The myth of the great wave
It is as certain as anything in politics can be that during the next three months, as the federal election looms, the Morrison government will claim time and again that if Australians want to prevent a new wave of asylum seekers on boats they have no choice but to vote for the Coalition.
For the past five years the asylum seeker policies of the Coalition and Labor have been virtually identical. Three weeks ago that changed when Bill Shorten announced Labor would support a bill from the newly elected independent member Kerryn Phelps, allowing seriously ill asylum seekers and refugees, most of whom have been on Nauru and Manus Island since 2013 or even earlier, to be brought to Australia for medical treatment on the recommendation of two doctors.
Scott Morrison and his ministers pounced. The government sought to inflame public opinion against the people on Nauru and Manus Island soon coming to Australia because of Shorten’s decision. On Thursday, Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, told reporters that because of them Australians on waiting lists for hospital treatment were going to be “kicked off” and those already in public housing “kicked out”. Even one gesture of weakness regarding the 1000 people who remain on Nauru and Manus Island, the government argues, would provide the signal that people smugglers need for their evil trade to begin again. This argument is entirely and demonstrably false.
I have been following the boat asylum seeker issue closely since the arrival of boats in the late 1990s. The reason boats set out for Australia is not difficult to understand.
Between 1999 and August 2001, the Howard government tried to deter the boats by two measures: indefinite mandatory detention in Australia and temporary protection visas for those found to be refugees. Despite the suffering in the detention camps, on balance these deterrent measures failed.
In August and September 2001, at the time of the confected Tampa “crisis”, the Howard government introduced two additional deterrents – offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island and, where possible, turnbacks to country of origin or port of departure. These two measures succeeded. Between 2002 and 2007, virtually no asylum seeker boats set sail. It is important to recall that even though the Howard government quietly settled in Australia the majority of the people thus detained on Nauru and Manus Island, the trade did not begin again.
In 2008, the Rudd government removed temporary protection visas, offshore processing and naval turnbacks. Gradually, the asylum seeker boats returned. Kevin Rudd had no answer. It was one of the reasons for his removal.
During the government of Julia Gillard, genuinely large numbers of boats set out for Australia. Between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, 25,000 asylum seekers reached Australian territory. Eventually, her government reintroduced offshore processing but at first for only a small fraction of the arrivals. As the numbers were, by 2012, too great for the Australian detention camps, the arrivals lived in the community on bridging visas. This helps explain why the pace of boat arrival accelerated in the final year of the Gillard government.
In July 2013, shortly after being returned to the prime ministership, Rudd announced that all asylum seekers arriving by boat would be sent to Manus Island and Nauru and, more importantly, would never be allowed to settle in Australia. He did not, however, reintroduce the turnback policy. The trade slowed significantly. Once in government, Tony Abbott restored turnbacks. In the past five years, a few boats have set out each year. Only one has reached Australian territory.
What was to be done about the people on Nauru and Manus Island who could never be settled in Australia? In mid-November 2015, Malcolm Turnbull announced an agreement with the Obama administration for settling up to 1250 proven refugees from the offshore processing camps in the United States. Fearing a new wave of asylum boats, the Australian Navy was deployed on a war footing in the Indian Ocean. Nothing happened.
The lesson from this ought to have been straightforward. While Australia maintains its deterrence policy of offshore processing and naval turnbacks, the chance of a new wave of asylum seeker boats is close to zero.
Consider the obstacles now facing an asylum seeker who has decided to try to make a new life in Australia.
First, the asylum seeker must pay a people smuggler a tidy sum – according to some reports, if from Indonesia, as much as $US7000.
Second, having paid for their passage, the asylum seeker must hope to survive the perilous Indian Ocean journey on an often-unseaworthy fishing boat.
Third, having survived, the asylum seeker must hope that their boat will not be intercepted by an Australian naval vessel. Thirty-four boats have set sail since 2014. Not even one of those sailing from Indonesia or Sri Lanka has reached Australia. (The only boat that got through the net came by a different route from Vietnam.) If their boat is intercepted, the asylum seeker will be returned to their port of departure or, if from Sri Lanka or Vietnam, to their home country after a brief on-ocean phone interview. A handful of these might be sent to Nauru or Manus Island.
Fourth, having evaded an Australian naval vessel, as only one boat has managed to do since 2014, the asylum seeker who has made it to Christmas Island will either be repatriated or detained and sent to Nauru (if female or part of a family) or to Manus Island (if male), where they can look forward to several years of soul-destroying indefinite detention.
The truth is simple. Since 2001, Australia has created an anti-boat asylum seeker deterrent system as formidable and impenetrable as any in any nation’s history. We have built a mediaeval fortress but continue to mistake it – or pretend to mistake it – for a house of cards.
This is what Scott Morrison and his ministers now cry:
Shorten Labor will allow asylum seekers – among whom there are murderers, rapists and paedophiles – to come to Australia for medical treatment on the mere say-so of doctors.
The danger of a new wave of boats is now so great that we have been obliged to reopen the detention centre on Christmas Island, at considerable cost to the long-suffering taxpayer.
Shorten Labor is responsible for the impending arrival of an armada of asylum seeker boats. When it comes to asylum seeker boats, only the Coalition can be trusted.
The delusion that the decent treatment of those remaining on Nauru and Manus Island will inevitably trigger an impending armada of asylum seeker boats – an almost textbook example of Canberra groupthink – lies behind the wilful destruction of 1000 fellow human beings.
Supporters of present policy believe that the people still on Nauru and Manus Island must be sacrificed so that Australian borders remain secure. Supporters of the refugees and asylum seekers, following Immanuel Kant, reply that human beings must never be used as means to an end.
The situation is in fact worse than this suggests. The lives of the 1000 are being destroyed not as a means to an end but for no reason. If the offshore processing and turnback policies are retained, both John Howard’s settlement policy and the Turnbull–Obama deal have revealed that the people sent to Nauru and Manus Island can be brought to Australia without any prospect of a new wave of asylum seeker boats.
Since August 2016, I have argued – alongside others – that the supporters of asylum seekers need to accept there is no asylum seeker policy with any chance of political acceptance that does not involve the cruelty of turnback and compromise regarding refugees and universal human rights.
In essence, what we have argued is that the friends of the asylum seekers have a choice – either acceptance of a morally and legally imperfect policy involving turnbacks and, as an insurance, offshore processing, or a seemingly morally and legally perfect policy that would see many more deaths at sea, that will never be accepted by either a Coalition or Labor government and that will allow the opponents of the asylum seekers to argue, semi-plausibly, that if the people marooned on Nauru and Manus Island are brought to Australia we will inevitably see a return to the situation of mid-2013 where several boats of asylum seekers were arriving each week.
Since the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous people, I can think of no greater act of state-supported injustice in our history than the way we have watched impassively as the people we have sent to Nauru and Manus Island die slowly before our eyes.
To my mind, the question then is this: Will Australians in significant numbers be gullible, or callous, or indifferent enough to believe the story Morrison and his ministers are now telling them – about the impending arrival of an armada of asylum seekers on boats if we behave decently by bringing all seriously ill refugees on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia for medical treatment? In the next three months, we shall find out.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "The myth of the great wave". Subscribe here.