Australia is full of boat people

I think I was at secondary school when I heard about the “boat people” of Vietnam who had made it all of the way to Australia during the late 1970s. I couldn’t, and still can’t,  comprehend how a rowing boat could make it that distance. Of course, many didn’t and those that did had often suffered piracy, rape and pillage but over 100,000 Vietnamese people did make it to Australia.

In recent years, it’s not been pirates that the “boat people” have had to avoid, but the Australian navy and coastguards who have been turning boats around, towing them away and taking people to detention centres outside of Australia such as in Nauru and Manus Island. The Government’s idea is to deter people from coming on boats in the first place, as they risk exploitation from traffickers and death at sea.

Every Wednesday summer evening in the bay outside my house, boats come out to play in the sea. Boat people from a different world.

Every Wednesday summer evening in the bay outside my house, boats come out to play in the sea. Boat people from a different world.

However, once found by Australia off the coast, it doesn’t seem that things get much better for them. A report by the Australian Human Rights Commission alleges breaches of international law against children detained by the Australian Immigration Department both in camps in Australia and offshore. There have been reports of sexual assault on adults and children, violence by guards and terrible conditions generally. A few thousand, including at times 1000+ children, are being detained on and offshore.

The Government’s response was to ask the Human Rights Commissioner to resign and pass The Border Force Act which makes it illegal for government-contracted workers (doctors, nurses etc) at offshore detention facilities to speak out about what they see, such as violence, rape and assault. Doctors could get two years for speaking publicly about their concerns for people’s health in these camps.

To keep people away from Australia and maybe out of people’s minds, the Australian government has tried sending refugees to Cambodia instead. Cambodians are used to their government having some novel ideas but they didn’t expect such strange things from an Australian government. But the deal was done with Cambodia getting $40m (AUD) upfront and then an additional $15m (AUD) to settle the first four refugees – one Rohingya man from Myanmar and three Iranians – who arrived in June this year.

Anybody who has lived in Cambodia was not surprised at what happened next. Just a few days ago, with $55m in their pockets, the Cambodian government announced that they probably wouldn’t be taking any more refugees.

The deal with Cambodia was a political version of a deal allegedly struck between Australian coastguards and Indonesian people traffickers who were taking a boat full of people. After being stopped, it appears that the traffickers were paid thousands of US dollars to turn around, which they then did leaving Indonesia with the refugees to care for (the refugees weren’t Indonesian).

The recurring theme in these events is that the Australian government wants to keep people away, doesn’t want people to know what’s happening to them, and will pay anybody a lot of money if there’s a chance it might keep a few refugees out. Indeed, the Government are willing to spend a lot of money to try to make it look as though they may even be getting people out of the country.

The renamed Australian Border Force (cost = $10m) wanted to join transport officials and police to check visas of people “travelling to, from and around the CBD” in Operation Fortitude. A press release said that the Force will be “speaking with any individual we cross paths with”. The operation was cancelled because of the furore that a paramilitary force would be demanding to see visas (“your papers please”) of people walking down the street. As well as being rather undemocratic, it is also a farcical idea as the Australian government issues electronic visas so there isn’t anything for anybody to show anyway.

But whether this would be effective or not, was probably not of primary concern. Just like giving Cambodia $55m to settle four refugees (just in case you wondered, no the four refugees did not get a split of this), bribing people traffickers or locking children up in an island off shore, the aim is not to solve the problem but to make it look like they are doing something. Would a serious “operation” ever be accompanied by a press release if it wasn’t about image over substance?

Basing policy on being seen to do something isn’t good government, but the desire to be seen doing something is a response to what the government thinks the electorate wants. They think Australian people want them to stop the boats coming. In the 1850s, all sorts made the journey over the seas, in 1900s, still more arrived and in the 1950s, you could get subsidised 10 GBP tickets.

Now in 2015, the message that Australia is giving is that it’s too late, you’ve missed the boat.


Read this earlier post about immigration in Australia

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