Australia has beefed up its maritime and military presence along its northern coastline as part of strengthened efforts to further deter people smugglers while officials from Homeland Security in the United States begin the arduous process of vetting refugees for resettlement under a recent “one-off” agreement with the Obama administration.
The six naval Armidale-class ships already deployed to Australia’s north will soon be bolstered by a major fleet support unit, either an ANZAC-class warship or a guided missile frigate.
Australia is also expected to send its newest addition, the P-8A Poseidon – a cutting edge surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft – to strengthen existing capabilities like the P3-Orion in guarding maritime approaches to the Australian mainland.
Authorities are wary that people smugglers might try and use the recent resettlement deal with the United States, involving refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, as a marketing tool to once again encourage asylum seekers onto boats.
As well as a substantial expansion of military capabilities, the Australian Border Force (ABF) is sending up to half a dozen Cape-class patrol boats supported by an offshore patrol vessel as part Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s so called “ring of steel” — efforts designed to intercept and turn back any people smuggling boats attempting to reach Australia.
Of the 2,400 people who arrived illegally off of Australia’s shores since mid-2013, some 1,600 have been assessed as refugees and were expected to be resettled in the United States, or elsewhere, as part of the limited, one-off deal hammered out with Washington earlier this year.
Canada, Malaysia, and New Zealand have also been touted as potential destinations for refugees but Turnbull has stressed repeatedly that the agreement will only apply to the current crop of refugees and would not be on offer to any further arrivals.
Talks with all three countries are reportedly ongoing.
Additionally, the Turnbull government is considering a controversial lifetime visa ban for any future asylum seekers arriving by boat, which would prevent them from ever traveling to Australia – as tourists or as businessmen and women. That ban has upset human rights activists and been opposed by opposition parties and civil groups as simply unfair.
Australia is also negotiating 20-year visas with Nauru on behalf of those who will remain behind after refusing resettlement offers or declining to return home after their claims were rejected.
Once cleared, the Manus Island processing center will close; however, Nauru was expected to remain open and will handle any further arrivals although the Australian government is dropping all financial support for the center as part of broader government spending cuts.
In Indonesia, Asylum Seekers Sit Tight
Australia’s military deployment came as Indonesia’s senior police commissioner for human trafficking, Sulistiono, warned the deal could provide “a breath of fresh air” for people smugglers who were effectively run out of business by Australia’s tough stand on asylum seekers arriving by boat.
But according to those waiting to be processed in Indonesia, the resettlement deal changes nothing and they insist the days of maritime travel to Australia, for them, are over.
Fears of people smugglers have intensified with the deaths of more than 7,000 people amid attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea over the past two years from the strife-torn Middle East. The overwhelming majority perished after German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country’s doors to refugees in September last year, spurred by fears of a humanitarian disaster.
Having seen thousands drown at sea due to boats capsizing and countless others lose their life savings to smugglers, the overwhelming majority of some 14,000 people waiting in Indonesian camps indicated they would not test the Turnbull government’s stand on the issue.
Their sentiments were highlighted in the Australian press while the government’s anti-boat policies have also been well-flagged in advertisements and on YouTube.
“Nobody is interested now in boats,” Pakistani asylum seeker Faisal Khan told Fairfax Media. “People don’t care about boats. They all say, ‘Ahh, forget it; it’s impossible.’”
His sentiments were echoed by Esmatullah Hussaini, an Afghani asylum seeker, whose brother drowned in 2013, leaving seven children in Afghanistan aged between four and 16 without a father.
“I don’t think they will go … we know more than a thousand people have been drowned in the sea because their boat capsized,” he added. “I have passed seven years now [in Indonesia], so I’ll wait.”
Instead, they will have their claims processed by the UNHCR and, if approved, they will also be assigned resettlement to a third country.
The Deal and Donald Trump
While Australia pursues an increased military presence and strengthened policy measures to deter people smugglers the apparent catalyst – the Australian-U.S. resettlement deal – might be scuttled by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
His win was at least partially attributed to his opposition to his country’s current immigration policies, which prompted speculation he might end the deal with Australia.
That prospect was raised by Karl Rove, a former senior official with the Bush administration, who also suggested that Australia should try and have refugees from Nauru and Manus bedded down in the United States before before Trump takes office on January 20.
Trump’s victory prompted Canberra to dispatch Michael Pezzullo, secretary for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection. He has been in in the United States as part of efforts to ensure the deal goes ahead.
Analysts said the idea of Trump scuttling the deal was real but cautioned the president-elect had already shown signs of softening his stand on policies that got him elected. They also said more needed to be done to tackle refugee issues across the region and in the Middle East.
“The Rohingya situation [in Myanmar] is just the latest indication that the problem of refugees is getting more severe and the entire region needs to look at ways to ease the situation,” said Keith Loveard, a risk analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Security.
This was recently highlighted by Australia’s signing of a memorandum of understanding with Hanoi that will enable Vietnamese nationals – with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia – to be intercepted at sea and returned to their home country. More than 110 Vietnamese have been detained by the ABF since last year and sent back to Vietnam.
“There does need to be a multilateral discussion of this problem that does not leave a handful of countries having to bear the weight, or at least significant support for those like Jordan and Turkey that are,” Loveard said
While a multilateral solution is needed, Australia’s hardline message appears to be taking root, with the government’s new measures offering a final end to the long-running drama of refugees left stranded on Nauru and Manus.
At the same time, Australia is not willing to take any chances on asylum seekers who are smuggled across its maritime borders by boat, and that tough stance should continue to sideline the people smugglers at least for the foreseeable future.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt