This past year in Australia, the government's policy on illegal immigrants and asylum seekers has sparked sharp public debate. The issue gained international attention after Canberra in August began turning away (interdicting) ships loaded with immigrants, and paying third countries to process their visa applications.
Images of refugees crowded in desperate conditions on listing ships in the south Asian seas off Australia's coast dismayed television viewers and focused the spotlight on the Australian government's immigration policies.
Every year, thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly from the Middle East and South Asia, have been making dangerous sea voyages, trying to get to Australia to seek asylum. But, this year, the government took new steps to stem the flow, namely turning away these boat people at sea by force. Canberra also declared that refugees who land on some of its more remote islands do not have the right to stay in the country while their visa applications are processed. And it enacted new laws that limit the possibility of legal appeal by an asylum-seeker who has been rejected.
Australian voters appeared to approve of the moves, electing the government of Prime Minister John Howard to a third term in November.
Still, a number of activists and civil rights groups in Australia loudly oppose the policies, and have kept the debate in the public arena.
Sharon Pickering is the head of forced migration studies at Charles Sturt University of New South Wales. She argues that the government's policies may be popular at home, but are shortsighted, and could have serious long-term regional effects. "The Australian government puts forward a highly problematic, and I would even suggest a very dangerous, position in relation to people seeking asylum in Australia," she says.
Professor Pickering says that the new hard-line policies toward asylum seekers, like the boat people, will not deter them from continuing to try to reach Australia.
Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says Australia is complying with the international convention on refugees. But what he wants to see is a distinction made between people who are genuinely fleeing persecution and those who want to migrate for economic reasons. He says the government's policies seek to do just that.
Mr. Ruddock points out that many of the boat people are coming to Australia from third countries, such as Indonesia and Pakistan, where they are not persecuted. "They've often been in situations where they've been safe and secure in countries, where their claims can be examined and dealt with," he says. "And yet they prefer, rather than presenting their claims where they first flee, to travel further, engaging people smugglers, to reach Australia."
Mr. Ruddock argues that many of the boat people have been trying to take unfair advantage, using money and illegal means to gain access to Australia. He says the boat people, in effect, are jumping the queue, and that they take resettlement slots (places) away from those who have applied for refugee status through regular channels, such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "We've said since September, that if people are going to seek to engage people-smugglers, if they are going to by-pass the regional cooperation model to have their claims considered by the UNHCR in Indonesia, they are not going to be rewarded by being allowed into Australia for the processing of those claims," he says.
The new Australian practice of interdicting these smuggling ships at sea has come under fire from critics who say the practice is inhumane and endangers lives.
The government has also been criticized for placing hundreds of these boat people in processing centers on the Pacific Island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, in exchange for increased aid.
Professor Pickering calls the policy morally bankrupt. "Australia is a wealthy country. Australia is a country built on the backs of refugees and migrants," she says. "We have to take these people in. And to push them off onto other, much less wealthy nations -- then this is an absolute moral outrage. And it is a move that will haunt this government and this country for many years to come."
Professor Pickering also notes with concern new laws passed this year that restrict the right of people who are refused refugee status in Australia to appeal that ruling in a court of law. She says this is very dangerous. "Whenever you make a wrong decision about refugee status, and you send someone home, you are most likely sending them home to die. And to not have judicial review of that, I believe, is in grave contradiction to the kinds of values that most Australians would like to talk about having," she says.
Critics of the refugee policies say Australia could take in more refugees than it currently does, especially desperate cases such as have been seen among the boat people.
Professor Pickering says one cannot attempt to address the issues related to asylum-seekers, without looking at the causes of forced migration. "You have to be regionally engaged in understanding and dealing with the issues that are seeing Australia taking asylum-seekers. We have got to deal with the issues happening in the Middle East," she says. "As an international player we have got to be interested in dealing with root causes of forced migration, rather than simply tinkering with the edges in very populist and dangerous ways."
Australian officials say their country accepts on a per capita basis more refugees than the United States, and almost as many as Canada. They say their country cannot accept all the estimated 23-million displaced people in the world. But they say that, by reducing the number of irregular arrivals, Australia can be more generous to those with the greatest need.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001