Aussies torn over asylum seekers

Officials consider more relocations after moving nine teens from a detention center yesterday.

The Australian government yesterday released nine Afghan teenagers from a dusty detention center in the outback, where more than 200 of their fellow asylum seekers are on a hunger strike. The boys had made a pact: They would commit suicide if they weren't released.

The government moved the boys from the Woomera Detention Center in South Australia into foster care. It was a small gesture meant to defuse an increasingly volatile situation. And with that they brought to a close yet another conscience-churning episode in an uneasy summer for many Australians as they consider just how to handle what has become the dominant issue on the country's intellectual landscape.

Like many developed countries, Australia has seen a marked increase in asylum seekers in recent years. And the country has engaged in a heated debate over how it should handle their arrival. But in no country have so few boat people - 8,000 in the past five years - drawn so much attention as they have here.

"This has taken over everything," says Neville Roach, a respected businessman who resigned in protest last week, after serving for six years as a senior adviser on migration issues to Prime Minister John Howard.

For a decade, Australia has been the only developed country in the world to put asylum seekers arriving illegally in mandatory detention while it processes their claims. More than 2,500 asylum seekers are now held in six detention centers around Australia.

But last September, the debate over what to do with boat people was inflamed when Mr. Howard sent the Navy to block a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 boat people it had rescued at sea between Australia and Indonesia.

After a tense stand-off, the boat people were taken to the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru to have their refugee claims processed.

From that emerged a new policy under which Australia resolved not to allow boat people into its waters to claim asylum, choosing instead to pay Pacific neighbors like Nauru and Papua New Guinea to house the arrivals while their claims are processed.

While it has been widely criticized overseas, that policy is now hugely popular in Australia, and many analysts say Howard, who arrived in the US on Monday for a week-long visit, owes his reelection last November to both the boat-people crisis and the events of Sep. 11.

Howard claims Australia is simply exerting its right to choose who is allowed to cross its borders. It also, he says, has no other option but to detain boat people who often arrive without any identification papers.

And even in the face of a two-week-old hunger strike at the Woomera center, Howard has refused to review what many critics charge is an inhumane policy for dealing with people fleeing wars and political persecution.

"Nobody likes what is occurring at present, but there is no alternative," Howard told reporters this week. "We have a completely principled and soundly based policy, and I don't make any apology for it."

But Howard's critics say he has supervised a disturbing turnaround from Australia's policies of a quarter-century ago, when the country took more Vietnamese boat people per capita than any other country. (Between 1976 and 1981 almost 50,000 Vietnamese landed in Australia.)

That, the critics say, has caused Australia to lose some of the moral high-ground it once enjoyed. And, they add, it has left Australia facing an uneasy relationship with a new batch of migrants who have landed on its shores.

When he resigned from the chairmanships of two influential advisory groups to the government last week, Mr. Roach blamed Howard's policy on asylum seekers for contributing to increased hostility toward migrants of Middle Eastern descent.

While the events of Sept. 11 have caused residents in many Western countries, rightly or wrongly, to cast a cautious eye at their Middle Eastern migrants, a number of events that occurred before the attack on the US caused Australians to begin that process earlier than others, Mr. Roach argues.

"Clearly 9/11 has had a massive impact on Australia. But in some ways it has almost been used to legitimize some of the other prejudiced views that were already there," he says.

On the face of it, the current Australian debate over asylum seekers echoes the ones now taking place throughout the developed world.

Anthony Burke, a political scientist at Adelaide University in South Australia, argues the debate now taking place is driven by a lingering fear of the outside world - and looming invasion - that grew out of a long history of being the only European cultural outpost in a region viewed as hostile.

But Mr. Burke, the author of a recent book entitled "In Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety," argues that it is also an illogical fear born out of a simple lack of knowledge about the region around Australia.

That kind of irrational paranoia, he argues, has raised the temperature of the debate over asylum seekers and turned it into a higher-profile discussion than it should be. Far more important to Australia's security, he says, are issues like nuclear proliferation or the perpetually unstable relations between China and Taiwan.

The debate has also overshadowed discussions over mending relations with the country's 200,000-strong Aboriginal community, Roach and others argue.

Greg Barns, a former senior adviser to the Howard government who has become one of its most vocal critics from inside Mr. Howard's Liberal Party, argues the issue of asylum seekers is part of a broader cultural war being waged by conservatives against issues like reconciliation with the Aboriginal community.

Conservatives, he says, have long tried to create a gulf between what they like to call the "elite" and normal Australians, and Howard and his government have sought to exploit that.

"There's a gulf in every society," Mr. Barns says. "[But] a decent government tries to break down that gulf."

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