Prime Minister:

You have sought options for resolving the Oceanic Viking stand-off, within the policy parameters of both

  • your stated policy of being “tough but humane” and
  • the need to avoid a community reaction both to perceived mistreatment of the asylum seekers and to perceived favourable treatment of them.

We regret to advise that these policy parameters considerably circumscribe options.

In retrospect, the removal of the asylum seekers to Christmas Island immediately after their rescue would have avoided both the ensuing stand-off (or, as you termed it in our briefing this week, the contraindicated disembarkation dispute) and internal Indonesian disputes which may constrain the capacity of President Yudyohono to provide ongoing assistance on the asylum seeker issue.

We also note your ongoing and volubly-expressed frustration that the Opposition has declined to state its own position on the matter. We regret to advise that this matter is beyond your control.

Available options appear to be:

Compel the disembarkation of the asylum seekers by Customs personnel. This would have mixed political outcomes, drawing criticism from supporters of asylum seekers (the “humanes”) and support from those antipathetic toward asylum seekers (the “toughs”). However, such a course of action is likely to alienate both local Indonesian authorities and the Indonesian Government itself. As the long-term cooperation of Indonesian authorities is critical to the success of Australia’s broader asylum-seeker policy, this option would appear to be counter-productive given the small number of asylum seekers concerned.

Dispatch the Oceanic Viking to Sri Lanka As Sri Lankan citizens, the return of the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka would be an arguable course of action, and one likely to draw support from the more vicious-minded “toughs” in the community and certain elements in the media. It was also attract considerable criticism on the correct grounds that it is likely to be returning genuine refugees to the authorities from whom they are seeking refuge. Moreover, they are less likely to disembark in Sri Lanka than in Indonesia, leading us back to the issues outlined in Option 1.

Transfer the asylum seekers to Christmas Island. On the basis that the legitimacy or otherwise of the asylum claims of the group is not affected by the location in which the assessment is made, it makes no difference whether the assessment is made on Christmas Island or elsewhere. However, the demonstration effect of the success of asylum seekers who have been rescued in Indonesian waters on others who may attempt to reach Australia in unsuitable vessels may increase the likelihood of the loss of vessels and those aboard them. It would also be portrayed as a major defeat both for the Government politically and for its border protection policies.

A possible resolution may be for the permit for the Oceanic Viking to operate in Indonesian waters to be allowed to lapse by the Indonesian Government, thereby compelling its withdrawal to Christmas Island. This would permit the Government to portray the transfer to Christmas Island as a legal and diplomatic necessity.

In summary, your own assessment of your options in our briefing earlier this week is correct: you are indeed located in a waterborne faecal concourse unequipped with an appropriate means of propulsion.

However, you may wish to consider a “gamebreaker” option that would shift the debate over asylum seekers in your favour.

In 1998 the previous Government undertook to accept over 4000 Kosovan refugees fleeing Serbian ethnic cleansing. You may wish to consider a similar undertaking: commit Australia to accepting, for example, 10,000 Tamil asylum seekers in the next 18 months, but on the basis that they are assessed and subject to appropriate security vetting by Australian authorities offshore, while any boat arrivals would be subjected to the current assessment and detention process.

This would reduce the incentive for asylum seekers to reach Australia by boat by providing an alternative means of access to Australia’s humanitarian program. The 10,000 could be a temporary addition to Australia’s humanitarian intake or the numbers could be “borrowed” from the 2011-12 humanitarian intake, as was done for the Kosovan refugees.

This would represent a genuine effort on Australia’s part to address a key “push factor” in regional asylum seeker numbers while enabling the Government to legitimately deter dangerous attempts to reach Australia by boat.

Such a decision may draw criticism from both “toughs” and “humanes”. Unfortunately, your stated preference for an option that everyone is happy with is currently unavailable.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey