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AUSTRALIA: Asylum Seekers at Centre of Political Squabble

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Apr 30 2009 (IPS) - Australia’s opposition and governing parties have been admonished for attempting to make ‘political capital’ out of the recent spike in asylum seekers trying to reach the nation’s shores by boat.

“The opposition is trying to make political mileage [out of the increase in boat arrivals] and it’s not just now, they’ve been saying the same thing for months,” says Professor Linda Briskman, an expert in asylum seekers and immigrant detention at Curtin University of Technology.

Since July last year, around 500 people have made the perilous journey by sea in an attempt to seek asylum in Australia – most via Indonesia, but some directly from Sri Lanka – compared to just 25 in the preceding twelve months.

Australian patrol vessels have apprehended eight boats since the beginning of 2009, including one on which an explosion occurred on Apr. 16 as it was being escorted by two navy boats. Five suspected asylum seekers died and dozens were injured. A police investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the conservative liberal-national coalition – the opposition in federal parliament – blames the “surge” in people arriving by boat on the “softened stance on border protection” adopted by the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Last year, the Rudd government ended the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ – under which asylum seekers were sent to detention centres in the Pacific nation of Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island while their claims were processed – and abolished the temporary protection visa (TPV) system.

TPVs were issued to people applying for refugee status after making an “unauthorised arrival” to Australia. TPV holders were required to regularly reprove their right for protection, thereby undermining their sense of security.

While such changes to the treatment of asylum seekers were widely welcomed by refugee advocates, they deny Turnbull’s assertion that the government’s policies are “soft.”

Briskman points to the fact that the mandatory detention of asylum seekers – for health, security and identity checks – remains in place, as does the excision from the country’s migration zone of Australian territories such as Ashmore and Cartier islands, which lie midway between Indonesia and Australia, and Christmas Island, further to the west.

Introduced under the previous Howard government – as was the ‘Pacific Solution’ and the TPV system – in 2001, their excision means that people arriving at these territories face far greater hurdles in receiving asylum in Australia than do those who make it to the migration zone.

Furthermore, the controversial Northwest Point detention centre on Christmas Island -constructed under the auspices of the Howard government – was made operational for the first time in December by the Rudd government. All asylum seekers apprehended before making it to Australia’s mainland are taken to the isolated territory.

“I don’t think we can really say that the policies are soft at all,” says Briskman, co-author of ‘Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia,’ which last year received the Australian Human Rights Commission’s award for literature in the non-fiction section.

The government maintains that other factors, such as worsening conditions in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have led to the increase in boats trying to reach the mainland.

This point was also made in March by Richard Towle, regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), upon the release of a report by the agency into the levels and trends of asylum claims in industrialised nations in 2008.

“Insecurity, persecution and conflict around the world are leading to greater numbers of people seeking asylum in industrialised nations, including Australia,” said Towle.

John Gibson, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, told IPS that there has been an overreaction in Australia by both the opposition and the government regarding recent boat arrivals, which peaked at 4,241 in the year 2000. “If you want to look at the figures in perspective… the numbers are really very small here,” he says.

Not only do most asylum seekers in Australia not arrive by boat, but other countries receive as many as ten times the number of overall asylum applications that are processed here.

According to the UNHCR report, around 4,700 people sought asylum in Australia in 2008, up from 3,980 the previous year. This is still far less than the number received earlier in the decade, when 13,100 and 12,400 claims for asylum were made in the years 2000 and 2001, respectively.

The U.S., by comparison, received 49,000 claims for protection last year, while Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom received in excess of 30,000 applications each.

The UNHCR says that the 12 percent increase from 2007 to 2008 in people seeking asylum across industrialised nations – 341,000 people vs. 383,000 – can partly be attributed to higher numbers of applicants from Afghanistan and Somalia.

Despite the UNHCR’s pronouncements, on Apr. 28 the opposition called for an inquiry into the relationship between the government’s policies and what Turnbull says is a “surge in people smuggling into Australia.”

As part of his argument, the opposition leader utilised a local media report which quoted an Iraqi man in Indonesia as saying that due to policy changes by the current government, he believes he will not be sent back to Indonesia when he again tries to enter Australia by sea.

While the report says the Iraqi relied on family members already in Australia for his information, a new study looking at how refugees regard Australia’s immigration policies found that the government has no control of how its policies are perceived.

“Many refugees do not receive Australia’s deterrence message or any information about Australia’s immigration policy,” says the report’s author, Roslyn Richardson.

Yet with the government also warning Australians of the likelihood of more boat arrivals to come, both sides of mainstream Australian politics are being urged to abandon hyperbole.

“We’ve got to look at the big picture and stop the political bickering that’s taking place,” Briskman told IPS.

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