ASIAWATCH — Four people who arrived in Australia by boat have been charged with people smuggling. Another two have been arrested in Thailand, all in connection with a syndicate producing fake passports used to smuggle people across Asia and the Pacific. Luke Hunt reports.
The arrests came after scores of refugees attempting the treacherous voyage to Australia were rescued by Aceh fishermen off the far northwest coast of Indonesia earlier this year. The crippled, overcrowded wooden vessel had a narrow escape with many of the passengers suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.
The Rohingyas – Burmese Muslims – who were onboard were lucky because soon after, another boat sunk off the southern tip of Malaysia with at least eight lives lost.
This tragedy came after some 200 people perished when their overloaded boat sank on the Java coast while en route to Australia in December.
Despite these appalling conditions and ridiculous dangers, men, women and their children – mostly from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran – risk all and embark on the harzardous journey. They believe the lies of secure passage spun by people smugglers.
The relentless arrivals of asylum seekers off the Australian coast and the latest death toll are pressuring Australia’s two major political parties to find a solution which is proving to be elusive, particularly, after the Australian High Court struck down a refugee swap deal with Malaysia.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the tragedies had underscored the need to find tough deterrents aimed at stopping the rush to Australia.
“As we have consistently pointed out, the absence of a disincentive for boat journeys to Australia will mean people will continue to undertake these dangerous journeys,” he said.
However, the temptation to play politics, an inability to find a bipartisan agreement and a stunning decision by the opposition leader Tony Abbot to turn the boats back, if elected, have again highlighted Australia’s inability to deal effectively with refugees and illegal immigration.
The opposition conservatives are leading the government in the opinion polls, but Abbott has failed to capitalise on this, winning himself a reputation as being too negative after he opposed anything and everything put up by the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP).
This has alienated him personally in an electorate which doubts his ability to think arguments through, instead of opting for a quick-fix policy made on the run. He has been dubbed “Dr No” by the local media.
People smuggling is the Achilles heel of both parties, but Abbott’s policies are a legal nightmare and, if enforced, as absurd as it might sound, could amount to crimes against humanity.
It’s also the kind of bully-boy antics that Australia simply can’t afford in its relations with its neighbours.
Abbott also expects the navy to carry out such a policy, even though this would fly in the face of every law of the sea, whether civilian or military, and leave him with little, if any, moral authority to lead.
Senior naval personnel have already claimed that any decision to turn away any boat must be left to the commander involved while Abbott insists it is the navy’s duty to carry out orders from the government of the day.
Men and women join the armed services to protect their country, an admirable career choice, not to turn impoverished civilians in a leaky boat seeking help and asylum back out to sea.
It’s against the law and, if elected, Abbott could risk becoming the first Australian prime minister to risk a mutiny.
Any such policies would also create an enormous backlash from Jakarta, a key transit point for people smugglers and where Indonesians find it difficult to comprehend Australia’s harsh attitudes to asylum seekers.
Many there believe Canberra is seeking to abrogate its responsibilities, attempting to offload its international obligations onto its poorer neighbours.
The smarter people in Abbott’s Liberal Party recognise this. Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison sought a more humane line when commenting on the latest sinking, saying the focus should be on the rescue effort.
“Sadly these events have been occurring for years. The coalition remains as committed as ever to the policies we believe will have the right impact on preventing these tragedies,” he said.
Exactly what those policies are remains to be seen, more than a decade after boatpeople began arriving from the Middle East and Central Asia.