We Were All Boat People Once
Image Credit: Fiona Bradley

We Were All Boat People Once


In the tropical waters off the coast of northern Australia, fine spring weather and calm seas combine to make the perfect conditions for an ocean voyage. But recreational sailors aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the weather — refugees from war-torn countries have been using this window of opportunity to pour onto overcrowded, barely sea-worthy boats as they attempt to flee to Australia to avoid persecution.

It’s a hazardous journey fraught with danger. Pirates intent on robbery and rape target refugee boats, while some shoddy vessels have sunk, drowning some or all of the occupants. In 2001, 353 people were drowned when a boatload of refugees in a vessel now known as SIEV-X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel — X for unknown) sank in international waters 70 kilometres off the coast of Java.

But even if all goes to plan and they are rescued from their leaky boats, many refugees find themselves interred in primitive foreign detention camps for months or even years. There they face the constant threat of repatriation to the very country from where they first made their escape. To embark on such a voyage is a dark lottery. Desperate measures for desperate times.

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Some Australians, though, question their bona fides, suspecting that many are not genuine refugees at all but are merely ‘queue jumpers’ in the immigration process, preying on the largesse of the Australian taxpayer.

Indeed, invoking the image of queue jumpers, the former leader of the Opposition in Australia last week asked one of many of the questions that have been raised on the subject in the Australian House of Representatives.

Bringing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s attention to the ‘surge’ in numbers of boat people (55 boats with 2450 asylum seekers) since ‘[Rudd] weakened Australia’s border protection laws’, he went on to ask: ‘Is the Prime Minister aware that these unauthorised arrivals will take up around 20 per cent of all of the places in Australia’s generous humanitarian immigration program?’

But although the figures are correct, the underlying assumptions aren’t.

Australia’s intake of refugees per capita is not particularly generous in international terms – in fact it’s considerably lower than countries in Europe and is nothing like the burden carried by states that neighbour the world’s trouble spots. Ironically, these are often countries that are themselves poor and so least capable of effectively managing the influx. In some border camps, refugees can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. This has come against a backdrop of deteriorating situations in places including Sri Lanka and Afghanistan (there was an 85% increase in Afghan asylum seekers alone in 2008).

The opposition’s message has been that the tough border control policies — especially the internationally condemned ‘Pacific Solution’ (mandatory detention offshore) — were responsible for the decline in boat people trying to reach Australia after 2001. But tough Australian controls were not the only reason for the decline over this period. For example, while the number of boat people seeking asylum in Australia dropped from 2161 people in 2001 to 63 in 2003, the drop in numbers mirrored a global picture where, among Afghans, for instance, asylum applications dropped from 52,927 to 14,216 over the same period.

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