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Labor's Operation Sovereign Borders dilemma


The dreadful tragedy suffered this past week by Rohingya asylum seekers trapped at sea prompted an eventual softened response from Australia’s neighbours.

But there was no change from Australia’s PM, who resolutely declared late on Thursday: ‘I'm sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.’

The week’s events provide a fresh challenge to Labor to rethink its support for the Abbott Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) ‘stop the boats’ policy, which has successfully used strong-arm methods to stop boat people reaching Australia or entering Australian custody, by means that so seemingly has not involved loss of life.

The current government’s record stands in sharp contrast to that of Labor Governments between 2007 and 2013, when around 1100 people died while trying to reach Australia or Australian custody. We need to ask ourselves honestly how and why this happened, and if Labor in government could prevent it from happening again?

If, on regaining government, Labor did what most of its supporters would like it to do – instruct OSB to end its regime of aggressive, secret, internationally illegal forced returns of all asylum-seeker boats or their passengers to Indonesia, and close down the offshore detention camps  now housing around 1500 men, women and children in terrible punitive conditions in Nauru and Manus, and letting those people out into the Australian community – what would be the consequences?

Clearly, the Abbott Government, for as long as it is in power, will continue to run Operation Sovereign Borders maritime operations under the present forced return protocols, and will keep everyone now in offshore detention locked up there indefinitely. The latter is a dreadful prospect which Labor must oppose vigorously.  

But I would like Labor, as a first step towards fruitful public policy discussion of this issue, to be more honest about why those 1100 people died in the years of Labor in power. They only have to study the history of each awful drowning event in our adjacent waters. Those 1100 people did not die because they were sent in unsafe overcrowded boats by ruthless irresponsible people smugglers – the 97 per cent who arrived safely were sent by the same kinds of people smugglers in the same kinds of boats.

The three per cent who died, did so because Labor’s operational model for border protection and rescue of people in distress at sea, which tried to be consistent with international and Australian laws and maritime rescue best practice, broke down.

By the end, a demoralised and confused Australian border protection and maritime rescue system had lost the plot of what it was supposed to be doing out there in that 200 mile wide strip of international waters between Java and Christmas Island. Under Labor, Australia finished up with a failing model of irresolute maritime border control that encouraged people smugglers to keep sending out boats, and a failing model of second- class rescue at sea that mostly worked but sometimes broke down.

How could Labor prevent the same patterns repeating themselves? And what would Labor for Refugees want Bill Shorten and Richard Marles to advocate, as they seek government in the next election?

I don’t see how a Labor government could ever again responsibly put itself in the situation as it was in 2013 – where it could credibly be accused of running a system of second-class Australian rescue response to asylum-seeker distress atsea. I would not wish it on Labor to go back to the conflicted, irresolute policy environment it sustained in those awful three years 2011-13, when so many people drowned at sea who could have been saved if available rescue options were more swiftly and decisively exercised by Australia.

Of course, Labor must robustly call for immediate closure of the offshore detention camps and release into Australia of their inmates. But I am tending to the view that Labor should quietly live with the present operational protocols for OSB. As long as OSB goes on working, there is no need for or logic in the superfluous deterrent of offshore detention. Offshore detention should never have been initiated by Labor. It was a cruel and reckless policy. It needs now definitely to be abandoned.

Looking further ahead, Labor must commit now to working hard for regional diplomatic solutions to refugee flows like the present one out of Burma. Australia must soften its now notorious hardline policies towards boat people, if it is to have any hope of joining the ASEAN regional dialogue now getting underway on ways to help them. Labor must commit to detaining any future maritime arrivals not offshore but within Australia,  and for as short a time as possible. Labor should put in place workable in-community monitoring systems. And Labor in government should let OSB get on with the job it is doing now.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is author of Reluctant Rescuers. A longer version of this article is available here. Tony is indebted to the research of Marg Hutton that is available on her website sievx.com

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Rohinhya, Operation Sovereign Borders, refugees, asylum seekers, offshore detention



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Existing comments

I have to agree with your argument. Australia must strengthen ties with our neighbours and deal with them respectfully in trying to devise a regional processing system. At present our "Christian" leaders are being shown up as less Christian in attitude than our Moslem neighbours in responding to the Burmese asylum seekers. The offshore camps must be closed and Australia's aid budget devoted to building community resources in our neighbouring countries, not paying for the disgusting system that Rudd, Abbott & Co authorised and supported.

