The SIEV*-221 drama: lessons from a disaster
Between 30 and 50 people died; we rescued 42 passengers, but will we learn some lessons?
Within hours, dramatic footage of the maritime disaster off Christmas Island on 15 December 2010, shot by an accidental documentary maker filming on the island, rolled on television screens around the country and around the world.
Foul weather, foul seas, stormy conditions and a wooden boat, engine not functioning, between 70-90 passengers on board, smashed to smithereens against the razorsharp limestone rocks of the north shore.
* Asterisked Note: SIEV is the Customs Command abbreviation for "Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel". This label is the first act of regimentation and dehumanisation when an asylum seeker boat arrives in Australian waters. If the vessel has a 'real' name, it will not be made public. Instead, Customs gives the boat a nickname with starting letters in alphabetical order: the first boat in a year will have a name starting with "A", and so on. In addition, Customs as well as Immigration since 2001 tag the boat with the acronymn SIEV, followed by a number. SIEV-221 was the 221st boat arriving on our shores since this type of counting began in 2001.
In the end, 42 people were rescued by locals and the Navy; thirty bodies were recovered. Prime Minister Julia Gillard interrupted her holidays, but her statements fell well short of the mark, while the nation did not stop in reverence and respect for the grieving: racism, refugee vilification, xenophobia and asylum seeker hatred ran rampant in the blogoshere; Daily Telegraph columnist Andrew Bolt's opportunism reached its zenith when he accused Labor's Gillard of "having blood on her hands" for allowing boats to land.
Following the SIEV-221 disaster we saw many calls for a re-think, especially in the political debate, but many expressed doubts about whether the brazen and opportunistic baiting of Labor with continuous "stop the boats" howls by conservative-radical politician Tony Abbott and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison would change at all.
If anywhere Australian politics is broken and bankrupt, it is around maritime asylum seekers arriving on its shores. It seems clear that the Gillard Labor government, still captured in a fatal strangehold of its perpetual neurosis since the 2001 'Tampa election', is unwilling or unable at all to gain the upper hand of the debate - split as it is between its supporters of hardline 'stop the boats' policy adherents and its more moderate voices urging decency to boat arrivals, supporting fulsome adherence to Australia's obligations.
Below are the voices of this debate. There are the usual suspects, like journalist and author David Marr and Peter Mares, and former ALP speechwriter Bob Ellis, opinion writers Mike Steketee and Michael Gordon, and lawyers and academics.
Four still images
Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.
'Evil Smugglers' tag nicely hides our own political evil and toxic debate
Project SafeCom Inc.
"Yesterday's talk about the role of smugglers who bring refugees to our shores - when Prime Minister Gillard, just like her predecessor Kevin Rudd, resorted in statements to engage in heavy rhetoric about 'evil smugglers' should be demasked as a political ploy to divert attention from her own confusion around the toxic boat arrivals debate and Labor's hopeless desperation to identify at least one area where bipartisanship is hoped to return to the debate - and it remains an extremely poor choice, not at all free of bias and not at all based on factuality," WA Human Rights group Project SafeCom said this morning.
"There has been a massive 'Elephant in the Room' of the House of Parliament in the last decade," spokesman Jack H Smit said, "and this elephant has been desperately kept out of sight of the Australian public since 2000 when Australia first started sinking inordinate amounts of money into keeping away desperate refugees attempting to reach Australia from Indonesia by making payments to the International Organisation for Migration and the Indonesian authorities - all designed to keep them from arriving in Australia."
"The consistent denial by Canberra that Australia, as the only country in the region that has signed the UN Convention, has a direct responsibility for asylum seekers in transit in Indonesia, attempting to reach the safety of our country because of our UN commitments, is the evil that is deeply embedded amongst Australia's politicians. Former Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans committed the Rudd Labor government to an annual intake of 500 refugees for assessment; but the fact that Australia did not honour that commitment but broke it, is one of the direct expressions of that political evil," Mr Smit said.
"Indonesia has shown a considerable amount of congruence with its Muslim values of 'hospitality to the stranger', in allowing people to land in its country and not being overly harsh to them, even while, without the Refugee Convention, it regards asylum seekers in its country as 'illegal immigrants'."
"Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was very clear about this moderate and uncontroversial position last year when he visisted the Australian Parliament, when he simply acknowledged that Indonesia was merely a 'transit country' for refugees residing within its territory."
"Just five QANTAS Boeing-747's, flying in darkness under a media ban to Jakarta in collaboration with Indonesia, will stop the boats - if that's indeed the agenda of our Canberra politicians. I'm absolutely confident that Indonesian authorities on all levels of government would be only too keen to help collect everyone from around the country and help us," Mr Smit said.
"Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and everyone else who's peddling spin, smoke and mirrors around boat arrivals need to stop the continuous feed of the hungry spin machine monster, and reporters in the Press Gallery and everywhere else need to refresh their own clogged-up brains and go back to basics: we should all acknowledge that the only thing we should be talking about is refugees desperately wanting to be assessed by Australia under UN Convention terms, who are stuck, and abandoned by Australia as the UN country of the region.
"The longer we avoid facing the music, the more refugees will resort to taking to boats to get to us, because they know that Australia is not doing what it should be doing."
Bob Ellis: Asylum seeker suffering worlds away for Gillard
Gillard's press conference, a wan and fumbled affair, most lacked what we film writers call an emotional line.
She called the shipwreck 'a tragic event'. She refused to blame anyone (except, of course, the 'evil' people smugglers) until all 'the facts' were known. She said 'facts' a lot, repeating the word as she did 'moving forward' in the first hours of her prime ministership. She praised the Christmas Islanders for helplessly watching people die so close to shore. She said how dreadful it must have been for them. She called her border protection officers' efforts 'successful'. She said she wanted to find out 'the truth'. She offered continuous briefings to the Opposition. She offered what amounted to a Committee of Unending Investigation till 'all the facts are known'.
At no point did she offer her sympathy to the bereaved. At no point did she offer help with their funeral arrangements, or psychological counselling, or assistance to young children who had watched their baby sisters die, or gifts of toys to them, or playmates, or anything like that. At no point did she assure them they had suffered enough, and they would not, now, be sent back to the Middle East. She didn't say she'd attend the funerals, or a commemorative service like those that followed the Bali Bombing.
Her lack of any emotion but public nervousness seems puzzling. It seems as if there were five panes of glass between her and the bludgeoned, bleeding, drowned bodies she must have been seeing. It was as if she was not connecting to the death and suffering at all but merely, as was once remarked of Lyndon Johnson, dealing not with the problem, only with the politics of the problem.
The politics of this problem will mean she does not meet the disaster victims, a world-first in modern politics, or assure them of anything. It will mean she will try to keep news cameras away from them. It will mean little grieving children will be 'detained' and 'assessed' and suspected of not being 'genuine refugees' since escaping their shipwreck that killed your mother in high seas does not count in this assessment. She will have to face down Julian Burnside, Adam Bandt, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie. She will have to give Wilkie reasons why interviews with the children should not take place. She will have to give him reasons why he cannot visit them.
Or that I think is her plan. The humane alternative, that she declare them foundlings of the sea and let them all in, and apologise for her border protectors' failure to save them, attend the funerals of their relatives and offer them compensation (like the families of the victims of 9/11) will not have occurred to her. And why is this?
It's perhaps because she doesn't get it. She smiled now and then while answering questions, a foolish thing to do. She mentioned none of the survivors by name, though she mentioned a lot of Australians by name. It's as if the boat people didn't altogether exist. They were a problem, no more. They were factors that a lot of process would deal with.
She evaded the central question, which is not what happened but happens now, and so failed her first big test as a nation's leader. In a Churchillian situation she promised not blood, sweat and tears or broad sunlit uplands but a consultative process not involving Muslims that after many, many months will 'establish the facts'.
It's hard to see how the Greens and Independents will like her much anymore, or what will become of her.
Bob Ellis's last two books on Australian politics, One Hundred Days of Summer and Suddenly, Last Winter, are in bookshops now.
David Marr: Arms are extended but backs are turned
Sydney Morning Herald
Compassion is the likely loser after the tragedy at Christmas Island, writes David Marr.
Until now, these horrors have happened out of sight. Back in the Howard years, extraordinary precautions were taken to make sure the public never saw "humanising images" of suffering refugees. The idea, it seemed, was to maintain the rage against boat people. So all Australians ever saw of the grim work of the navy out on the refugee frontier - and no one hates this work more than the navy - was grainy security footage released long after the event by Canberra.
But at first light on Wednesday morning, the people of Christmas Island were witnesses to men, women and children drowning by the dozen along the cliffs. They had their cameras with them. Within hours, the carnage was on every television station in Australia in all its appalling detail. Days later, the clips are still on the news.
Our leaders have offered expressions of sorrow. The bravery of the islanders, customs and navy personnel has been properly acknowledged. Julia Gillard has pleaded for the nation to wait for the facts to be known: "Whatever the debate to come about policy is, the facts are the facts." But there is little sign Australians have taken this tragedy as an opportunity to look on the plight of refugees with fresh compassion. If anything we've hardened our hearts.
Even as bodies were being recovered from the sea, the message of the opposition was: we told you so. Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison declared Wednesday a time "for sadness not policy discussion" but he made his political point loud and clear by adding that the wreck on Christmas Island was "the realisation of our worst fears".
This note of impatient reproach was caught perfectly by the blogger Chris J of Melbourne complaining on this newspaper's website about "country shoppers" hiring criminals to bring them to Australia. "Then, when the enevitable tradgedy happens, it's all OUR fault, or OUR government's fault. The hard truth is that these queue jumpers chose their course of action, and the responsibility for it's awful consequences are theirs and theirs alone."
Those awful consequences will be picked over by the West Australian coroner to determine who, if anyone, is responsible for the 30 deaths on Rocky Point. Calls for an independent, open judicial inquiry are being ignored by Canberra in favour of in-house reviews by customs and the military, which will be fed to the Australian Federal Police and thence, after probably a year or so, to the coroner himself.
The official line - that this overcrowded old fishing boat turned up under the cliffs on Wednesday morning absolutely without warning - raises all sorts of questions. The boat had been at sea for a minimum of three days. It was wooden and the weather was appalling but it was sailing through the most closely watched waters on this part of the earth. The nearer boats approach Christmas Island, the more surveillance intensifies.
Boats do turn up in Flying Fish Cove unescorted by navy or customs. Six have this year, six of 128 boatloads of asylum seekers. But that doesn't mean no one had any idea those boats were on their way. We are told the wrecked vessel was not being "tracked" but authorities seem careful not to claim they knew nothing at all about the boat before locals began ringing triple-0 a little after sunrise on Wednesday.
Here the mysteries deepen. Christmas Island residents have told the Herald that they tried unsuccessfully for some time to contact the navy when they saw the boat and heard those cries for help at 5.30am. They say they could not get through. Triple-0 calls were then made to West Australian police, the first of them logged at 5.48am. Twenty vital minutes may have been lost here.
HMAS Pirie was not tasked to respond for another 12 minutes. The Pirie was anchored out of sight in sheltered water off Coconut Point, some way around the island. On board were 11 asylum seekers picked up earlier near Flying Fish Cove. The navy was waiting for a break in the weather to unload them. The immediate response from the Pirie is unknown.
