4 October 2003

People-Smuggling: National Myths and Realities

Given the proportionately big increase in irregular immigration to Australia by boat since 1998, the asylum seeker issue was set to figure prominently in the 2001 election. It was always going to be difficult for the opposition parties to get the focus onto more important issues like the environment, education and health.

With SIEV 10's arrival the asylum seeker issue domination of the last couple of days of the campaign was assured. No other issue came close. Talkback radio stations were jammed with calls vilifying asylum seekers and expressing support for the PM's apparently strong stand on border security. SIEV 10 sealed the election for the Coalition.

Of course this prompts the obvious question of why the boats did eventually stop. Well yes Relex played a part. But I make the point again that it was the post-election towbacks that sent the strongest signal, along with SIEV X, Tampa, offshore processing and disruption operations, along with the improved inter- as well as intra-government cooperation.

The other obvious question is whether or not the pre-2001 election roll back of Relex was intended to increase somehow the Government's chances at the polls. Well I don't know the answer to that. But in light of the Government's habitual dishonesty on other issues, I couldn't blame some people from drawing that conclusion. Certainly such behaviour would have been consistent with the Government's broader and enduring preparedness to manipulate national security issues for its own benefit.

Looking ahead, the current lull in boat arrivals is very fragile. Recent Government successes mask the fact that Australia is not immune from the global trend towards increasing people movement. Nor is it immune from the increasing trend towards irregular migration facilitated by people-smugglers.

The traditional sources of irregular immigration to Australia - Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam - will probably continue to feature in the flow of people to Australia.

Afghanistan and Iraq in particular will continue to be big potential sources of asylum-seekers, at least so long as serious doubts remain over those countries' stability and prosperity. The morality of the Government's haste to return asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq in particular is especially dubious.

And new sources of people flows to Australia are bound to emerge, sometimes with little or no warning. Significantly, the scale of potential flows from non-traditional sources like India, Indonesia and Africa are far in excess of anything Australia has ever experienced.

I thought it was more than faintly disgusting to watch the Howard government demonise Iraqi and Afghan refugees while denouncing the Iraqi and Afghan regimes from which these people were fleeing. I did not then realise that Operation Relex was a tap the government could turn on and off at will.

Why then did the government announce it was shutting off the tap while actually it reduced the commitment to Relex and enabled the arrival of more boats in good time for the election? Were they using security politics as a way to achieve a preferred electoral outcome?

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