Australia: Boat Arrivals of Asylum Seekers Rising

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Department of Home Affairs / AP

Two Australian naval boats approach a vessel believed to be carrying 72 asylum seekers on April 29, 2009, near Bathurst Island off the coast of Australia

On the evening of April 15, a small wooden vessel was spotted making its way toward the northwest coast of Australia. By dawn, the Australian navy had intercepted the boat. As members of the HMAS Albany stepped on board, they noticed a strong smell of gasoline. Moments later, the craft exploded, leaving all of its human passengers — 47 Afghani asylum-seekers and two Indonesian crew members —stranded in the water. Five Afghanis died, and dozens, including four navy personnel and the crew, were injured in the blast.

Five months later, the cause of the explosion on Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) 36 — as the Australian government later named it —has not been determined. But The Australian has reported that the fuel was deliberately ignited by the Indonesian crew members, believed to be human smugglers, as an attempt to prevent authorities from turning the boat back to Indonesia. Afghan elder Hassan Gulam, who interviewed the refugees, recently told the press that it was an accident that occurred during refueling. Wherever the truth lies, the investigation became a political powder-keg when rumors started to circulate that the Australian Defense Force had footage of Australian navy personnel pushing traumatized refugees from clambering on board their ship. To fan the flames of the potential scandal, Northern Territory coroner Greg Cavanagh blocked the release of the videos and photos to the public until he completes the inquiry.

As Cavanagh's office untangles April's events, one thing is certain: The number of asylum seekers seeking to enter Australia by boat is on the rise. Nine months into 2009, there have already been 1239 recorded "irregular maritime arrivals" in Australia; in 2008, there were only 161 during the whole year. On September 11 and September 12, two boats carrying 148 asylum-seekers were discovered off the northwest coast of Australia. On September 16, another boat carrying 58 people was intercepted 265 miles (420 km) north of Broome in Western Australia. Just the day before, the Australian government announced that in co-operation with Indonesian authorities 1000 potential asylum-seekers were blocked from coming to Australia this year. Those caught were following a familiar passage: a flight to Indonesia, a payment of $10,000-$15,000 to a smuggler and a makeshift place on a fishing boat barely sturdy enough to make the journey.

Australia's stance on immigration has been riddled with controversy for almost a decade. After a flash flood of boat arrivals in 2001 — 43 boats full of 5,516 asylum seekers arrived that year — the conservative John Howard government established the grimly named "Pacific Solution," which diverted asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat to remote detention centers scattered around the Pacific Ocean. Holding camps were set up on the small island nation of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where would-be refugees were kept indefinitely while their applications were processed. Many were confined in the premises while construction was still being completed, much to the dismay of human-rights groups, and some legitimate refugees were stuck in the camps for more than three years.

Times have changed — mostly. Rudd abolished the globally condemned Pacific Solution when he came to power by a landslide in November 2007. But asylum seekers who arrive by boat — referred to in the Australian press as "boat people" — are still shuttled off to a remote island while their papers are processed. There are currently about 600 asylum seekers staying at the $350 million facility built for the purpose on the Australian-owned Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, most of whom have come from conflict or post-conflict zones like Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan. Current policy, however, mandates that their applications be processed within a 90-day period, and those who are granted asylum can apply for permanent humanitarian visas — not the temporary visas that Howard's government granted. Rudd also eradicated the much-maligned "detention bill" that detainees were forced to pay off at the end of their stay. (At a daily fee of $109, some detainees incurred bills of over $100,000 in the previous centers.) The Australian reports that since the beginning of 2009, 516 people have been granted permanent visas in Australia. Twenty one have had their applications rejected and have been sent back to their home countries.

Australia's conservative opposition, the Liberal Party of Australia, blames this year's spike of boat arrivals — almost all with the help of human smugglers from Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Asia — on Rudd's new border policy. If nothing else, the Pacific Solution was at least an effective deterrent, they claim. In 2001, before Howard's program was implemented, there were 5,516 arrivals by boat; by 2002, there was just one. The numbers stayed below 60 until 2007, but have been increasing steadily ever since. "When you weaken laws for unauthorized arrivals, you are in fact creating a brilliant marketing scheme for people smugglers," says Sharman Stone, the immigration spokeswoman the Liberal Party of Australia. Stone says the Rudd government's "relaxed" approach to refugees has been a strong draw for the hundreds of desperate people who ride on rickety vessels towards Australian shores. Many boats don't make it: In 2001, the SIEV X sank near the Indonesian island of Java, taking 353 lives with it. "The way the policy is at the moment there is very little that can be done to deter those with the cash and the contacts."

David Manne, coordinator of the Australian-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, doesn't believe Australia's shifting policies have any bearing on how many people show up in a given year. "Desperate people don't sit there in a tyrannical regime and study the fine points of our legal reforms," says Manne. "What they do is look for any way they can to get to a place of safety — to save their lives." Most of the Afghani refugees who arrive in Australia, for instance, are Hazaras, a large ethnic group that has been persistently persecuted by the Taliban.

The Rudd government is equally adamant that the increasing numbers of refugees reflect international trends, not lax policy. "Countries like the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Italy are all facing increased numbers of asylum-seekers, much more in the order of tens of thousands than those we are seeing," Immigration Minister Chris Evans told the Senate in Canberra on Sept. 14. The government is striving to curb human smugglers by improving ties with law-enforcement agencies and border guards in Asian transit countries. On Sept. 15, Evans also announced that Australia has pledged $15.5 million to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Organization for Migration.

Stone says the immigrants who make the perilous journey and are granted asylum are swiftly filling up Australia's 13,500 yearly quota of asylum seekers, taking away places that could be allocated to refugees that apply through legal channels, such as such as those funded to come to Australia as pre-approved, documented refugees. But refugee advocates like Manne dispute this interpretation of what it means to grant asylum. "The government promotes this idea of a 'good' refugee and a 'bad' refugee, which is entirely wrong," Manne says. "Coming to Australia from a place of oppression isn't the same as standing in a queue at the supermarket and waiting for your turn. It's more like escaping a burning house. Sometimes you have to break a window and jump out."