Back at the cliff, islanders gathered to watch the asylum seeker boat chugging towards Flying Fish Cove in a nasty swell. It still had power but smoke was pouring from its engine. The islanders tried to encourage the boat to turn back towards more sheltered waters. It didn't. Its engines failed and a large wave smashed it on the rocks at 6.31am.
There was still no sign of help from the navy. Not for another few minutes did the Pirie request assistance from the customs vessel ACV Triton, also anchored in sheltered water around the point.
Why the Triton was not immediately brought into the operation half an hour earlier is not yet known. On board the Triton were more than 100 asylum seekers picked up over the previous few days near Ashmore Reef.
As the horrifying tragedy unfolded under the cliff, police forbade the islanders to launch their boats or swim out to help the drowning refugees. Dive shop owners threw their entire stock of lifejackets into the water. But where, islanders asked, were the hundreds of lifejackets Immigration keeps down at the town wharf to kit asylum seekers being brought ashore? (The department says no such stocks exist now: the navy and customs keep the jackets on their own vessels.)
It was 7.01am before a small tender arrived from the Pirie. No one questions the fine work the navy did then - assisted about 20 minutes later by a tender from the Triton - but this was an hour-and-a-half after the boat was first sighted, an hour after the Pirie was first tasked and half an hour after the boat was wrecked against the cliff. Why, islanders asked the Herald, did help take so long to arrive?
Border Protection Command declined to clarify what appear to be long delays in help reaching the wreck. In particular, public relations staff at the command declined to tell the Herald why the Triton was not immediately tasked to help with the rescue, when tenders set out from the Pirie and Triton, and whether Border Protection Command was claiming the first it ever knew of the existence of this boat was when it turned up on Wednesday morning at Rocky Point.
Pity the Prime Minister's attempt to enlist the opposition in digging out these facts. The only fact that drives the politics of the boats is the dramatic spike in arrivals that began last year. Everything else is fear. Details of the opposition's enthusiasm for the politics of the boats were published, courtesy of WikiLeaks, in the Herald this week.
Here in full is the US embassy dispatch of November 13 last year: "A key Liberal party strategist told us the issue was 'fantastic' and 'the more boats that come the better' but his research indicated only a 'slight trend' towards the Coalition, contrary to a local media poll which showed a big cut to the Labor Party's lead. He said the issue was significant because it was the first time Rudd had been exposed for a lack of leadership and for 'trying to be all things to all people'."
By that time, boat arrivals were surging; asylum seekers had blown up one of their own, killing five and brutally burning 30 more; Kevin Rudd was being humiliated by the long standoff over the asylum seekers rescued by the Oceanic Viking in Indonesian waters; though Rudd was still riding very high in the polls, 44 per cent of Australians thought Labor's policies on asylum seekers were too soft.
This year the politics of the boats proved even more fantastic for the opposition under its new leader, Tony Abbott. Arrivals exceeded even the dramatic levels of 2001 and, as the numbers rose, the politics hardened into shapes familiar from a decade ago. Racist fear-mongering, with all its pompous rhetoric of national sovereignty and border protection, is again at the heart of national politics.
In 2001 Pauline Hanson called on Australia to push back the boats: "We go out, we meet them, we fill them up with fuel, fill them up with food, give them medical supplies and we say, 'Go that way."' That now tops the opposition's list of strategies for stopping the boats: "Where circumstances permit and vessels can be safely secured, the Coalition will return boats and/or their passengers to their point of departure or an alternative third country destination."
While asylum advocates work to revive public outrage at the return of Howard-era conditions in the refugee world - long terms of mandatory detention, remote immigration prisons on the mainland, some 800 children being held in detention, suicides, lip-sewing etc - another front is opening: the possibility of Australia dealing with boat people by forcing them back to the ports from which they came.
Rudd never ruled the option out. Nor has Gillard. For once, Australia is not the pioneer of brutal methods to counter coloured immigration. Italy, Spain and Greece have had dramatic drops in immigrant and refugee arrivals this year after vigorously pushing back boats with significant loss of life. America is doing the same to keep Cubans and Haitians from reaching the haven of Guantanamo Bay.
Push-backs are dangerous, particularly loathed by the navy and opposed vehemently by Indonesia. Under Howard, many push-backs were attempted immediately after the blockading of the Tampa. Most failed. Anyone spruiking for this strategy would do well to read accounts of the fate of the Mirnawaty, known as SIEV 7, forced back to Roti Island.
Mayhem, riots, death threats and sabotage attempts followed when the 230 Iraqis on board were told they were being taken back to Indonesia. People shouldn't behave this way, but they do. This was a lesson the Royal Navy learnt blockading Palestine to prevent Jews reaching their homeland in the 1940s. It's a lesson that passed by descent to the Australian navy. Survivors of the Mirnawaty operation report Australian servicemen in tears as they carried out their orders. At least three asylum seekers lost their lives.
But push-backs can work, at least for a while. It's just a matter of how cruel we are willing to be confronting an issue that, to outsiders, seems bafflingly small.
Khalid Koser, a world expert on the people-smuggling trade, told the Lowy Institute in Sydney recently: "It is very unlikely indeed that any other country in the world currently spends as much on asylum seekers in terms of the ratio of costs to individuals involved as Australia."
As with the American diplomats debriefing that excited "key Liberal party strategist" this time last year, Koser doesn't get why so few boatpeople cause such immense angst in Australia.
He quoted a survey, conducted this year jointly by Stanford University in California and the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, showing that Australians are more worried about the arrival of thousands of boat people than Americans are by the 11 million illegal immigrants who enter the US each year.
But that's us. Money is no object. Facts don't count. Fear is everything. Effective government has come to be defined as stopping the boats. But not even the most brutal treatment guarantees they will stop for all time. Koser's message is they don't. Perhaps that's why Tony Abbott has stopped reciting the mantra lately. Could he deliver were he running the country?
On Christmas Island, the survivors of the wreck not so battered as to require hospital treatment in Perth are being held incommunicado on the mountain above the bay where their friends, children, family and partners died. There is no doubt they will be given the most skilled and attentive care in detention. And the islanders who have dealt with refugees face to face for more than 30 years will respond as they always have, with immediate, practical sympathy.
But perhaps it's best for the survivors if it takes a little time before they realise how the rest of the country feels about their plight: sympathy at some level, of course, but most of us see those 30 dead on Christmas Island as proof that Australia needs to be tougher than ever on refugees who are so desperate that they would risk this dangerous voyage south.
Michelle Grattan: Ugly debate brews
Debate on asylum seekers threatens to turn very dark, and it's a test for the nation and its leaders to prevent it.
The politicians desperately tried to avoid sounding "political" as the shocking news of the smashed boat and destroyed lives unfolded on Wednesday, with the television images of boiling sea, treacherous rocks and floating bodies and debris.
In the blogosphere, there was no such restraint. Passion and fury reigned, with claims of blood on Labor hands, calls for Julia Gillard to resign, and not a little distasteful triumphalism about prior warnings.
In an extraordinary statement, independent MP Rob Oakeshott declared, "Rumours and allegations are shooting through communities such as mine on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, with the worst being that government authorities allowed this to happen."
A new dark era threatens to descend on Australia's asylum seeker debate. It could become very black indeed in coming days, as political contributors loosen their initial restraint.
Gillard did what she had to in returning from holiday to deal with a disaster that requires political as well as practical handling. Anything else would have been intolerable.
It's not just the immediate questions, especially how the boat got so close to the rocks without interception. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor explained that it was because of the bad weather and the fact a wooden boat can get under the radar. This one wasn't even known about until too late.
It will take the various inquiries to get definitive answers to all the questions, and judgment should wait for the evidence.
But it's the sharp, emotion-charged new focus to be put on asylum seeker policy that must be the real worry.
What a bitter irony. This dreadful loss of life should soften our hearts. Instead, there's a real risk it could harden them. And irony piles on irony: Labor's abolition of the Pacific Solution and its reforms to detention have, perversely, ended in more incarcerations and a government quest for a new offshore processing centre.
Once, critics condemned John Howard; now Gillard is being targeted, by a (mostly but not entirely) different set of critics.
Australia's boat arrivals - more than 6500 people this year, including crew, in some 130 boats - are few in absolute numbers (though growing significantly - it was 2856 last year). But this nation finds it extraordinarily hard to keep the problem in perspective. That's why other countries, with much more porous borders, often wonder why Australia is agitated.
Perhaps being an island continent makes us super-sensitive to border control. Maybe the visibility of violations - even if by relatively small numbers of unarmed people - intensifies the reaction. It's the modern manifestation of the old terror, of the yellow peril, the red hordes, and all that. Never mind that we're fighting in Afghanistan on the same side as those fleeing, that we went to war in Iraq, from where came some of those who sailed in this week's boat.
The Rudd government's brief and failed experiment with a softer policy was an exception to how the main parties have handled the asylum seeker issue in recent years. When the numbers of arrivals surged, Rudd quickly toughened measures and heightened his rhetoric.
US cables obtained by WikiLeaks, reported in The Age this week, document American officials' assessment of the Rudd government's sensitivity about the asylum seeker issue, with US diplomats last year reporting Labor's growing concern. As for the opposition, the cable traffic quoted a "key Liberal Party strategist" saying to American diplomats in November last year that the issue was "fantastic" for the Coalition, with "the more boats that come the better".
In the run-up to the election, Gillard went out of her way to make sure voters didn't feel guilty about their hostility over the increasing arrivals. "I can understand that Australians are disturbed when they see boats arrive ... This country is a sanctuary," she said as soon as she became leader. On the other side, Tony Abbott made "stop the boats" a central slogan in his mantra, and was committed to turning boats around where possible.
Despite the current careful words, both sides are privately dwelling on the policy implications of what has happened off Christmas Island. The asylum issue was already very difficult for Labor - it will be more so now. The Liberals will see the tragedy as showing their prescience.
Despite the manifest problems her government faces, Gillard appears reasonably confident she has a strategy to handle her reform agenda this term. But she's less confident about getting on top of the asylum seeker issue.
For the election, she produced the idea of a processing centre on East Timor, a proposal requiring large amounts of money, arm twisting and regional agreement to have any chance of materialising.
Whether it will ever come to pass remains highly problematic. It certainly won't happen quickly, and East Timorese doubts will probably be increased by Wednesday's scenes.
The Gillard government stresses the importance of a regional approach on asylum seekers. But the region moves slowly.
Meanwhile, the government is expanding detention capacity and boosting the numbers rejected for asylum. But it is having trouble returning people to their home countries, and a recent High Court decision could further increase delays. On the other hand, an agreement that's close with Afghanistan should facilitate repatriation.
There is a limit to what more can be done to discourage desperate people from embarking on the hazardous journey. Gillard does not have any silver bullets.
In dealing with the Christmas Island disaster, Gillard yesterday tried for a consensus approach, proposing a group of ministers, shadow ministers, and Green and independent representatives to work together to review the facts of the incident. She had an eye to the politics - this was a potential way to limit dispute and blame about the facts - but so did the opposition and it immediately declined the invitation.
We are certainly not going to get a consensus approach on asylum seeker policy, as Gillard knows. Nor necessarily should we. What's important is to try to head off the blackness in the debate - to prevent, to the extent possible, the argument ahead becoming destructive and damaging for Australia, at home and abroad. This is not just a challenge for Gillard and Abbott. It is a test of the nation.
Michelle Grattan is Age political editor.
