States, France and Germany were amongst the top OECD destinations for asylum seekers, Australia was still topped by countries like Austria, Belgium, Sweden as well as several others, all of whom have significantly smaller populations.

Finally, the argument that asylum seekers arriving on boats are not in genuine distress or in direct threat of persecution is questionable at best. Certainly economics may be one of the reasons asylums seekers flee their homes, but it is only one factor amongst other political and social imperatives which motivate asylum seekers.

When comparing the asylum acceptance rates of those smuggled by boat compared to those who arrived through other means, the differences are quite stark; since 2008-09 the asylum approval rating for those smuggled into Australia has steadied around 90% and at times reached 100%, while the acceptance rate of asylum arrivals through other means has hovered at less than 50%. Such a difference is surely an indication of the legitimacy of the asylum claims of boat arrivals. Furthermore, Carr’s comments are based on the common misconception that asylum seekers are only attracted to industrialized countries for the economic promises they hold. In truth, it is developing countries in which the large majority of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers are found (around 80 percent). Despite the fact that Afghanistan was the largest source of asylum seekers in Australia for 2010, it pales in comparison to the 2.7 million which went to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran - 96.9% of all worldwide Afghan refugees for that year.

Rather than being a policy calculation, Rudd’s PNG solution is a political calculation which willingly plays on several public misconceptions for political gain. By overlooking factors such as Australia’s asylum capacity vis-a-vis other industrialized countries or the stories of genuine distress in which smuggled asylum seekers arrive, Rudd’s government is able to justify a policy which will, for all intents and purposes, remove Australia as a place of refugee thereby leaving its neighbours to pick up the pieces. And therein lays the real concern: that Rudd’s PNG solution might just work.

*Charles Aruliah is a Peace and Conflict Studies researcher and LankaCorps Fellow with the Asia Foundation. He is currently based at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

- Asian Tribune -

‘For Those Who've Come Across the Seas’: Is Australia’s Asylum U-turn sound policy or smart politics?
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