Daniel Munoz/Reuters
A woman holds a poster during a rally in support of asylum seekers in central Sydney July 20, 2013. Australia announced tough new measures to stem a dramatic increase in refugee boats from Indonesia on July 19, with a deal to send all boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for assessment and eventual settlement.

Australia ends asylum by boat, begins debate over racism

Last week Australia said it would divert boats with asylum seekers, most of whom come from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka.

She is clearly distraught. Holding her head in her hands, the young Iranian asylum seeker sobs inconsolably. A male companion puts an arm on her shoulder to comfort her as she comes to terms with the news that she will never be resettled in Australia.

The photograph, taken earlier this week by Australian immigration officials, is being used as part of a government campaign aimed at deterring others like her from undertaking the perilous journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island to seek refugee status in Australia.

Last week Australia introduced the most draconian measures yet to stop the hundreds of people arriving by boat every week from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. From now on all boat arrivals are to be sent the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea. Those found to be refugees will be settled there, those who do not meet refugee status requirements will be sent back to their country of origin.

In a blunt message to people smugglers when announcing what has been dubbed the “PNG solution,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: “Your business model is over.”

But some worry that moving so ruthlessly to neutralize one of Australia’s most divisive political issues tarnishes the country’s reputation as a model liberal society. Since World War II, Australia has successfully settled more than 7 million migrants – among them hundreds of thousands of refugees.

“With a cruel but politically brilliant stroke, Rudd has ended this bigger and more noble national idea of ourselves. We are firmly back in the bounded national community,” says former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and author of a number of books on asylum seekers, Tony Kevin.

The unnamed Iranian woman in the photo, her features blurred to protect her identity, has become an unlikely ambassador for critics of the government who fear that the demonizing of refugees signals a return to the overt racism encapsulated in the country’s notorious “White Australia” policy.

Introduced at the beginning of the last century, the White Australia policy was designed to shut the door to Chinese miners and cheap labor from the South Pacific. The policy with its stress on assimilation was gradually dismantled in the 1970s in favor of a more inclusive model of multiculturalism where migrants were encouraged to maintain their ethnic and cultural identities as long as they adhered to basic social and legal norms.

The policy was put to the test following the end of the war in Vietnam when the first boat filled with Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in Darwin Harbor in early 1976. “If we were ever threatened, that was then,” says Neville Roach, a former chair of the National Multicultural Advisory Council. “There were a million or more people in refugee camps in South East Asia and we were the closest country that could take them. Yet by coming up with a very positive regional solution we managed the crisis.” 

Under that regional framework, Australia took more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees from camps in Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, while the United States and Canada took thousands more.

Today's asylum seekers

But today’s asylum seeker crisis is very different. Barely 2,000 Vietnamese made it by boat to Australia in the 1970s. This year that number has been exceeded almost every month. The bipartisanship of those times has been replaced by an acrimonious political debate and countries like Indonesia are proving harder to co-opt when it comes to finding a regional solution.

“The current political rhetoric has been giving the term 'regional solution' a bad name,” says Mr. Roach. “Australia as the richest country in the region should contribute financially to help South East Asian countries process the refugees and even accept some. This time we’re only talking about 100,000 or so, a number that can easily be accommodated across the region.”

For workers on the frontline like Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, which provides resettlement services, there has been a discernible hardening of attitudes toward asylum seekers. “The [Afghan] Hazaras I work with are reporting being attacked on the streets. They are afraid of catching the trains.”

Ms. Curr blames the politicians for “constantly fanning the flames of conflict and fear” in the community over the asylum issue. “They are shredding our social fabric, pitting one ethnic group against another. We’ve done well for a frontier settlement – a new country – but we’ve destroyed a lot of that.”

Traces of racism?

Melbourne has only recently recovered from the opprobrium associated with a rash of attacks on Indian students that peaked in 2008 and 2009. The attacks were branded by sections of the Indian media as being racially motivated.

But a 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Criminology determined that race played little or no role. It found that many Indian students were more vulnerable to assaults because they often worked in late-night service jobs such as taxi driving, working in gas stations and convenience stores.

While Australians have largely welcomed the contribution migrants have made to Australian society, attitudes toward boat arrivals and Muslims have hardened in recent years.

A survey published by Scanlon Foundation at Melbourne’s Monash University last year found that only 22 percent of Australians believed asylum seekers arriving by boat should be given the chance to permanently settle, while 23 percent thought “turning back the boats” is the best policy. The survey also found that 25 percent had a negative attitude toward Iraqis and Lebanese specifically.

Neville Roach fears that the current debate over asylum seekers will undermine community tolerance of outsiders even further. “I am surprised by how rapidly attitudes have changed,” he says.

Meanwhile the government’s PNG solution is already coming under strain. There has been no let up in the number of boats leaving Java bound for Christmas Island. Nor has it prevented deaths at seas. At least nine asylum seekers drowned on Wednesday when a boat carrying up to 200 people started to take on water southwest of Java.

“What we can see in this policy is another in a very long line of policies that’s designed to provide a very quick fix to what is in essence a very complex global phenomenon,” says Michelle Foster, director of the International Refugee Law Research Program at Melbourne Law School.

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