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Parties climb over asylum seekers for victory

By Lionel Bopage - posted Friday, 19 July 2013

The Labor Party has received a boost since Mr Kevin Rudd returned to the top job and the Liberal-National Coalition has driven the asylum seekers arriving by boat as a major policy issue in the ensuing election campaign, even though less than a hundredth of a per cent of asylum seekers arrive by boat in Australia. The Coalition has called for Australian military intervention on the high seas in such cases, conjuring memories of the MV Tampa case in 2001. Mr Abbott has said that he will take responsibility for any deaths at sea that could occur due to turning boats back to Indonesia. Mr John Howard, the then Prime Minister did not consult Indonesia, when his government tried to use force to turn back asylum seeker boats. Understandably, Indonesia remains unsympathetic to the policy of turning asylum seeker boats back.

The Coalition has repeatedly pledged to turn back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Even a frontbencher of the Coalition, Mr Malcolm Turnbull raised doubts stating that this policy is unworkable and dangerous. The others of the Coalition say that turning back boats is a tested policy that was implemented successfully in 2001, during the previous conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. During his regime, the Australian Navy was employed to turn back boats, but only four of them. During the time, there were allegations that ruthless covert operations were adopted to disrupt the arrival of boats.

One such ruthless intervention occurred when an Indonesian fishing boat (Siev 4) 'sank' in October 2001. The vessel was carrying 223 passengers and crew. The HMAS Adelaide intercepted Siev 4 under the 'deter and deny' entry to Australian waters. Siev 4 was ordered to turn back, which led to the creation of an emergency. At the time the allegations related to whether:

  • the Australian Federal Police provided tracking devices to Indonesian senior policemen it had trained, funded and equipped as people smuggling disruption agent coordinators in Indonesia
  • any of the Indonesian police disruption units working with the voyage organiser Abu Quessay were involved in sabotaging SIEV-X, and
  • a concealed tracking device was used for tracing where SIEV-X sank and where to find any survivors.

At a Senate Estimates hearing, former Australian Federal PoliceCommissioner Mick Keelty was questioned whether the Federal Police knew if tracking devices had been placed on SIEV boats, and whether, who apparently worked for sabotaging SIEV-X, would be extradited to Australia. These questions remained unanswered. So, was it the turning back of boats to Indonesia that worked, or was it the ruthless covert operations?

That was in 2001. What is the situation today? Are there so many asylum seekers arriving here, simply because the turning back of asylum seeker boats policy was abandoned?

In 2001, the Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa rescued nearly 500 asylum seekers north-west of Christmas Island and was boarded by SAS troops on the command of then-prime minister. Mr Abbot believes, if it could be done then, why cannot a Coalition government do it again. There appears to have been little analysis of the changes that have taken place since 2001.

A lot has changed world-wide: the war in Iraq led by the infamous Bush-Blair-Howard trio, and the US led bombing of Afghanistan in 2001. Of course, the overthrow of the Taliban regime during that time also contributed to slowing down the number of boat arrivals. In Sri Lanka, the internal conflict intensified and resulted in the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Many civil wars have occurred in the African continent. According to UNICEF, the current civil war in Syria has shattered the lives of more than 6.8 million people; half of them children. According to the UN, about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and 1.5 million have fled to other countries. This newly changed global environment has caused millions of people to flee their countries of birth seeking refuge for themselves and their families. Australia as a partner of military alliances has been a root cause for this situation in a number of the above instances.

So how can the Coalition or Labor, if they have even a modicum of conscience, just wash their hands of these developments? How do they fail to recall that those asylum seekers are arriving here from where extreme violence has become their daily lot, because thousands and thousands are being killed, jailed and tortured in their countries, often with the kind assistance of countries such as Australia? How can these heartless leaders ignore, that under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum and that the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on asylum seekers, 'on account of their illegal entry or presence', coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.


Hence, increasing numbers of asylum-seekers are arriving today due to extreme circumstances they have to face in their home countries, when their families are treated badly by subjecting them to persecution, incarceration, torture and death. This is why they are paying people smugglers to take them to countries like Australia, risking their own lives in small, and often unseaworthy boats. The Australian Navy needs to respond, in accordance with international maritime law, despite the contrary opinions expressed by a few former commanders. In this light, is it not logical to ask whether the stop the boat slogan of the Liberal-National Coalition (adopted by the Labor) is just a political slogan, unworkable and unimplementable. Could the Australians turn back boats, take asylum seekers on board to Indonesian maritime territorial borders, and simply leave them there? Politically, this is most unlikely.

The asylum seeker issue is not going to go away in the near future, if what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt is an indicator. So, what had been tried by previous governments at different times cannot be assumed to work in this new environment. Following the Liberals political line on asylum seekers, when Minister Bob Carr and certain leaders of the Labor Party state that the rhetoric about human rights and asylum-seekers is 'out of date, unhelpful and won't be accepted', aren't they talking about tightening the noose around the neck of asylum seekers? For some Ministers it seems to have come as a complete surprise to learn that the Convention was written FOR the protection of refugees and not for the protection of countries FROM asylum seekers.

What we need to remember and canvass is the international convention and common law principle that anyone fleeing persecution has the inalienable and non-negotiable right to seek asylum. Of equal importance is our commitment to fairly assess that danger and to provide protection whenever appropriate.

Rendering true victims of persecution to their persecutor is a revolting violation of terms and criteria of the UN Convention. Australia must honour its commitments and share the load alongside its friends, New Zealand, the U.S., Canada, the UK and other northern European countries!

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About the Author

Lionel Bopage is a former Chair of the Torture Rehabilitation And Network Services ACT (TRANSACT) in Canberra, now known as The Companion House.

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