‘Stopping the boats’ doesn’t save lives at sea

Labor has attempted to defend its PNG policy and its efforts to stop refugee boats by saying it wants to prevent asylum seeker deaths at sea. Labor Left MPs have been among the most strident.

Backbencher Daryl Melham declared, “I’m not going to apologise for trying to stop people drowning”. Left faction convenor and Senator Doug Cameron said, “I don’t want people killed on boats”.
But the truth is, government policies aimed at stopping asylum boats have made the boat journey less safe.

Measures to intercept and harass people smugglers have only served to drive asylum boat operations further underground. Australian government funding of detention centres for asylum seekers in Indonesia means they are forced to find a way to escape the country as quickly as they can.
And the focus on “border protection” has resulted in appalling responses by search and rescue authorities to asylum boats that signal for help.

A coronial inquiry in July into the deaths of 100 asylum seekers found that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority could have done much more to prevent their deaths. It simply left the rescue operation to Indonesia, despite knowing they were not equipped to carry out a search, until 30 hours after receiving calls for help.

This is a continual pattern. Tony Kevin, who has documented the response to asylum boats in distress, has written that the, “rescue response is ad hoc and unpredictable … we act when we choose to”. This has meant that, “Hundreds of people have died when they could and should have been saved”.
Again on June 5 this year 55 people drowned due to rescue authorities failure to respond. Although that boat’s engines were already dead when it was first spotted, it was 40 hours before Border Protection Command alerted search and rescue.

Pathways to safety

Asylum seekers are forced to undertake the dangerous boat journey from Indonesia because they have no other option to find safety. If the major parties were serious about preventing deaths at sea they could process asylum claims in Indonesia and commit to accepting all those found to be refugees.

But the government has failed to accept anywhere near enough refugees from Indonesia. Between 2001 and 2009 Australia accepted just 532 people—less than 60 a year. It has since raised the level slightly, accepting 500 in the 2010-11 year and 600 in the last year. This goes nowhere near dealing with the number of asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. The UNHCR says there are currently 8262 registered asylum seekers and 2078 recognised refugees in Indonesia.

The government’s own Expert Panel recommended raising the refugee intake to 3200 people a year “from the region”. But the official quota for refugees from Malaysia and Indonesia remains only 1850 a year. And of those from Malaysia, 1000 were committed to under the ill-fated Malaysia people swap deal.

People smuggling

Labor has also claimed that tough measures are necessary because of the growth of people smuggling. Labor Left MP Stephen Jones claimed, “the passage to Australia has now developed into a sophisticated million-dollar product” marketed by smugglers, citing vague reports from “intelligence sources”.

The party has constantly complained of a “people smugglers’ business model”. This is nothing more than an effort to demonise asylum seekers and associate them with supposed criminal behaviour. Yet there is nothing illegal about arriving by boat and claiming asylum.

The Greens are wrong to make the concession that people smuggling is a problem. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said recently that “If you want to stop the people-smuggling business, you have to undercut it”.

Even if Australia did resettle more refugees from Indonesia, refugees would still be forced to use people smugglers to escape places like Afghanistan and Iran and get to Indonesia. Some asylum seekers could still be forced to take boats to Australia, like those coming directly from Sri Lanka. They should all be welcome.

Refugee arrivals are not driven by people smugglers, but by the persecution that asylum seekers are fleeing. As long as they cannot find protection elsewhere, asylum seekers will still try to get to Australia through whatever means they can.

Refugees have always turned to people smugglers to seek safety. Many people smugglers, including people like Oskar Schindler under the Nazis, have been considered heroes. Many of those helping asylum seekers reach Australia are themselves refugees who act from humanitarian motives, like Iraqi refugee Ali Al Jenabi or Iraqi-Iranian refugee Hadi Ahmadi.

There is nothing that justifies the race to the bottom over refugees.

By James Supple


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