Michael Gordon: Hope of decency in asylum debate left foundering
An opportunity beckons, for the first time in more than a decade, to end the point scoring, sloganeering and demonising that has tarnished debate on those who risk their lives to seek asylum on our shores.
Sadly, it is unlikely to be grasped, if the response to Julia Gillard's offer of a non-partisan committee to manage the response to the tragedy off Christmas Island is any guide.
Even before Brendan O'Connor reiterated the offer yesterday afternoon, while giving a breakdown of those who perished, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop had released a statement rejecting the idea.
There are two big questions for investigation after the unmitigated horror of Wednesday and both require calm, fact-based deliberation rather than resorting to a lowest common denominator blame game.
The first is how it was that a boat carrying so many could slip undetected to within 200 metres of Christmas Island when the surveillance is so great and the expectation of arrivals so high.
Ms Gillard and Mr O'Connor suggest that horrendous weather, high swells, cyclonic winds and poor visibility were factors, plus a decision by the boat's captain to reach the island in darkness. All may be plausible, but how did the boat slip Australia's surveillance net earlier on?
The second question is far more complex and more vulnerable to political manipulation: why is it that so many people are willing to submit themselves and their loved ones to the care of people smugglers?
Is it, as the opposition asserts, because the softening of Howard government policies has been a "pull", encouraging asylum seekers to take a risk? If so, the re-opening of Nauru and bringing back temporary protection visas makes some sense.
Or is it the multitude of "push" factors in the countries of origin of asylum seekers and transit countries like Indonesia?
The truth is that the vast majority of those who have come in the past decade have been found to have genuine fears of persecution, most of them fleeing the brutality our own troops have been fighting.
The absence of humane accommodation, fair and consistent processing and timely resettlement from transit countries compels traumatised people to desperate action.
The Prime Minister favours a "frank, open and honest national conversation", but the imperative for those leading the debate is to offer context, recognising that Australia's border protection challenge is modest when compared with other countries - but that the region is facing a daunting challenge that requires a regional solution.
Within no federal election before 2013, it is time to lower the temperature. To do otherwise is to compound the trauma of those involved, including those Australians who watched helplessly as women and children perished.
Ian Rintoul: Australian policies led to refugee deaths
The graphic footage of the wooden boat carrying up to 100 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers as it wrecked last week on the cliffs of Christmas Island has been seen around the world.
At least 30 bodies have been recovered. Eighteen are still missing and presumed dead. Three children have been orphaned.
The scenes have stunned residents of Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. Many residents tried in vain to assist those thrown into the sea as their boat broke apart.
The disaster itself raises serious questions. How was it possible the boat could get so close to Christmas Island without the Australian navy being aware of its pending arrival?
Emergency services might not have been as prepared as they should have been. A commissioned report by the Australian government in January said, "Some key island stakeholders such as medical, transport and port authority staff are not informed of the arrival of a vessel until the last possible moment."
Certainly the navy, which systematically patrols the waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island, was caught napping. It took an hour and half for a small navy boat to arrive to render assistance.
But the bigger questions concern the Australian government's asylum polices and the arrival of refugee boats. More asylum seekers arrive in Australia by plane than by boat. There is no hysteria about their arrival. They are not routinely detained.
The 20 pilgrims from Zimbabwe, Burundi, Kenya and Pakistan who applied for asylum following the Catholic Church's World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 were not branded as "queue jumpers."
But boat arrivals elicit a different response. Subject to mandatory detention on arrival, more than 5,700 asylum seekers -- including more than 800 children -- are in detention centers, with 2,700-plus on Christmas Island. More than 2,000 have been in detention for more than six months, and that figure is growing.
Refugee boats were a major feature of this year's federal election. Both major political parties campaigned on being tough with asylum seekers. In the wake of the election, public opinion has shifted against asylum seekers.
But it is the policies of the Australian government that are largely responsible for pushing asylum seekers to get on boats to make the sometimes risky journey from Indonesia.
The tragedy highlights three features of Australia's refugee policy that must change.
First, Australia has increasingly pressured the Indonesia government to detain asylum seekers -- whether or not they are mandated refugees under the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Seekers are held in detention centers sometimes funded by the Australian government. This in itself is a strong incentive for asylum seekers to leave Indonesia as soon as possible.
Second, until this year, Australia did not routinely resettle UNHCR refugees from Indonesia. This year, the Australian government said it will take 500 refugees from Indonesia, although, so far, fewer than 100 have been resettled, and the government has not guaranteed numbers for the future.
It sometimes takes months for UNHCR to register asylum seekers and then more months for those claims to be processed. Once determined to be refugees, they can wait years for the UNHCR to find a country willing to resettle them. Understandably, other resettling countries consider asylum seekers in Indonesia to be Australia's responsibility.
The lack of any guaranteed resettlement is another powerful incentive for asylum seekers to take the boat journey from Indonesia to Australia.
If Australia were willing to process asylum seekers and guarantee resettlement, far fewer asylum seekers would want or need to take the boat journey. Yet Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Labor government takes proportionally fewer refugees than was the case under the conservative John Howard government.
Third, the Australian government's move to criminalize people-smuggling (and by association asylum seekers themselves) in Indonesia and Australia also provides a powerful disincentive for asylum boats to contact Australian authorities should they require assistance.
A year ago, the Australian government called on the Indonesian government to intercept a boat of 253 Tamil asylum seekers. After a standoff at the Indonesian port of Merak, the Tamils were imprisoned at Tanjung Pinang, although all but 17 were found to be refugees.
While the extreme weather may have been the immediate cause of the disaster at Christmas Island, just as surely, government policies drove that boat onto the cliffs.
The pursuit of cheap electoral advantage has motivated successive governments to adopt such punitive policies. They behave as if there is a crisis when there is none. Those policies have cost the lives of at least dozens of people and scarred the lives of thousands of others who have been detained.
In the Christmas Island tragedy, there is also an opportunity for a drastic shift in policy. Refugee advocates and members of the Labor Party have urged the government to seize this moment to implement a truly humanitarian policy.
Whether Australia's political leaders have the courage to make the shift remains to be seen. But the lives of future asylum seekers depend on their response.
Katharine Murphy: Lost at sea
The Christmas Island tragedy forces the government into fraught political territory.
The howling wind carried the terrible sound of death over the limestone cliffs of Christmas Island in the early hours of Wednesday. Residents roused by the screams and the panic watched in horror as the seas tore the wooden boat apart, pitching up to 100 people seeking asylum in Australia into the murderous swell.
The horror of these people's desperate ordeal in the water off the remote volcanic island 2600 kilometres to Australia's north-west does not bear thinking about. These were not anonymous statistics to be deployed for cynical electoral purposes; for playing ruthless populist tabloid politics over boat arrivals. News outlets brought the tragedy home. The more than two dozen who died were people who perished on our television screens, sucked down by the waves, smashed against the rocks. People who could not swim, children helpless against the elements, people without any meaningful protection against the worst-case scenario that played out at 5am on Wednesday.
The tragedy reverberated quickly around the country and the world. And it resonated deep in the heart of a Labor government trying to define its political soul and its DNA in the wake of an election in August that saw it taken right to the brink of an election defeat. This single terrible event will galvanise already restive progressives within Labor ranks ahead of the party's national conference next year. The treatment of refugees is a recurrent source of tensions between the Left, and trade unions supportive of a more humane policy, and the Right, concerned about any backlash associated with softening positions such as mandatory detention and offshore processing. A policy wound Labor constantly tries to suture has been reopened.
Courtesy of one terrible day in December off the coast of Christmas Island, many Australians are once again asking that most difficult and divisive of questions: What should our policy be on boat arrivals? Is our hardline stance part of the problem and not part of the solution? Was everything done in this instance to ensure that lives were not lost?
As long-time Melbourne refugee advocate David Manne, the co-ordinator of the Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre, puts it: "This is a moment for genuine political leadership. The question is will we see it?"
In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's tragedy federal politicians suspended their natural instinct to score points. The opposition - which has made constant rolling objection to boat arrivals a core part of its political message - moved quickly to ensure there was no appearance of populist point-scoring. This wasn't time to debate the policy, intoned opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison. This was time to mourn the dead.
Acting Opposition Leader Julie Bishop fronted the television cameras to make the point plain. This was about the victims, the survivors and the traumatised witnesses: "It's not a question of political point-scoring today."
The scale of the disaster was apparent in the tense body language of Wayne Swan, the acting Prime Minister, as he addressed reporters about the tragedy. Julia Gillard, exhausted after a long and bruising year in federal politics, had been resting. But the opportunity for brief respite was lost with the lives off Flying Fish Cove, and the questions that are now being asked.
Given all the surveillance and the resources deployed to keep unwanted boat arrivals off the Australian mainland, how did this boat creep up to Christmas Island apparently undetected? Border Protection Command and Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor confirmed yesterday the vessel was not being tracked.
Pamela Curr from Melbourne's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says a "proper" inquiry will be required to establish what happened. "We have a very efficient search and rescue team out there. We know that the surveillance is really good. They know when boats leave Indonesia. They know where they are most of the time. How did this happen? We just don't understand."
Manne says the inquiry should be independent of government and have the resources to be able to probe the issues extensively.
The parliamentary crossbench stirred into life. Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, before a news conference by the Prime Minister yesterday, suggested his home region was abuzz with conspiracy theories. Oakeshott declared "a clear and precise statement ... is important and must come soon. Rumours and allegations are shooting through communities such as mine on the mid-north coast of NSW, with the worst being that government authorities allowed this to happen. These rumours must be addressed head on. Leadership must make a detailed and comprehensive statement of exactly what happened and why it happened."
Fellow NSW independent Tony Windsor was more measured. Facts needed to be established. "Speculation about why it happened should not become a finger-pointing exercise about policy," he said.
The Prime Minister faced journalists in Sydney just before 2pm yesterday, having been hunkered down most of the morning with officials. The first message was that people needed to prepare for the worst. The death toll, already in the high 20s, would be higher, Gillard said. Women and children were among the deceased. The people rescued from the vessel were Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish. Two people had been evacuated to Perth for medical treatment and three more would be evacuated yesterday.
"We do not know with any certainty how many people there were on the boat," Gillard said. "So we have got to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that more bodies will be found and that there has been further loss of life than we know."
The process of coming to terms with what happened would begin with a review. The West Australian coroner and the Australian Federal Police will also investigate. "There will be an immediate review carried out by Customs and Border Protection," Gillard said. "This will involve an initial collection of facts and the initial assessment identifying any immediate action required. The information from that assessment will be provided to the Australian Federal Police in the context of their investigation and their anticipated report to the coroner."
Attempting to answer the question of why the boat was able to come so close to the island without detection, Gillard said terrible weather conditions had played a significant part.
"What it indicates on the advice to me is that in very rough and very difficult circumstances, there are clearly limits," she said. "In very rough and dangerous seas, there is a limit to what can be achieved through the use of radar and other surveillance mechanisms."
Speaking to Sky News from Christmas Island, Brendan O'Connor made a similar argument. "We have very low visibility on occasion, as was the case today and yesterday, with fog descending on the island. The suspected illegal entry vessels are normally constructed of wood, which means radar detection is nigh on impossible."
The politics of asylum seekers in Australia is always brutal. Passions about this issue are commonly well out of proportion with reality. The scale of this tragedy has not silenced hardline critics of asylum seekers. Gillard is back on fraught political territory for Labor. One prominent conservative columnist has already called for the Prime Minister's resignation, claiming the drownings were a direct result of the government's "reckless" policies on asylum seekers.
The argument is not that the policies are too harsh but too soft in the wake of changes made by Kevin Rudd to the processing regime.
Greens leader Bob Brown responded yesterday with a furious statement decrying columnist Andrew Bolt, calling on him to resign.
Given the polarising nature of the issue, the political blow-back for Gillard could be intense. The PM has moved expeditiously to close the political circle around the tragedy by inviting the opposition, the Greens and the independents to be represented in a group dealing with the aftermath of the sinking of the boat.
Quizzed yesterday about whether her proposed multi-party option was a bit of deft political management, or whether she was motivated by wanting to shift political liability away from the government and its policies, Gillard replied: "There's one motivation behind putting this group together and it's to make sure people have got the facts.
"I believe this bipartisan reporting mechanism will assist the whole Parliament and the Australian public to understand the facts and to draw properly informed conclusions about the operational processes at work in this incident and whether in operational terms anything would be done differently should a comparable incident arise in future.
"People will take different views about the policy, they will take different views about what they want to say in the public domain. I'm all for open, frank, national conversation, I'm all for policy discussions and debate."
David Manne says the only way to achieve a more humane and effective policy for would-be asylum seekers is to achieve not only a short-term cessation of hostilities to mark a single tragedy but to achieve a long-term bipartisanship "on good policy in this area, not on bad policy. We need to avoid a resurrection of the politics of asylum. We need to avoid a return to the jousting.
"What we really need to do now is work in the Asia-Pacific region on a proper processing framework. So many asylum seekers and refugees fleeing brutality end up fleeing into further danger and end up in an even more precarious situation. Australia needs to move beyond unilateralism. We need to forge genuine partnerships in the region, and we need a new-found maturity in our body politic."
A long-term suspension of political hostilities over asylum seekers appears highly unlikely given that the Australian community remains sharply divided over the issue of whether to embrace or turn our backs on unauthorised arrivals.
Scott Morrison, whom many Liberal insiders regard as a possible future Liberal leadership contender, has built his profile around a dogged pursuit of boat arrivals. Tony Abbott also built an election campaign around an uncompromising political narrative on the issue, forcing Gillard into lock step with tough rhetoric on border protection and boat arrivals.
There is little light on the political horizon to suggest the debate will shift dramatically. Yesterday the Liberals declined to play ball on Gillard's multiparty group.
Still, hopes for a more constructive exchange from the major parties are not entirely without prospect. Morrison has recently subtly shifted the opposition's stance on refugees. Under the cover of a November speech that flagged sending boat arrivals back to their regions of origin, Morrison left the door open for accepting more refugees from Afghanistan, and he articulated a thought-out view on regional processing.
Julia Gillard too has the chance to show the kind of courageous and measured leadership she needs to consolidate her prime ministership.
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.
Asylum rescue brings old demons to the surface
Ray Murray was woken by screaming. At first, he thought it was schoolies, but when it didn't stop, he realised the noise was fear.
The 59-year-old Christmas Island real estate agent opened the door of his beachside home about 6.10am on December 15 to see, directly in front of him, an asylum-seeker boat, laden with people, dangerously close to the rocks.
He called his 20-year-old stepson, Jacob Sutton, out of the shower and almost instantly they knew they were staring at a disaster. "I very quickly realised that it didn't have any motor going," Murray says of the boat now known as Siev 221.
"The sea was enormous and they were probably 50m off the cliff. You could tell it was a major, major thing. I dialled 000."
Over the next hour the wooden boat was thrown time and again on to the rocks and broke to bits, its 90 terrified passengers thrown into raging waters.
The wreck left about 50 men, women and children battered and drowned. Only 42 survived.
Many of the rescuers who rushed to the rocks that morning would have been asking themselves: "How can this be happening?" But Murray was thinking: "How can this be happening again?"
For he has now experienced the horror of two maritime disasters.
In 1969, Murray was an 18-year-old sailor on the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne when, in the South China Sea, it sliced through the USS Frank E. Evans, peeling the destroyer open and sending 74 US sailors to their deaths. Murray had to stretcher the dead who were fished out of the water. Many others were terribly burned.
"It was very similar for me, seeing that other boat break in half, and guys jumping off and dragging bodies out of the water," he said.
"It was all the same again. So there was a lot of emotion in it for me. And also I've got a son who's the same age now that I was then."
Murray and Sutton threw themselves into the rescue attempt. They gathered life jackets outside their place next to the Sunset Hotel, and saw the boat "explode" when it hit the rocks 100m further down, near the Bosun Hotel. They threw the jackets in the ocean and tried to pull people out with ropes.
Sutton was injured during the rescue, dragged across the rocks on his back by a powerful wave. He was saved from serious injury only by the life jacket he wore.
Murray said the memory of trying to haul people out of the water with ropes was harrowing.
"We were trying to get people to swim away from the cliff but there were heaps of bodies and people in the water, so we tied a couple of life jackets on the end of three long ropes we had there and threw them over, which in retrospect was silly ... that was certainly one of the worst things for me, yelling out 'pull', because you could feel the weight on the end of the rope and then the weight would be gone and the life jacket (was) coming up with nothing on it. There was obviously people grabbing hold of it and not being able to hang on, or getting washed off."
He watched many people go under the water, or float by, apparently dead.
"I remember there was an old guy sitting in about the middle of the boat; he must have been sitting on the floor of the boat, so you could just see the top half of him above the deck; he just stuck in my mind," Murray said.
"He was older than the rest and he had a grey jacket on, and when the boat exploded ... this guy was sitting in exactly the same spot. And there was another guy who ended up on the roof and had hold of the chimney stack, and a big wave hit them and rolled that over. When it came up, the guy still had hold of the chimney stack but the older guy was gone. I remember seeing his hand reaching for the boat, and then it just disappeared."
Murray insisted he and Sutton get counselling after the disaster, knowing from his experiences as an 18-year-old that bottling up trauma wasn't the answer.
"In those days there was no counselling, no nothing," Murray said. "We were just 18-year-old boys, basically told to go out and get pissed and get over it."
Murray has only just become able to speak about the Christmas Island tragedy. He had been deeply troubled by the " unbelievable feeling of hopelessness".
"There were women holding up babies," he said. "They were literally only 5m away from you and you couldn't do anything. You couldn't get to them."
The police, the AFP and West Australian police, who are assisting the coroner, want witnesses and rescuers to come forward and start telling their stories.
They want to piece together what happened -- what direction the boat came from, when the boat's engine stopped, how many were on board and how many died, a number that is not yet definitively known. Between the accounts of the survivors and the rescuers they hope to understand how the tragedy unfolded.
As the coronial process continues, questions will be asked about the response of the rescue services. Murray, a member of the island's volunteer marine rescue service, says the island's marine rescue response capabilities must be improved.
"These are the sort of things that have got to change on this island," he says. "If this happened on the North Sea, they've got boats they can put to the sea in any conditions. We've got bugger all unless the navy's here. And the navy got here as fast as they could, and they did a wonderful job when they got here. I belong to the volunteer marine rescue. Our boat cannot go out in that sort of weather. It's the wrong boat for that sort of weather."
Brian Lacy, Christmas Island's administrator, said the island's emergency management plan would be reviewed in the wake of the tragedy, but he felt that little more could have been done, given the severe weather.
Responsibility for monitoring the waters off Christmas Island lies with Customs and Border Protection Command.
On the morning of the crash, the two Customs and Border Protection Command ships, ACV Triton and HMAS Pirie, were to the east of the island.
Murray says it was unusual for the navy or Customs not to have a boat in the vicinity of Flying Fish Cove. But the weather that day was anything but usual.
The timing of the arrival of the navy rescue rafts has been a controversial point. Some of the local rescuers have said the boat went up and down the cliffs around Rocky Point for about an hour and a half before the navy arrived.
Murray estimates it was about 40 minutes from the time he called the local police until the arrival of the navy.
A timeline put out by Border Protection Command on December 16 says it was notified at 5.48am that Siev 221 had been sighted and by 6am HMAS Pirie had been tasked to respond. At 6.31am AFP reported that the boat had gone on to the rocks and at 6.35am the Customs boat Triton was asked to respond and travel to the scene.
A tender from HMAS Pirie arrived at "approximately" 7.01am and started rescuing people -- one hour and 13 minutes after the alarm was raised. A tender from Triton arrived at 7.22am and assisted with the rescue -- one hour and 34 minutes after the alarm was raised.
Many Christmas Islanders risked their lives to save the asylum-seekers. Two local dive operators, Simon Prince and Hama, threw their life jackets into the sea. Their jackets and bravery saved many lives.
The navy pulled 41 survivors from the ocean and one asylum-seeker, known as Ahmed, managed to walk ashore, stepping from the prow of the boat on to the rocks in a miraculous turn of luck.
"If you were religious you would say God has to make that happen, because the front of the boat had to go right into the right spot and that guy was on the boat in the right spot and he jumped off. Just incredible," Murray says.
For many of the survivors -- a mixture of families, singles and children who are Iranian, Iraqis or Kurds -- the pain and the waiting continues. They remain in detention and some have seen the bodies of their loved ones, with 24 of the 30 dead now identified.
But for others, their relatives have not been recovered. The government must soon decide what happens to the bodies of the dead, and where they will be buried and how long that will take.
Abdul Karim Hekmat: Asylum seekers risk boats because it is the only option
The so-called 'queue' where asylum seekers wait their turn is a myth.
As I was watching the horrific scenes of the recent Christmas Island boat tragedy, it reminded me of my own treacherous journey nine years ago.
In 2001, as a 20-year-old Afghan refugee, I made the perilous sea voyage from Indonesia towards Australia. I was one of 170 asylum seekers, including families and children, crammed into a small and leaky boat. On the third night, the engine suddenly went quiet. The boat was floating on the sea the whole night, but we had no control over it. Everyone on board thought they would die. Children were crying and moaning.
Pushed by the currents, we found ourselves aground the next morning. The bottom of the boat hit a rock. As the boat tilted, it seemed we were all about to be flung overboard. But the boat's crew, two Indonesians, threw out an anchor and managed to bring the boat level. They saved us from drowning. Unlike those who perished off Christmas Island, something else worked in our favour - the currents were not so strong.
Our boat, however, was severely damaged. For the next five days, our survival was pure chance, a void filled only by the prayers and hopes of everyone on board. To our joy and relief, we were finally intercepted by the Australian navy on Ashmore Reef.
Many of those who tried to get to Christmas Island were not so lucky, yet they were only metres from shore. I feel such strong sympathy with the survivors and their families who lost loved ones. We can't even begin to imagine the terrible impact this has on them.
The Christmas Island incident underlines how dangerous it is to come by boat. And, yet again, the questions are being asked: why on earth do asylum seekers make such treacherous journeys to Australia? Are they aware of the risk? Why are they not waiting in a queue for resettlement?
My experience as a former refugee will help answer some of these questions.
Many have perished on the way to Australia. Since 2001, more than 500 asylum seekers have died at sea. The SIEV X in October 2001 took the lives of 353 asylum seekers. Another boat carrying 105 asylum seekers disappeared at the end of 2009, their fate unknown.
I knew it was dangerous to come to Australia. In Indonesia, I became even more aware of the enormous danger of going by boat. It was then I heard about the boats breaking down and people being drowned.
However, going back to Afghanistan, from where I had fled, was not an option. It was almost a death sentence. The Taliban had control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan. They were notorious for imposing a fundamental and outdated version of Islam and butchering the Hazara ethnic group; I was a member of that group and thus an easy target.
In Indonesia, I heard stories of asylum seekers who had stayed for years, in shelters provided by the International Organisation for Migration, but their applications were not processed. There was only a slim chance that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would process my application. Some of our fellow asylum seekers who had waited for years for the "orderly" process eventually became frustrated and decided to take the risky journey with us.
We knew the journey by boat was a last resort, and that we could lose our lives. The trauma of this journey has troubled many asylum seekers for years.
For most who leave their countries for safety, there is no choice other than a risky journey. The so-called "queue" in which asylum seekers wait for an orderly process in a third country is a myth. In Pakistan, where I spent some time as a refugee, the UNHCR accepted hardly any applications. Pakistan accommodated between 3 and 4 million Afghan refugees. There would have been an inundation of applications.
And why don't people simply apply to Australian consulates overseas? Australian posts overseas do not accept direct applications from a refugee applicant. You have to be referred by the UNHCR, a family member or a sponsor based in Australia. Many with extended family members who tried to sponsor their families were not successful through the normal process. Some of those who came by boat have exhausted all other possibilities. They are forced to alternatives with disastrous consequences for their lives.
Think about Madian El Ibrahimy, whose wife and their two children drowned in the Christmas Island boat disaster. He was in an Australian detention centre waiting for his visa but not knowing when or if it would come. His wife could not wait any longer to be with him and so made the perilous journey with their children.
People who come to Australia by boat are ordinary families torn apart by war. They are so desperate they take high risks, but they have no alternative.
Abdul Karim Hekmat is a freelance writer and youth worker.
Ben Eltham: Stop the fear, not the boats
Should Australians care how many people seek asylum on our shores?
In a country where a TV show called Border Security has been a consistent top-rater for years, the question seems almost absurd. For reasons ranging from xenophobia to shame, the issue of seaborne asylum seekers has become one of the thorniest in Australian democracy - so politicised that the bald facts of the issue have become irrelevant. Asylum seeker policy is poisoned by ideology and political expediency: so poisoned that no solution is likely in the short term.
The facts tell us that asylum seekers are a small and manageable issue for a rich country like Australia. The desperate and often tragically unlucky souls seeking refuge in this country by boat are a tiny proportion of Australia's overall immigration intake. Should Australian governments decree it, they could be quickly, humanely and cheaply processed and resettled in the country they have chosen as their new home.
Not only would such a policy be simpler and more effective, it would also save lives and money. Lots of money. Many lives.
But, largely because of the relentless campaign against "the boats" by the Liberal and National parties, aided and abetted by many sections of the media, a humane solution is politically impossible in Australia in 2010.
It's not difficult to understand the motivations for the hard-line stance. Let's not sugar-coat it: some Australians are racists, and some Australians are prejudiced against refugees. Some aren't, but can't understand why the Government would spend money on bringing people here when they themselves are struggling to make ends meet. For some voters in these sections of the electorate, hard-line policies are appealing. If you believe mouse-hearted politicians like Labor's David Bradbury, there are enough of such voters in certain marginal seats to change the outcome of an election.
It is deeply saddening, though, to witness the level of dishonesty in the current debate, particularly from politicians like Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. To argue, as Morrison and indeed the Liberal Party have consistently since losing office in 2007, that Labor's ever-so-slightly softer asylum seeker policies are somehow encouraging people smugglers to launch flotillas of leaky boats is more than disingenuous. It is nothing less than a Big Lie, backed up by almost nothing in the way of hard facts. The idea that a Liberal government could somehow "stop the boats" depends for its appeal on the prejudices of voters and the credulity of journalists.
Here is a graph published by Kate Gaulthier from the Centre for Policy Development. It's based on official OECD figures:
As you can see, since 1999, Australian asylum seeker numbers have closely followed broader OECD trends. Seaborne asylum seeker numbers fell after 2001, not because John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution, but because there were fewer refugees and asylum seekers globally.
The academic literature on migration flows is considerable and some of it is statistically complex. Nearly all of this literature suggests that the key factors are to do with the conditions of an asylum seeker's home country, and not the status of immigration law in the country where they eventually end up. This recent paper by Timothy Hattan in The Economic Journal reviews much of the recent literature and is a good place to start. Hattan argues that "there is consistent evidence that the flow of asylum seekers to the West is determined by oppression and terror and also by poor economic conditions". His statistical analysis of pull factors found that the Howard government's hard line most likely accounted for, at most, about 2,600 fewer asylum seekers between 2001-2006.
As it was, there were 32,440 asylum seekers in total who travelled to Australia between 2001-2006, so the temporary protection visas, mandatory detention and processing in Nauru accounted for perhaps 8 per cent fewer asylum seekers in that time period - hardly the "policy solution" touted by Liberal spokesman Scott Morrison. The total cost of the Pacific Solution during the Howard government was more than $1 billion, in order to process only 1,700 seaborne asylum seekers. Most of them were in the end found to be legitimate refugees, and resettled in Australia.
Unfortunately, evidence means little in debates as polarised as these. In politics, facts rarely trump emotions, and there are few more emotional issues than unauthroised boat arrivals, which seem to strike an icicle of fear deep into the hearts of otherwise sensible Australians.
It has been like this since before Federation. One of the very first laws passed by Federal Parliament was, notoriously, the Immigration Restriction Act, otherwise known as the White Australia Policy. The early Australian Labor Party was viscerally and overtly racist, a fact not often mentioned by those who champion the working class roots of Australia's party of labour. Mandatory detention is a policy that dates back to the Hawke-Keating government, and during Kim Beazley's tenure as opposition leader, many of the Howard government's most draconian immigration policies were voted for by Labor in Parliament.
The Tampa election of 2001 profoundly spooked the Labor Party. Nine years on, the party might have gained government, but it has failed to find a way through the impasse of refugee politics. The nature of the issue, lending itself to fear-mongering and xenophobia, makes it a natural fit for a conservative opposition. Tony Abbott can always outflank Labor to the right on "border protection", ensuring a race to the bottom that the Government can't win.
Attacking Labor over border protection and asylum seeker policy has a number of attractions for the Opposition. It forces the Government to fight a political battle on terrain in which it is decidedly uncomfortable. It helps set a political agenda around the Government's supposed "failures". It also wins votes amongst sections of the electorate. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Scott Morrison is the member for Cook, the electorate that takes in Cronulla, site of Australia's most recent race riot.
The end result is an area of public policy that is effectively poisoned. The logical solution - a liberalised policy that increases the asylum seeker quota and seeks to process far more of them in Indonesia, before they pay people-smugglers to get on the boats - is effectively impossible in the current political climate. Indeed, even if such a policy was implemented, it would not "stop the boats."
The hard reality is that nothing can stop the boats. No government can stop desperate and highly motivated people from pursuing a better life in a safe and wealthy country. As the hugely expensive and highly sophisticated efforts made by the United States along its southern border demonstrate, even the vast resources available to a super-power cannot prevent unauthorised border crossings. All borders are porous. Pretending otherwise might be political expedient, but it also dishonest.
What Australia needs most is a new policy to change the attitudes of Australians, not the practices of people smugglers. We need a national effort to stop the fear, not the boats. A sustained campaign by government, the media and informed citizens to demystify the issues around refugees and to allay the fears of ordinary Australians might help change the debate. Rather than mounting a hysterical reaction as boat after boat reaches our shores, we might instead reflect on the opportunities we are offering desperate people to start a new life. Ironically, the increase in asylum seeker inflows might assist this practice, as Australians come to realise that migration inflows are a regular and predictable fact of international affairs, not an unprecedented assault on the integrity of our national borders.
I'm not holding my breath, though. Fear is always an easier sell than hope. But Labor has the most the gain from such a campaign. After all, those who believe in a progressive society have a vested interest in a national discussion that embraces our better angels. Unfortunately, such an effort will require two qualities this Government seems to lack: effective communication skills, and courage.
Ben Eltham is a writer, journalist, researcher and creative producer from Melbourne.
Border control no solution for global problem
More barriers, more risk, and for the people smugglers more money.
For every body washed up on the shores of the developed world, experts estimate at least two others are never recovered. Nearly 14,000 men, women and children are known to have died from 1993 to 2010 trying to enter Europe, or during detention or forcible deportation. Drowning accounts for well over half the deaths recorded by European non-government organisations. Other significant causes are suffocation, vehicle accidents, exposure and suicide.
Last week's tragedy on Christmas Island adds another 30 entries to the Australian database we are compiling for a study of border-related deaths throughout the globe, with the grim news that there will be more to follow.
The greatest contribution to the death toll remains the 146 children, 142 women and 65 men known to have perished in 2001 when the vessel dubbed the SIEV X sank inside the Australian aerial border-protection surveillance zone. Others have died since in offshore drownings and explosions, deaths in detention and, on rare occasions, while trying to evade arrest on the Australian mainland.
Although every one of these deaths is a tragedy, they are dwarfed in number by the thousands of known fatalities among those seeking to cross the fortified and heavily patrolled borders of the US and the European Union.
The instigation by EU border security agency FRONTEX of patrols in the Mediterranean, has created ''nautical graveyards'' off the Canary Islands as migrants take longer routes along the Atlantic coast of Africa. And the increased fortification of the US-Mexico border has funnelled undocumented migrants into treacherous desert crossings.
People risk their lives in this way because they see crossing the border as the solution to their urgent need for security, but are prevented from using the modes of international transport we take for granted, and which may once have been open to them. Alongside the visible signs of militarised borders - unimaginable even a decade ago - visa controls backed up by heavy sanctions for airlines carrying ''inadequately documented passengers'' and interceptions by foreign-based immigration officers make travel by air all but impossible for individuals from ''high risk'' nationalities.
Instead of curbing unwanted border crossings, prohibitions directed at these marginalised groups have fuelled a global market for people smuggling. It is hardly surprising that people who feel they have no option but to cross borders in search of physical or economic security will be forced into riskier, and more expensive, ways to do so. Interpol says that people smuggling has emerged as the third largest money-maker for organised crime syndicates after drug and gun trafficking.
Crossing the US-Mexico border illegally once relied on small-scale opportunism by locals. Following Clinton-era measures to tighten border control, the cost increased exponentially so that small, relatively low-risk operations were forced out by larger criminal networks that use labour bondage and violence.
People-smuggling operations from Indonesia to Australia suggest a similar trend to more professional models, although it remains far from the US experience.
Each increase in border protection is matched by a new entrepreneurial opportunity for people smugglers, and the deaths increase year upon year while expenditure on border protection grows.
Large numbers of asylum seekers backed up in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia due to Australia's regional interception networks create a ready market for people smugglers and contribute to insecurity in these buffer zones.
As one Australian detainee said, these people are ''the forgotten of the world until something tragic happens''. Last Wednesday's tragedy has been the focus of outrage and grief by leaders and ordinary people alike because we collectively witnessed horrific deaths within metres of Australian soil, on the rolling waves central to our national identity. The hidden processes of border control have become visible in the most confronting way.
But the complex chain of policies that contribute to the risks and dangers faced by these ''forgotten people'' can easily be overlooked in favour of simpler explanations.
