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How will we cope with 100,000 boat-people a year?

By Brian Holden - posted Wednesday, 12 September 2012

I wonder how many viewers of the ABC's 7.30 Report over the nights of 27 and 28 August last, extrapolated the miserable situation in Indonesia's West Papua to visions of thousands of people from our north suddenly appearing in Australia?

The beginnings of the problem can be dated as far back as the 17th century when Holland established a commercial interest in the west of New Guinea. In 1828 this led to the drawing on a map of an arbitrary 'boundary of influence' which cut the almost completely unexplored island approximately into two halves. Later increasing German and British commercial interests in the east of the island led to a firming of that line on the map by the Dutch. This occurred as if the human population were no more than a component of the fauna.

From 1949 when Indonesia was established, through to 1962, the Dutch protected its former territory by moving it over to a United Nations administration. The Dutch believed that the inhabitants were clearly ethnically different to the Malays of the east and deserved to have their own nation - possibly merging with PNG when it gained its independence from Australia.


However, all chance of a Melanesian nation occupying the whole island was lost when the USA with Australia's cowardly compliance passed those hapless people in the western half over to the anti-communist Indonesian dictator Sukarno. It was Washington's intention to place a barrier to any southern progress of communism beyond Malaya where it was being held at bay. But, it would never have been done so off-handedly if the stone-age Melanesian people were not seen by both we and the Americans as being only marginally above orangutans.

Since then the government in Java has moved through its transmigration program over one million Malays into its two provinces on the island of New Guinea and ripped minerals out of the earth regardless of what that activity does to the rivers which sustain the villages.

That's the history. Now we may be due to deservedly reap what we have sown - although, 100,000 boat-people a year might seem wildly speculative. The Italians who were worried about 300,000-refugeesarriving from Libya would not agree that it was an exaggeration. Masses of people have been on the run throughout history. In the USA are over 11 million people who should not be there.

It seems to be self-evident that the numbers a receiving country has to deal with depend on:

  • the ease of getting to the new home; and
  • the pressure to leave the old home.

Nevertheless, when you bother to apply those two simple criteria to the land to our north which hardly gets a mention in the news, the reality jumps out at you.


How easy to get here from New Guinea? Once you island-hop to one of the islands which are part of Queensland, you have got to a place where international law requires you to be looked after by our federal government. No thousands of dollars to smugglers. A few family members and friends get together, board a craft a village could construct - and just go.

What future pressures, then, are likely to be on the inhabitants to escape? Afterall, the leaking boats we are getting from the Indian Ocean are escaping undeniable danger in Iraq, Sri-Lanka or Afghanistan. But, the refugees from Iraq, Sri-Lanka and Afghanistan are not escaping a foreign invader. They are escaping a breakdown in the social structure of their country.

When there is a breakdown in the social structure, the distribution of food supply becomes the immediate concern. Then problems with the provision of basic services soon follow. The breakdown in law and order becomes the final blow. It is this final breakdown which drives masses of people to flee.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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