With Australia transfixed by the leadership tussle between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her jilted former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, another surge in people smuggling escaped the national media radar, with the number of asylum seekers arriving via Southeast Asia reaching record numbers.
In the biggest haul boats, almost 250 asylum seekers arrived within 24 hours of each other in February as smugglers capitalized on improved weather conditions. About 865 asylum seekers arrived in nine boats within less than two weeks, taking the total number so far this year to 1,572.
The rise prompted Malaysia to urge regional governments to raise their game in the fight against people smuggling to prevent more deaths following another incident in which nine migrants drowned.
Deputy Home Minister Lee Chee Leong said the nine were part of a group of 25 Afghans and Iraqis attempting to reach Indonesia illegally from Malaysia, before heading to Australia to seek asylum.
He said that unless countries implement a plan to tackle these syndicates, the region could expect further fatalities “since there is no credible deterrence to dissuade the people smuggling syndicates.”
This came after another 54 refugees attempting the treacherous voyage to Australia were rescued, by Aceh fishermen off the far northwest coast of Indonesia. The crippled, overcrowded vessel had a narrow escape with many of the passengers suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.
The Rohingyas – Burmese Muslims – on board were just lucky.
Despite appalling conditions and ridiculous dangers involved, men, women and children – mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran – believe the lies that people smugglers peddle, and risk all on the hazardous journey.
The relentless arrivals off the Australian coast and the latest death toll are pressuring the country’s two major political parties to find an elusive solution, particularly, after the Australian High Court struck down a refugee asylum and swap deal with Malaysia last year.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the latest series of tragedies had underscored the need to find tough deterrents aimed at stopping the rush to Australia.
“As we have consistently pointed out, the absence of a disincentive for boat journeys to Australia will mean people will continue to undertake these dangerous journeys,” he said.
However, a stunning decision by the opposition leader Tony Abbot to turn the boats back, if elected, has left many aghast and again highlighted Australia’s inability to deal effectively with refugees through bi-partisan political agreements.
People smuggling is a political thorn for both parties, but some believe Abbott’s policies could even be in breach of international maritime laws. Senior naval personnel claim any decision to turn any boat around must be left to the commander involved, while Abbott insists it’s the navy’s duty to carry out orders from the government of the day.
Men and women join the armed services to protect their country not to turn impoverished civilians in a leaky boat seeking help and asylum back out to sea. Further, any such policies would also create enormous friction with Jakarta, where Indonesians find it difficult to comprehend Australia’s often harsh attitudes to asylum seekers.
Too many officials in the Indonesian capital believe Canberra is seeking to abrogate its responsibilities, attempting to offload its international obligations onto its poorer neighbors, and Abbott’s push to turn the boats around is unlikely to improve that perception.