The challenge for Australia is to honestly and openly ask who and what kills those asylum seekers on the high seas between Indonesia and Australia?
The answers must fundamentally change the way we value human life and offer protection to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and must extend the questioning to events before their arrival in our region.
The broadly similar border protection policies of the current and former governments should not be the only options on the table.
A solution is needed that puts universal human security at the centre of the debate, and acknowledges the increasing centrality of mobility to achieving it. This calls for a different kind of political leadership that is able to conceive of the national interest in a more expansive way.
If this tragedy is to serve any purpose in the national psyche, it should be to prompt us to ask different questions and begin to look out from our island towards a more globally connected future.
Dr Leanne Weber is a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales and, from February 2011, a Larkins Fellow at Monash University;
Professor Sharon Pickering is an ARC Future Fellow in Criminology at Monash University. Their book Borders and Globalisation: Deaths at the Global Frontier will be released next year.
Chris Berg: Time for a rethink on migrants: it's no crime to seek a better life
The decisions of the Refugee Review Tribunal make disheartening reading.
It hears appeals from individuals who have had their application for a protection visa refused.
For instance: the Fijian man who applied for protection because "my educational outlook and possible employment opportunities may not allow me to reach my fullest potential". Not really persecution, so he was refused a protection visa and refused entry into Australia to find work.
Or the Lebanese resident who claimed to be pursued by the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam, but applied for a protection visa because he lost his job and needed work. He was refused, too. Or the Indonesian woman seeking protection "due to economic hardship as it was impossible to make a living and support her young child". Also refused.
The tribunal's decisions are no doubt correct in law. Applicants often have inconsistent stories, leading the tribunal to question their truthfulness. Others simply do not fit the legal criteria for humanitarian entry. They do not have a "well-founded fear of being persecuted".
But is Australia really better off having refused these individuals a visa?
Certainly the applicants are not. They would not have qualified for one of our numerous skilled migration programs. For many trying to get into Australia, claims of political or religious persecution are just pretexts: the real reason they want humanitarian visas is to seek employment and to participate in Australia's high standard of living.
Advocates of strong border protection have dismissed these types of visa-seekers as "economic" refugees. And with asylum numbers booming, refugees fleeing poverty rather than persecution are clogging up the processing of humanitarian entrants.
Here is one way to fix that. The government could introduce a visa category for economic refugees.
After all, fleeing unemployment and destitution is just as justifiable as fleeing political persecution. Whatever moral obligation we have to accept political refugees applies just as easily to economic ones.
Few of the usual arguments against migration apply to economic refugees. For example, they need not be a drain on taxpayers.
Sure, humanitarian entrants immediately qualify for a wide range of government programs. They get caseworkers, language lessons and subsidised counselling. They receive settlement grants, crisis payments and Centrelink benefits and advances.
Yet a program for economic refugees needn't be so generous. If migrants flee to Australia to seek employment, it is reasonable to insist they find employment. Or, at the very least, refuse to support them if they do not. Migrants who come to Australia looking for work seek to contribute more than they take.
Those three people rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal were eager find employment. And, presumably, they were eager to spend. They could have contributed to our economy, society and culture.
There is an enormous need in agricultural industries for workers - an unskilled demand not being supplied by Australians - and significant demand in Australia's north-west, where a lack of unskilled labour has inflated wages to an exaggerated degree. Low-skilled labour (with its low wages) could fill a substantial gap in the urban labour market for nannies, live-in carers and house cleaners.
Bosses such as Rio Tinto's Sam Walsh and Leighton Holdings' Wal King have made it clear heavy red tape for sponsored employment visas are restraining their ability to bring in migrant workers.
The Australian National University's Professor Peter McDonald argued last week foreign contract employees are needed to build vital infrastructure. Economic refugees would be ideal candidates.
If that demand doesn't exist, then economic refugees will not be interested in coming here in the first place.
Of course, migrant labour should not be used as an excuse to ignore policy problems in our higher education and training sectors. But we have a strong economy and businesses looking for labour.
We also must remember that migrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than everybody else - economic refugees make their own opportunities for work. So to be rejecting possible participants in our economy at the same time we are crying out for them is inexplicable.
And it should not need to be said, but allowing people to seek work and opportunity in Australia is a moral and humane imperative. The tragedy on Christmas Island should remind us of how desperate some are to find a better life here.
Allowing economic migrants into Australia also helps the developing world. The money migrants send back to their home countries is the unsung engine of globalisation.
According to one survey, 96 per cent of migrants from the Horn of Africa remitted part of their earnings back to family and friends at home. In 2006 (the last good estimate we have), migrants in Australia remitted $2.8 billion to the developing world.
It is more than we spent on foreign aid that year: $2.1 billion. Globally, the amount transferred in remittances is larger than that spent on aid. This money goes straight to families, rather than being filtered through aid agencies or corrupt governments.
So when three people are refused residency in Australia because they don't have a well-founded fear of persecution, most people's gut reaction might be that the legal system is working as it should.
But every economic refugee - every potential worker and consumer - we exclude makes Australia ever so slightly poorer.
Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.
Guy Goodwin-Gill: Refugees resort to desperate measures when system fails
The UK Independent
The numbers have only ever been small - minuscule even - but boats of asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores, like the one that ran aground in tragic circumstances off Christmas Island yesterday, have been an issue since the late 1970s.
Back then, Australia under its Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser played a key role in tackling the Indochina refugee problem, offering a new home to thousands of refugees. In fact the country has a long history of accepting refugees for resettlement - over 700,000 since 1945. But for much of the post-war period, the policy was helped by an ideological commitment to assist those fleeing communism, and by the ease of overseas vetting.
Today, both these crutches are gone; the movements of people are more mixed and old assumptions need re-working in the light of international law. Australia's current refugee and asylum policy is unlike that of any other state in the developed world. It distinguishes between those who arrive "lawfully", as students or tourists with visas; and those who manage to reach one of the outlying islands. At the same time many of these islands have been removed from local, legal jurisdiction and now exist in something close to a legal "black hole".
Besides bringing law and practice into conformity with its constitution - and international law - an important regional dimension must also be addressed. Countries of transit are not able to offer solutions, and remain to be persuaded that international co-operation is in their interest.
When refugees take desperate measures, we have a pointer to failings in the system - a resistance to granting asylum, a reluctance to provide protection, inadequate support for developing countries such as Syria, Iran and Pakistan, which are already overburdened. In addition, it's all too easy for governments to pretend that some other state is responsible for dealing with the problem.
The law now recognises the right to seek asylum, and the duty of governments not to send refugees back to face persecution, torture or death. Australia could contribute here by working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This will require, above all, a commitment to the letter and the spirit of international law and to the obligations which it has helped to forge.
Australia will have to put aside the isolationist position it has often preferred and its tendency to dictate and prescribe unilaterally. It will also need to reform its refugee protection processes and persuade the Australian public that refugees and asylum seekers are not a threat, that those in need of protection can receive it without the world falling apart, and that for those who do not require protection, a safe and dignified return to their country of origin is a working option.
If Australia does this, then it will deserve international support as well.
Guy Goodwin-Gill is professor of international refugee law at Oxford University and senior research fellow at All Souls College.
Peter Mares: No easy fix for refugee policy
By Peter Mares
To demand that we 'stop the boats' is simplistic and short-sighted. (Audience submitted: Ray Murray)
If the Christmas Island tragedy is to tell us anything, it is that there is no easy fix in refugee policy.
There is an understandable urge to find someone to blame for the deaths: the 'evil' smugglers for organising the journey from Indonesia; the Australian government for failing to track the vessel and render more timely assistance; the victims for getting on the boat in the first place.
Pointing the finger makes a complex disaster appear more comprehensible and helps ease our distress by suggesting that such horrific events can be prevented quick and decisive policy changes.
But this is a false promise. There is no easy solution - hard or soft - to Australia's boat people 'problem'.
To demand that we 'stop the boats' is simplistic and short-sighted. To take no action beyond assisting boats into safe harbour is no solution either.
Consider the tough approach first. It is true that there was a long hiatus in boat arrivals from Indonesia after the Howard government began warehousing asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
But the initial idea behind the inordinately expensive 'Pacific Solution' was that those found to be refugees would be resettled in countries other than Australia. With the exception - briefly - of New Zealand, no other country was willing to play along. There is no prospect that things would be different under a 'Pacific Solution Mark II'.
If refugees are not resettled in third countries, then they will eventually be brought to Australia. We can deliberately extend detention and processing time to make this outcome appear remote but only by destroying the physical and mental health of asylum seekers in the process. To countenance deliberately traumatising future citizens in order to send a message to the people smugglers would be an odious perversion of public policy.
Yet if processing and resettlement were not dragged out indefinitely, then a 'Pacific Solution Mark II' would soon lose its efficacy as a deterrent and boat arrivals would resume. Someone desperate enough to risk a journey on a leaky boat from Indonesia to Australia will not be put off by a few months detention in Nauru, any more than asylum seekers are currently deterred by the prospect of a few months detention on Christmas Island.
Even if the deterrent effect did work, then a revised Pacific Solution might have unintended consequences: smugglers would almost certainly begin looking to sail beyond territories like Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef that have been excised from the migration zone in order to bring their passengers to the Australian mainland instead. If they succeeded, asylum seekers would have their refugee applications processed onshore. But the journey would be more dangerous and disaster at sea more likely.
The other hard-line 'solution' is to use the navy to turn boats around. This was done in the wake of the Tampa affair, when four boats carrying more than 500 asylum seekers in total were forced back to Indonesia. This may have had an even greater deterrent effect that detention on Nauru because it suggested that money spent buying passage with the smugglers was money wasted.
But a policy of turning around boats would require the active cooperation of Indonesia and Jakarta is in no mood to do any more favours for Canberra. The Oceanic Viking debacle, in which Australia rescued 78 asylum seekers and then insisted that they be returned to the port of Merak was perceived by Indonesian officials as a sign that Australia's cooperation only runs one way.
Even if the government in Jakarta was more accommodating, the forcible return of boats is fraught with risk: it would almost certainly result in further loss of life at sea as smugglers advised asylum seekers to render their vessels too unseaworthy to be towed back. It would once again involve the Royal Australian Navy in a highly politicised task and commit RAN sailors to dangerous, distressing work that has nothing to do with military defence.
Forcing boats back to Indonesia would also breach Australia's obligations under the Refugee Convention, since Indonesia is not a Convention signatory and makes no promise not to return people to a place of persecution.
To get around this problem, Australia could always withdraw from the Convention itself. Then if Indonesia refused to take boats back we could re-provision them with fuel, food and water and point them in the direction of New Zealand.
It should be obvious from this suggestion that while quitting the Refugee Convention might release us from some of our legal obligations towards asylum seekers, it would do nothing to absolve us from the moral imperatives of rendering assistance to those in need.
Supporters of a hard line response to boat arrivals justify their stance by arguing that asylum seekers are jumping the queue and should come to Australia via the 'proper channels'. This is risible.
Why on earth would people risk a boat trip from Indonesia and spend thousands of dollars on smugglers if they had a lawful way of getting here? The reality is that refugees undertake dangerous journeys in order to avoid strict border controls and the pervasive restrictions on human movement. This is true not only in Australia but around the world.