K L Calvert | 22 May 2015  

Tony Kevin throws down the challenge to Labor. And it's a fine idea. Labor has a proud tradition of fighting for the powerless and disadvantaged so the party needs to rethink its 'border protection' policy. This week has shown (if we didn't already know) just how callous the government has acted towards those seeking protection. We are a big enough country to have a policy that attempts to resettle people safely in their own country and if that is not possible, to open our doors, as far as we are able, to those who need us.

Pam | 22 May 2015  

Surely a better way to "stop the boats" would be to send every person on a boat to a UNHCR camp, in return for which Australia would resettle TWO refugees from that same camp? This would simultaneously 1) avoid the brutality of "pushing boats back out", would 2) avoid the inhumanity and vast expense of maintaining concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island, 3) "send the message" that the one way to not get to Australia would be to pay a people smuggler (thus "breaking their business model", to borrow the convoluted language of our political class), all while fulfilling our obligation assist the humane resettlement of desperate people.

David Arthur | 22 May 2015  

How demented, if OSB is still turning away everyone what is the point of alp being decent to anyone. Turning pple away is monstrous and should never be allowed. I am disappointed in this piece

Marilyn | 23 May 2015  

While I applaud the attempt in this article to find viable long- term solutions, it does not address the current crisis. The reality is that thousands of starving men, women and children have been drifting on the seas in our region. The first priority is to rescue them, bring them ashore and feed them. The second priority is to ascertain their status and claims, if any, for resettlement. Countries in our region are doing that while Australia remains unmoved. Australia is like the rich man, eating and drinking while Lazarus starves at his gate. The irony is that the majority of Australians are descendants of, or first generation migrants. The Irish came here to escape the potato famine. The Europeans were facing starvation after the devastation and destruction of World War Two, The ten pound poms were economic migrants. How can we forget our origins and demonize desperate people looking for a better life? Front door, back door arguments avoid the new reality of today's world- wide crisis,

Maureen O'Brien | 23 May 2015  

K L Calvert 23 May 2015:"At present our "Christian" leaders are being shown up as less Christian in attitude than our Moslem neighbours " The difference in attitudes seems to stem from 'religious' motivation. 'Christians' are discriminating against Muslim refugees, while Muslims are discriminating in favour of Muslims. In both cases, Godliness of attitude is displaced by affiliation to whatever religious group one is associated with. Religions are becoming like false gods, claiming the loyalty that belongs to God alone. Religions are paths up the Mountain of God, and each one is fashioned to reflect the cultural values of the group. No one path can claim exclusive access to God, though most behave as if they do. Only when all religions achieve mutual recognition and respect, in line with the teaching of both Peter and Paul, that God does not have 'favourites', will religions cease to be sources of prejudices and strife, and become the uplifting and healing influences of the Spirit of God.

Robert Liddy | 23 May 2015  

I agree with Maureen that the Rohingyas must be succoured. There is no acceptable option. However, it's of utmost importance that a coherent and well accepted policy be developed at the same time, or there will be a renewed flood of boats and people to be rescued. Thank you, Tony Kevin, and thank you those like Robert Liddy who propose strategies that can meet the concerns of the government and of the asylum seekers. Let's open up the discussion asap, or, while Labor postures about same sex marriage and the Government postures about saving the nation, people will continue to drown and the survivors will be tormented as a preventive measure.

Joan Seymour | 24 May 2015  

Mr Kevin. In all of your communications on this vexing and difficult issue two things stand out. First, your obvious and admirable concern for the lives and well being of people attempting to come here by sea (foolishly in my view and in full knowledge of the risks and potential consequences) and second, your tunnel vision in favour of the ALP. It would indeed be interesting were you to express a view on the deliberate destruction of an estimated 100,000 innocent and defenceless human lives in their mothers' wombs in this country every year, paid for and made possible in all States and territories of Australia (except NSW, where abortion is still a criminal offence) by ALP governments which have abolished anti- abortion laws and provided funding for this legislated slaughter through Labor's great Medibank (now Medicare) health insurance funding scheme. Are these lives not as important as those of adult refugees? Do you reserve any criticisms of the ALP's active, singular complicity in the deaths of these innocents ? Which of the two situations should we consider the most deserving of ours and our government's attentions?

john frawley | 24 May 2015  

Yes, they’re pretty good odds Tony aren’t they? Only 3% of asylum-seekers drown while trying to get into Australia. Those people smugglers really are exercising an appropriate “duty of care” for their desperate charges. Up to the early 19th century the mortality rate for those sailing to Australia from Europe would probably have been that. But if 3% of sea voyagers were drowning on their way to Australia from Asia in 2015 it would be a major scandal. It seems you are somehow trying to shift responsibility for the 1200 dead asylum-seekers away from the people smugglers to the Australian government, saying it didn’t do enough to save them. It’s as if someone is trying to illegally break into your house, say through the roof, and you thoughtfully place a mattress on the lounge floor so that if the crash through the ceiling they don’t hurt themselves. And while the revelation that up to 70% of the Rohingyas could be Bangla Deshis may dampen initially sympathetic reactions to their plight the stateless Rohingyas should still be helped. Once they have separated out all the Bangla Deshis claiming to be Rohingyas Australia should take some, Raising our humanitarian intake to 25,000 from 20,000 would help. But in the long run only sustained international pressure on Burma to make it treat its one million Rohingyas better – such as giving them Burmese citizenship - is likely to stem the flow of these desperate people.

Dennis | 24 May 2015  

Whilst I understand Robert Liddy's piece about religious preferences, I think the simple Acehnese fishermen who saved the Rohingyas at peril were reacting to a real, non-seminar situation. Common compassion and concern for persecuted co-religionists seem, in this instance, to have acted as a circuit breaker and positively affected the policy of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments. Much more, of course, needs to be done about the severe world refugee crisis. We could certainly help with some of the requisite heavy lifting.

Edward Fido | 24 May 2015  

John Frawley, I'm a bit baffledabout why you think we can't save the lives of boat people AND unborn babies. Are you expecting Liberal Governments to overturn current abortion laws, and if not why not?

AURELIUS | 24 May 2015  

Do you think that in all our words and debate that we sometimes forget we are talking about real live flesh and blood human beings? Through a supporter of a family who are trying to survive in the suburbs after years on Christmas Island, I met a mother , father and school age child. Their bravery , resilience determination and above all honesty and good humor inspired me. This family of three are to me no longer asylum seekers , refugees , migrants or what ever other name they are given. They are people with names and personalities like me and my family . They laugh and cry ,are happy and sad just like us And they have suffered so much. Thanks to all those who fight the fight to get change through their words , dialogue and argument and those who do the practical things like getting blankets , coats ,shoes, furniture , teach language, provide social contact .Keep challenging us all Tony. Let's hope the labor party can get back to its earlier platform of fighting for disadvantaged people.

Celia | 24 May 2015  

Joan Seymour 24 May 2015 :"I agree with Maureen that the Rohingyas must be succoured. There is no acceptable option.".. We really need to get back to fundamentals. The Earth is there to share. But mankind continually divides it's people into 'us' and 'them'. Usually into 'our lot' and 'their little'. The succour most people would prefer is to be allowed or enabled to live their lives peacefully and productively in their land of birth, among their traditions and culture. In many cases, to achieve they will need international help, to restrain abuse of power by governments, exploitation by capitalistic financial cliques and cartels, and assistance with education. Otherwise the widening divide will find a new Marx to trigger a shake-up and costly re-settlement.

Robert Liddy | 24 May 2015  

I felt Tony Kevin's article was so much to the point on the distressing position we here in Australia that I felt I had to comment on how our political masters (of both colours) have dumped everyone into this travesty of OSB. I truly believe most Australians are deeply ashamed of the terrible situation we've brought on ourselves by our disgraceful lack of compassion towards so many suffering human beings. Surely SOMEONE in a position of authority knows exactly who these people smugglers are and where they 'hang out' when not collecting money from desperate refugees. I also resent the way that the term 'asylum seekers' has morphed into 'illegals'. Also the way the PM tries to present Australians as saving the desperate people as being "saved" from drowning by his mantra of Stop the Boats Would he rather they drown somewhere else? Our hardline policy on offshore detention camps used so proudly by our government could change by using the money spent more thoughtfully and compassionately for people who have so little. We can do better than this.
Mary Maraz

Mary Maraz | 24 May 2015  

AURELIUS. I am not suggesting that we should not save the lives of asylum seekers in distress at sea. I would also suggest that the current policy appears to have achieved that compared with the disasters of the Rudd/Gillard Labor government plan. What I am suggesting is that the writer ignores that fact because his precious ALP is not responsible for the improvement and he appears incapable of recognising any good in a non-Labor government. I am also suggesting that there Is great hypocrisy in all who stand idly by and never raise a whimper against the appalling slaughter of the most dependent human beings in our own society, particularly in those claiming a Christian philosophy and especially those claiming to be adherents of Catholicism. Victoria's and Tasmania's abortion laws are recognised as the most profligate in the western world. To object to abortion in our society of course earns the objector the tag of rat-baggery and invites ridicule. It is easy and without consequence to sit at a computer and spew forth great human concern for strangers out of sight in some other part of the world while ignoring the uncomfortable and many times worse reality of barbarism in our own house. I am also certainly not expecting any governments of any persuasion in this country to overturn existing abortion laws because no politician in this country has the guts to do so and cares only for him/her self. A catholic politician only has to state the fact that abortion is wrong and will be abused and vilified. But AURELIUS, hope is just over the hill, perhaps. I am sure that you are aware that over 20 States in the USA, that great bastion of ignorance, greed and self-indulgence, have recently repealed liberal abortion laws as has France over the past 18 months. I'm in trouble now after this irrational tirade, I suspect! Hopefully the Labor girls in Emily's list won't be sending the boys from the CFMEU around to sort me out.

john frawley | 25 May 2015  

I have read countless articles and comments here at Eureka Street calling for justice or more compassion for refugees. I have not yet read a serious article here discussing how many of the 50 million displaced people in the world Australia could/should take. If the specifics of numbers has been addressed, then I have missed the article and would welcome a link for it. If it has not been written, then I regard the various writers here on the subject as little more than moral poseurs. Get to the nitty-gritty of numbers. How many can we take? What will it cost? What social challenges and issues will it bring and how will we handle them? If you tell me that we should take none, I would say that you are wrong and that you are indeed lacking in compassion. If you tell me that we should take 50 million, I would say that you are wrong and lacking in humility.

John Ryan | 25 May 2015  

Documents have shown that it was always Australian authorities who left people to drown and that included the destitute Indonesians earning $40 to drive the boats.

Marilyn | 26 May 2015  

Thank you for those thoughts. As difficult as it all is i concur with your comments and would press Labor and a future Labor Government to change to something like you are putting forward.

Faye Lawrence | 28 May 2015  

Oh yes the alp has a proud tradition. It has a proud tradition in reckless spending, it has a proud tradition of soft border protection where thousands died at sea and pushing legitimate asylum seekers further down the queue. It has a proud tradition in feather bedding unionised industries, note destroyers 2 years behind schedule and billions over budget. They are a shambles and need a reboot.

Ross | 02 June 2015  

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