Rising tide of asylum-seekers: Will Australia let them in?
Australian Prime Minister Rudd faces twin crises as he weighs how to handle Sri Lankan Tamil refugees picked up at sea by Australian and Indonesian ships and taken to Indonesian ports. The "boat people" are refusing to disembark.
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Others he retained, notably the policy of "excising" offshore Australian islands from the country's migration zone. Asylum-seekers who reach Australian waters are taken to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. Many, including some children, are kept in detention.Skip to next paragraph
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Now Rudd is under fire from both left and right: conservatives, including opposition politicians, claim his policies have "rolled out the red carpet to people-smugglers," while those on the left accuse him of offloading responsibility on to Indonesia. The use of Christmas Island – bursting at the seams following the arrival of 34 boats carrying about 1,700 people this year, the largest number for seven years – has been denounced by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Public opinion, meanwhile, is divided. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute for International Policy found that three-quarters of Australians are concerned about the rising number of asylum-seekers, who come mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. But the debate, while lively, does not have the same stridency as in 2001, and has not harmed Rudd's popularity.
David Manne, of the Melbourne-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, says "push factors" such as the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka – rather than more lenient government policies – are responsible for the spike in asylum-seekers. He points out that it is a global phenomenon, with Europe and other destinations also witnessing an increase.
Australia, he says, has been pursuing a policy for some years of persuading Indonesia and also Malaysia to "warehouse" asylum-seekers. "One of the fundamental problems is that these countries are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. They have very poor human rights records, particularly in relation to their treatment of refugees, and have even at times deported people back to their homeland."
In Indonesia, says Mr. Manne, refugees are detained "in appalling, dangerous, often prisonlike conditions" while they wait, sometimes for up to nine years, to be resettled.
Graham Thom, refugee coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, says the numbers of people seeking asylum here are still tiny. "They've gone from nothing to very few, so it's hard to argue that we're being swamped or overrun."
Rudd has not ruled out the use of force to remove the Tamils from the Oceanic Viking and transport them to a detention center on Bintan island. But local officials are lukewarm about the Indonesian Solution. The provincial governor, Ismeth Abdullah, said this week: "We're not a dumping ground for other countries."