In 2009 the UNHCR had responsibility for 10.4 million refugees (a fraction of 43 million people forcibly displaced from their homes globally) and managed to find 84,000 resettlement places. With numbers like that, there is no 'queue'.
To insist that refugees wait patiently for resettlement is to suggest that they should make no effort to build a better future for themselves or their children. They should show no initiative and remain entirely passive. It is like advising an unemployed person to stay on the couch and wait for someone to turn up in their lounge room waving a job offer when their only real chance of finding work is to get out of the house and knock on doors.
To tell refugees to wait in the queue and use the proper channels is to ask them to stay out of sight and out of mind. We would prefer that they did not to distract us from cricket and summer holidays by reminding us of problems beyond our shores (including wars involving Australian soldiers).
Australia presents itself to the world as a peaceful, democratic, tolerant, harmonious, prosperous nation that upholds universal values of human rights. Why are we so surprised when desperate people take us at our word and seek our assistance under an international convention to which we are signatories? Why are we surprised that they also want a chance to get a job to earn some money and educate their kids?
This brings us to the other side of the coin: the fact that there is no easy soft solution to the boat people question either. Effective, efficient processing that minimised time in detention and resulted in permanent residency for refugees would encourage more boat arrivals. Smugglers would have an attractive product to offer their customers, of whom there is no likely future shortage. This will mean more dangerous journeys from Indonesia and could result in more deaths at sea.
In the short term Australia could be much more pro-active in identifying refugees already living in Indonesia and offering them rapid resettlement by plane. This would provide a 'proper channel' and offer a real alternative to the smugglers. But in the longer term, it would also encourage even more asylum seekers to come to Indonesia in the hope of accessing the same accelerated processing arrangements.
In the end, a durable solution must involve a comprehensive regime of cooperative arrangements that is both regional and global and that gives refugees a more meaningful choice than one between the devil of the smugglers and the deep blue sea of our indifference.
Peter Mares presents The National Interest on ABC Radio National and is an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University, where he works on migration issues. He is the author of Borderline (UNSW Press), an award-winning book about Australia's response to asylum seekers and refugees.
Steven Glass: One man's struggle to find a safe place to live
It is obvious, when I first meet Reza*, that his life has been difficult. You can see it in his eyes, in his furrowed brow, in the lines deeply etched in his face. He is not yet 40, but he appears perhaps two decades older. Still, he holds himself erect and smiles as he shakes my hand when I meet him in the interview rooms at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia's far north.
The rooms are small and bare, but they are air-conditioned, so they provide welcome relief from the oppressive 42-degree heat outside, where the sun is unrelenting.
Both Reza's smile and the sense of respite are short-lived, as we get down to the business of preparing his application for an Australian protection visa. Reza is a Hazara, a member of a small and distinct ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan, who many in that country accuse of being "foreigners" and "infidels". They have been persecuted for generations. Reza tells me about his family's farm, a modest patch of ground. He tells me of the nomadic Pashtun people, the Kuchi, who enter the village every few years and graze their cattle on his farm, leaving the family penniless. Sometimes they burn down houses in the village. I hear about the threats and extortion inflicted by the Taliban. His eyes mist up as he tells me of the courage of his brother who, a few years ago, refused to pay bribes to the Taliban. His brother was not seen for the next three weeks; his corpse simply appeared one day near the local bazaar.
Tears flow as Reza recounts the death of his father after a Taliban rocket attack on his family home.
There is nothing left for him in Afghanistan. His home is destroyed, half his family murdered, and the local Taliban leadership continues to seek revenge against his family for his brother's defiance. Reza flees his village, taking his wife and children with him. But there is nowhere to go.
The family smuggle themselves across the border into western Pakistan, where he joins hundreds of thousands of fellow Hazaras living illegally in Quetta. There, they are at the mercy of the Pakistan Federal Immigration Agency, which sends many back to Afghanistan.
And in the past couple of years they have come under increasing attack from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Balochistan Liberation Army, Sepa-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others - an array of Islamic militants who have all sorts of religious and political agendas, but who share a passionate hatred of Hazaras and a belief that it is God's will they be expelled from Pakistan or exterminated. Countless hundreds of Hazaras have been massacred in recent months in suicide attacks carried out by these groups in Hazara-dominated markets and places of worship.
Reza, needing to escape once again, can find nowhere to go. There is no queue in Quetta. There are no refugee camps, there is no UNHCR, there is virtually no effective government. There is just poverty and violence. Desperate to save his family, and having run out of options, Reza sells his remaining possessions and submits to a people smuggler.
He tells his family to keep their heads down, to leave the house as little as possible until he can arrange for them to join him in Australia. But he almost doesn't make it here. The fishing boat the people-smuggler has arranged in Indonesia breaks down. It drifts for a week, and the 30 asylum seekers on board have no food. It then develops a leak. Just as Reza and his fellow passengers give up hope of survival, the boat is spotted by the Australian navy and taken to Christmas Island.
Reza never raises his voice as he recounts all of this to me in the interview room at Curtin. "Thank you," he says, "for listening to my story." No one has listened to him before.
I don't know if Reza, or the other Hazaras I recently assisted with visa applications in Curtin, will be permitted to stay. But I do know they are not exploiting our refugee policy. All their lives, they have been victims of exploitation. Nor are they unfairly taking places from other needy people. There is no queue in Quetta.
Steven Glass is a partner of Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers. *Reza is a pseudonym
Mike Steketee: Face up to refugee reality
It's always good to get a new perspective on an old problem, particularly one debated with such sound and fury as refugees.
Khalid Koser is associate dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and co-editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies. A paper he has just written as non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute conveys the outsider's sense of wonderment about our reaction to boatpeople.
"Australia is not undergoing an asylum crisis of the sort that warrants such attention," he writes. "To be sure, asylum and immigration are near the top of the political agenda in many other industrialised countries, especially in Europe and political leaders there have ramped up their rhetoric against asylum-seekers, especially during national elections.
"But in a period of global downturn, no other government has translated rhetoric into policy in the way that the Australian government has."
He marvels at the resources we are prepared to devote to the problem, including $654 million over four years to combat people smuggling and hundreds of millions on expanded detention centres.
"It is very unlikely indeed that any other country in the world currently spends as much on asylum-seekers in terms of the ratio of costs to individuals involved as Australia," he says.
And all this for measures he believes may not even succeed in their narrow aim of reducing boat arrivals, let alone addressing the root causes of refugee flows.
Koser notes that, though asylum applications in Australia have increased, they still were only 2 per cent of the total for industrialised countries in 2009.
While over the past decade between 70 and 97 per cent of Australian boat arrivals have been assessed as refugees, for those who come by plane the figure is only 20 per cent.
"Arguably Australia is worrying about the wrong asylum-seekers," he says, particularly since the number of plane arrivals has been increasing as well, a fact that has received very little attention.
Immigration department figures confirm this point: asylum-seekers who came by air totalled 5074 in 2008-09, 5978 in 2009-10 and 1559 in the first three months of this financial year. However, boat people have increased faster: 1033 in 2008-09, 5609 in 2009-10 and 3053 in the (almost) first six months of 2010-11.
Koser's study is analytical and rational. But Gillard is unlikely to spend much time poring over it. She has a political problem based on the perception that she is weak on "illegal" arrivals. So far, no amount of explanation to correct false impressions has made much difference; not the argument that the numbers are tiny beside our annual immigration intake; neither that, under the refugee convention, which even Tony Abbott has not advocated abrogating, people are not acting illegally by coming to Australia and asking for asylum; nor that the real illegal arrivals are the 50,000 or more who stay in Australia, often for years, after their visas run out.
The government looks to be floundering on this issue. It is trying to buy time, hoping that the number of boat arrivals start falling, if not because of improved conditions in Sri Lanka and, perhaps, in Afghanistan, then because of the deterrent effect of the increase in the applications from boatpeople it is rejecting.
If it receives a year or so of breathing space then it may pull off some kind of international agreement to process asylum-seekers in East Timor or elsewhere in the region. But these seem like long shots.
Either the government has to change the terms of the debate, in which case Gillard had better get on with it and make the arguments, such as those above, in speech after speech and media appearance after media appearance, or she will be drawn further down the path of harsh measures, even at the cost of a rift with the Greens. Such a step would have nothing to do with good policy-making, as Koser makes clear.
Despite the opposition's success in convincing most Australians that it is Labor's softening of policy that has caused the increase in the number of boats, he points to a clear "push" factor: an increase of 45 per cent in asylum applications from Afghanistan to developed countries between 2008 and 2009. These, he says, are "clearly related to deterioration in the security and human rights situation there".
The civil war in Sri Lanka is the other main reason for the increase in boat arrivals in recent years and the war's end is the main reason they stopped.
According to the latest guidelines on Afghanistan released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees a week ago, the situation has only got worse in parts of the country, with 5978 civilians killed and injured in 2009, the highest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and 3268 in the first six months of 2010.
The country guidance note issued by immigration to help determine refugee applications acknowledges that Taliban attacks have increased. But it relies on reports of a relatively stable situation in parts of the country populated by the ethnic minority Hazara, who comprise most of the Afghans who apply for asylum in Australia, to justify an increase in the rejection rate for Afghans from close to 100 per cent to as low as 23 per cent at one point this year.
After appeals, about 50 per cent have been accepted as refugees in recent times.
The integrity of the refugee process relies on rejecting claims that do not meet the convention criteria of people with a well-founded fear of persecution or death. But according to refugee experts, the government has swung from giving too many Hazara the benefit of the doubt to rejecting claims that probably are genuine. The immigration department report refers to incidents this year such as the Taliban capturing Hazara as alleged spies and beheading others.
Stopping the boats is a good idea, reinforced by last week's Christmas Island tragedy, but not at any cost. A sufficiently harsh detention regime may do so, for a period, but at the cost of irreparably damaging the lives of innocent people, as the legacy of the Howard government's policies amply demonstrates and as the Gillard government's approach increasingly threatens to do.
Koser says that restrictions on asylum in Europe had the unintended consequence of pushing more asylum-seekers into the hands of people smugglers. That also has been the experience here. The temporary protection visas introduced by the Howard government and which an Abbott government would re-introduce, included bans on family reunions, leading to an increase in women and children coming by boat.
Earlier this year, the government quietly increased the intake of refugees processed by the UNHCR in Indonesia from the recent average of 80 a year to 500. The logic was sound - giving people an alternative to coming by boat - but, as so often has been the case with this government, the execution has been poor.
The UNHCR long ago submitted 500 names to Australia but most are still waiting for the outcome of security checks by an overstretched ASIO. Some have lost patience and taken their chances with people smugglers. Over the past 12-18 months, an estimated 170 to 190 people throughout Southeast Asia assessed as refugees by UNHCR have taken a boat to Australia, rather than keep waiting.
Another reason that more are coming by boat may be the increasing resources Australia has put into screening at overseas airports, targeting those nationalities most likely to apply for asylum. The same logic that says boatpeople should wait their turn behind more needy people languishing in camps should apply to those who come by air. Yet it is a point that is never made by those demanding action to stop the boats.
We have to keep reminding ourselves that, as a nation, we have chosen to take refugees, with all the political inconvenience that can cause.
We should face up to our obligations, including to those who land on our doorstep.
The Pacific Solution myth
It was introduced at the very end of August 2001 and by mid-December 2001 the boats had all but stopped. Hence the widespread assumption that the Pacific Solution was a significant factor in stopping the boats.
