The Australian reports this morning: “38 well-dressed asylum seekers have arrived at Christmas Island on a small fishing vessel flying an Indonesian flag that sailed past Australia’s border protection effort.”

According to the paper, “…the latest arrival has caused Indonesian authorities to warn that people-smuggling activities are on the increase. It is the third boat to arrive in a week and the fifth this year.”

The topic looks set to feature during next week’s Bali conference, — “a ministerial-level meeting of more than 50 countries tasked with cracking down on people-smuggling and transnational crime”, attended by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Immigration Minister Chris Evans.

Meanwhile, the Opposition’s Sharman Stone has hit the air waves repeating the line that the Rudd Government’s changes to the immigration process had encouraged people smugglers to bring more and larger vessels into the country. According to The Age, Stone said that Senator Evans “rhetoric” has also encouraged more “brazen” attempts to smuggle people into the country.

And The SMH reports that while the 4700 asylum claims lodged in Australia last year were dwarfed by the world total of 382,700, “the rise in such claims in Australia of 19 per cent was among the highest in percentage terms.”

So are we being invaded by boat people? Do they think we’re soft? Just how ‘well dressed’ are they? And most importantly — do denim cargo shorts and faux Adidas tracksuit tops disqualify asylum seekers from being granted refugee status?

Crikey asked Immigration lawyer and Co-ordinator of the Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre David Manne to clarify:

Q: Are the ‘softening’ of Australia’s border protection laws responsible for the recent spate of arrivals?

A: There is absolutely no evidence that this increase has been caused by any changes to the law. But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. All over the world there are ebbs and flows to the changes in arrivals, due to all sorts of complex factors. There is no evidence that any changes to our border protection laws make a difference. There are many millions of people seeking asylum from brutality worldwide. In reforming harsher polices, the assertion that this opens up the borders, there’s no evidence of that.

Q: Is there a perception amongst refugees and the people smuggling network that Australia is a “soft touch”?

A: That is an extraordinary assertion. To the contrary, … Australia continues to retain one of the toughest and most hostile approaches to border protection and attempted repulsion of asylum seekers by retaining the laws of excision which prevent people from accessing the law. Australia condemns asylum seekers to extremely remote detention and examines their claims for protection, (which is a fundamental legal right), outside of the basic safeguards under the due process of the rule of law in Australia. Even if they’re found to be a refugee, there still remains no legal guarantee or right to compel the government to provide protection in Australia.

Q: Does the increase in boat people reflect the rise worldwide in asylum seeker numbers?

A: Yes there is evidence to indicate that there is some relationship with a rise in numbers worldwide in people fleeing from brutality. But the numbers coming here are miniscule in relation to the situation worldwide. In context with worldwide numbers, there is absolutely no evidence that our sovereignty is under threat. We must get this into perspective — it might sound good politically to be “tough on asylum seekers” but there’s no sound basis for these assertions. In the past, the policy focus was on treating people very badly to deter them. But there was no proven link between manifestly harmful policies and deterrence. We must ensure that we properly examine and protect people who are fleeing from persecution.

Q: Where are most of the refugees coming from?

A: The people who are risking their lives by boat to come here, and are, incidentally are overwhelmingly being found to be refugees, are coming from places where Australia is currently battling tyranny — Afghanistan and Iraq, and also Sri Lanka, which has produced huge, systematic human rights abuse.

Q: Any link between the increase in numbers and the global recession?

A: That’s unclear, I think.

Q: Which countries receive the most asylum seekers?

A: In the Middle East, countries receive millions. In Europe, tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. We are talking minuscule numbers here, a few people. Many countries don’t just take a few hundred, they’re talking tens of thousands, or millions. To try to evoke in any sense a link between changes in law and these arrivals or to suggest that there’s any sort of emergency is just, a huge distraction with no sound basis.

Q: The opposition has called on the Government to urgently increase its efforts to work with Indonesia to combat people-smuggling. What would these efforts entail?

A: In theory there’s nothing wrong with that, it makes some sense to have regional co-operation to provide protection space, to have asylum seekers’claims properly examined, to provide a really robust program to ensure people’s claims are properly examined and they are given some kind of protection. There is a desirability to ensure that people don’t place their lives at more risk by venturing here by boat. Huge steps need to be taken to create a proper program. But the problem is, Australia puts an enormously disproportionate amount of energy and finances to stop people getting here. But what are they doing to ensure they ultimately receiver protection? 

Q: How closely do Australia and Indonesia work together on this issue?

A: There is a serious and concerning lack of transparency about what is going on and it’s very hard to get a full picture to know what’s going on. They’re intercepting people in airport lounges and other locations in South East Asian transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, but these countries have poor human rights records, and make no bones about the fact that they expel refugees, they are not signatories to the refugee convention, they have no practice of protection, and they expel refugees to situations where they could be persecuted… They don’t take the steps necessary to examine whether that person needs protection.

Australia is putting huge resources into intercepting asylum seekers, both in airport lounges and in other parts of those countries. All these sorts of co-operation agreements are centered around interception — and there’s a serious lack of transparency. There’s a disproportionate emphasis on protection of our extraterritorial borders to the serious expense of protection of people.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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