The events off Ashmore Reef last week have sent a chill down the spine of the Australian community. We do not know if the asylum seekers on board deliberately set the boat on fire as the Australian Navy was towing it — this is the subject of enquiry. We may never know the truth.
But the very possibility that asylum seekers could take such extreme action talks of a degree of desperation of which most Australians cannot conceive. This in turn elicits one of the deepest fears within the Australian psyche: the fear of non violent infiltration and invasion by people of another culture, perceived to have other values capable of destroying or undermining those we cherish and the way of life we have worked so hard to develop.
This is the political nightmare for any government, hence the clamour of calls for responses out of any proportion to the threat this small number of asylum seekers represents. And it catches both government and opposition flat footed in policy terms.
The fact is that the events of last week are utterly predictable. Indeed such a non-specialist global institution as the BBC was last December warning of the increased likelihood of Afghan asylum seekers making their way to countries outside their region.
The reasons for this 'secondary movement' are well documented: Refugees from Afghanistan have formed the largest single caseload for the last 15 years or more, around 3.1 million in number. During that time, two countries, Iran and Pakistan, have borne the brunt of dealing with the crisis.
Remarkably, few Afghans have taken their journey further. The extent of the crisis has remained largely invisible to the international community.
For the last year both countries have been flagging their use-by date. Iran has resumed expulsions. Ongoing conflict in the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan is impelling Afghans to move. In the Bajaur region Afghans are being expelled as part of the effort by Pakistan to regain military and political control.
Unfortunately these measures have coincided with an increase in insecurity in Afghanistan itself. In short these refugees have nowhere to go. It is no wonder that a few will attempt the journey to Australia.
It is also simply inaccurate for Senator Andrews and others to assert that these journeys are wholly the result of policy-change in Australia. Like the spike in numbers of vessels that the Howard Government met in the late 1990s its causes are chiefly beyond the control of the Australian Government.
The maxim to welcome those claiming asylum, in a manner consistent with the capacity of the welcoming country to receive them, is well established within both Church teaching and in international law. Additionally Church teaching affirms the right of people to move in order to better their own prospects.
The case of 'secondary movers' from Afghanistan via Pakistan and Iran, people who are largely 'warehoused' without prospects in the border regions of both countries, is one the international community has continued to avoid.
The Australian community has two questions before it: how do we establish when our own capacity to receive people has reached its limits? Our track record in receiving immigrants and refugees suggests we retain surplus capacity to welcome at least some Afghans as part of a multi national response.
There is a second question: how do we limit spontaneous movements — those that attempt to come across our borders with no advance notice, such as the boatload that met tragedy near Ashmore Reef — to prevent uncontrolled and overly burdensome requests on Australian assistance?
The policy that sees over-reliance on border control was discredited during the years of the Howard Government for two principle reasons: humanly it results in excessive cruelty, expense and breaches of human rights. Secondly it subtly fuels the trade in people smuggling, whose purveyors know that the market pressure for their 'services' remains while governments make no effort to tackle its causes.
What then is the solution?
The Australian experience during the years of the Indochinese crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s is instructive: the Fraser Government was met with a far more extreme situation with boat loads of Vietnamese refugees fanning out over South East Asia. Some were making it to our shores.
After initial prevarication, that government embarked on a forward policy of engagement and cooperation with other countries in the region, countries willing to resettle the refugees and eventually Vietnam itself, guaranteeing settlement places for a proportion of the refugees in return for South East Asian countries agreeing to hold the refugees as they arrived.
The result was the ordered movement of well over a million people and the cessation of boat people phenomenon in Australia for a period of nearly ten years.
This solution, though not without its problems, satisfied human rights, humanitarian and political criteria. No country was seen as a soft touch. Our borders remained secure and we gained some control over the settlement process.
The present Afghan crisis will only be solved by a concerted and cooperated effort on the part of the international community. This effort must include the countries of first asylum, Iran and Pakistan, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the government of Afghanistan and other prospective resettlement countries.
Australia has an opportunity to show international leadership. In so doing it will help avoid tragedies such as the events of last week.
David Holdcroft SJ is the former director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, currently completing his final year of Jesuit studies. This article is a distillation of ideas contained in a booklet written for the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.