But that's all it is, an assumption and one that overlooks other significant events in the latter part of 2001.
To explore this further, I did two things. First I produced a timeline of possible contributing events such as the dates of the departure of boats from Indonesia and their arrival in Australian waters; in relation to returned boats, when they were returned; in relation to passengers disembarked on the Pacific Solution islands of Nauru or Manus Island, when that occurred; the timing of the SIEV X tragedy; and the dates when a number of key figures in the smuggling trade were arrested.
Second, I asked refugees and a smuggler who were in Indonesia in 2001 why they thought the boats stopped.
Of the boats we know about, four left Indonesia for Australia in June 2001, two in July and five in August.
In the four months from September to December 2001, there were 13 boats. September saw three (SIEVs 1, 2 and 3) leave Indonesia. Seven left in October (SIEVs 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and X). Two boats left in November and one in December.
Hence, there was an increase in boat departures after the announcement and inception of the Pacific Solution. And six boats left Indonesia after the sinking of the SIEV X was known about back in Indonesia. This suggests that neither the inception of the Pacific Solution nor the SIEV X tragedy had immediate impact on boat numbers.
Of the people I spoke with who were in Indonesia in 2001, none of them mentioned the Pacific Solution in relation to boats stopping. They spoke about SIEV X and boats being turned back to Indonesia. Simply, the Pacific Solution just wasn't that significant in the scheme of things between August and December 2001 for asylum seekers in Indonesia.
As for the few who were unwilling to get on a smuggler's boat again because of SIEV X or other disastrous attempts to reach Australia, they were easily outnumbered by those prepared to try for a second or third time regardless of safety issues.
As best as I can tell, the Pacific Solution was initially perceived as another form of Australian detention, but offshore. Australian officials and UNHCR were involved in setting up the camps and the system of visa processing. Should anyone have been monitoring the formation of the Pacific Solution, they would have known the initial arrangements with the Pacific islands limited the stay of the asylum seekers to six months. This was changed later of course but that was not known in 2001.
Groups of people were taken to Nauru mid-September, October and November 2001, and January 2002. Once there, it was many months before they could access the outside world. There was no way asylum seekers in Indonesia in 2001 could know whether conditions in the Pacific Solution islands were better or worse than mainland facilities. They certainly could not know in 2001 how long people would be left on the islands.
So the evidence such as it is does not support the position that the Pacific Solution was responsible for stopping the boats by mid-December 2001.
According to a smuggler, government response to the arrival of the Tampa signalled that the window of opportunity was closing. Hence the larger boats carrying hundreds of passengers. But until the order was given for the navy to return boats to Indonesia which happened in September 2001, there was no reason for the smuggling trade to stop.
Plenty of people were wanting to get on smugglers' boats and although some smugglers had been incarcerated there were others still in operation. So the boats didn't stop for lack of customers or lack of smugglers. Even if taken to Nauru and Manus Island, there was still a chance for permanent resettlement. But once the boats were returned to Indonesia, there was no hope.
If anyone thinks that's an option for the future, it's extremely dangerous, probably breaches international law and Indonesia has already made clear it would not accept returned boats. At least one man, years later, is tormented by memories from such an experience. After being escorted back to Indonesia by the Australian navy, the boat he was on broke down at night about 300 metres from the shore. Passengers had already spent 14 or so days at sea, part of the time under guard, without adequate food or sleep, and were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. They were also terrified. Two men drowned trying to reach the Indonesian shore.
While the introduction of the Pacific Solution indicated that the government was ramping up the rhetoric and response, of itself it was not a deterrent. Mandatory detention was never effective as a deterrent and neither is offshore detention. The effect of dismantling the Pacific Solution needs to be considered in this light. Further, the international experience as well as Australia's clearly demonstrates that the numbers of boat arrivals ebb and flow across the decades for a myriad of reasons. 'Stopping the boats' as a policy goal is misdirected. The emphasis should be on finding solutions for asylum seekers so they don't need to get on risky boats.
Sue Hoffman has recently submitted her doctoral thesis concerning the journeys of Iraqi asylum seekers to Australia.
People smuggling won't stop until the customer base dissolves
A contact who lived in Indonesia told me of an incident from 10 years ago. Indonesian police, fresh from a training course run by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), shared their happy snaps with their people-smuggler friends.
While I can't prove this happened, I have no reason to doubt its veracity. Plenty of sources attest to the double games played by Indonesian police and military. Corruption is widespread and the Indonesian government struggles to contain it.
That's just one problem confronting Australian authorities when working with Indonesian counterparts to disrupt smuggling syndicates.
There's also a logistical problem. It's virtually impossible to adequately police the thousands of kilometres of Indonesian coastline and prevent Indonesia's fishermen from crewing boats to Australia on behalf of the organisers of smuggling syndicates.
And it's worth emphasising the distinction here, even though Australia's smuggling provisions do not differentiate between the organisers and fishermen; all are subject to minimum five-year mandatory sentences. The fishermen are paid paltry sums, sometimes as low as $60 and may not know beforehand that they are contravening Australian law.
Smuggling syndicates range from the most basic and unsophisticated to well-financed, professional operations. In areas such as the Mexican border crossing with America, smuggling is akin to a cottage industry. At the other extreme, Chinese Triads, notorious for their involvement in extortion, pr-stitution, murder, theft and drug smuggling, are suspected of having smuggled millions of Chinese nationals overseas. The organisers based in Indonesia fit somewhere in the middle. They tend to belong to networks of individuals operating in countries of origin, transit and destination, linked through kinship or nationality.
People smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia. A bill to make it so has just been knocked back and it is anyone's guess as to when, if ever, people smuggling is criminalised there. While the people who make big money out of smuggling enterprises are the main organisers, their enterprise benefits a wide range of people. Boats have to be sourced, equipped and crewed. Passengers have to be accommodated while boats are being prepared then transported to the embarkation point. People are needed to keep track of passengers, prices and payments and liaise with those paid to ignore gatherings of Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Sri Lankans near embarkation points.
International research shows that these syndicates often arise out of local and refugee communities, motivated by a mix of profit and altruism. Several UNHCR-registered refugees have served sentences in Australian jails for people smuggling offences. The research suggests that it is the restrictive policies enacted to stop asylum seekers crossing borders that push them towards the smugglers in order to navigate the obstacles put their way. People smuggling is without doubt customer-driven.
Hence the most effective way to stop smuggling is to focus on resolving asylum seekers' problems and develop permanent solutions for them. With viable alternatives, they won't turn to smugglers. And the smuggling stops when the customer base dissolves.
Efforts to disrupt and discourage smuggling can and have backfired, increasing dangers faced by asylum seekers. After harsher penalties were introduced in 1999, to avoid capture crews got off boats just before arriving at Ashmore Reef, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. These same laws led to more juveniles being hired to crew boats as they received lighter sentences if caught. And after learning that Australian authorities destroyed asylum seeker boats, syndicate organisers in Indonesia were less inclined and less able to source boats in good condition.
As a final example, after Indonesia tightened up immigration controls at Jakarta airport in response to pressure from Australia, asylum seekers stopped flying from Malaysia to Indonesia. Instead, smugglers arranged for them to hide on boats crossing the Malacca Straits, a far more dangerous route.
Sue Hoffman is a Perth-based refugee advocate who has recently submitted a doctoral thesis about the journeys of Iraqi asylum seekers.
Arnold Zable: Ancestral bonds tie us to boat tragedy
Non-partisan empathy is the just path for a nation with an emigrant history.
The boat tragedy off Christmas Island on Wednesday morning mirrors the story of who we are as a nation. There but for the luck of the draw go you and I. The desperate men, women and children floundering in wild seas could have been our own ancestors, our own families, or ourselves undertaking perilous journeys in search of new lives.
In the late 1840s, an observer travelling in Ireland noted that the people's mouths were green from their diet of grass. There was little else to eat, due to the outbreak of potato blight. Out of a population of 8 million, about 1 million died of starvation, and 1½ million made their way by boat to the new world, some winding up on Australian shores. In all, more than 3 million left Ireland between 1845 and 1870.
The largest diaspora in modern history comprised the 15 million people who forsook the British Isles in the latter part of the 19th century. Many left due to ruthless land clearances and an agrarian revolution that saw millions driven from their farmlands. Then, as now, there were some who perished when their boats sank on the high seas. Then, as now, such tragedies did not deter people from risking the voyage.
If one positive thing can arise out of this immense tragedy, it is the understanding that we are a nation of boat people. We should pause to contemplate what drives people to risk their lives in flimsy vessels. We should ask what would we do if it were our fate to flee persecution, only to languish in refugee camps for years on end.
This is also the challenge for our political leaders. Such a tragedy should pave the way for non-partisan debate on asylum seeker policy. Yet this may be a naive hope. On Thursday, on the same front page headlining the tragedy, The Age reported that according to a cable obtained by WikiLeaks, an unnamed key Liberal Party strategist told US diplomats in November 2009 that the issue of asylum seekers was fantastic for the Coalition and the more boats that came the better.
This cynical and divisive attitude towards asylum seekers is a legacy of the Howard years. The iconic image of the era is of a red-hulled boat, the Tampa, drifting off Flying Fish Cove, not far from the limestone cliffs against which Wednesday's boat was crushed. On board the Tampa were 438 asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian captain, Arne Rinnan, and his crew, on August 26, 2001, from a sinking wooden boat about 140 kilometres north-west of Christmas Island.
Instead of being hailed for its heroic efforts, the Tampa was not allowed to land, and remained stranded offshore. On orders from Canberra, Flying Fish Cove was closed, and no one was allowed on board except for the SAS soldiers who commandeered the boat. The public saw the survivors as a hoard of people viewed through a telephoto lens. They were not able to see the individual faces of fellow human beings in extreme distress.
The 10-day stand-off was resolved with what came to be known as the Pacific Solution. The Howard government was rewarded with a massive lift in the polls. The Labor opposition was thrown into disarray and moral confusion. The Tampa affair ushered in a period during which those desperate enough to risk all for freedom were used as political cannon fodder. By October 2001, asylum seeker boats were being turned back out to sea and an election was being fought, at least in part, upon the issue.
Ironically, after years of incarceration on Nauru, a good number of those on board the Tampa ended up in Australia. Many Australians have come to know them, to hear their stories, and see them rebuild their lives.
Similarly, seven of the 45 survivors of the SIEV X disaster of October 19, 2001, in which 353 men, women and children drowned en route to Christmas Island, also finally received visas to Australia. They too had harrowing stories to tell of why they risked the journey. No doubt, similar tales will emerge from the survivors of the most recent sinking.
What we need now are non-partisan expressions of empathy and understanding. We need our political leaders to unite, not to divide. We need a debate that goes beyond puerile slogans that imply there are simple ways to stop the boats. We need to take into account that there are an estimated 43 million displaced peoples worldwide and that we are dealing with a global problem that requires a mix of global, regional and local solutions. We need to bear in mind that this is an enduring human drama, and that desperate people will continue to embark upon the journey in years to come.
There is a precedent for this. During the Indo-chinese boat people crisis of the late 1970s and early '80s, the Labor opposition supported the Fraser government in a bipartisan approach to the challenge. We should expect nothing less from our current politicians - and of ourselves.
Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer who, for 30 years, has depicted emigrant journeys to Australia, most recently in his novel, Sea of Many Returns.