Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Howard asylum seeker policy must remain history

  • 20 April 2009

Despite Labor's best efforts, the political debate over asylum seekers is set to reignite. The increase in the number of boat arrivals has been reported out of context, and some Liberal politicians made unwarranted assertions following Thursday's tragic explosion on board an asylum seeker vessel off the coast of Western Australia.

The Australian newspaper has added to the disquiet by publishing Howard Government immigration minister Philip Ruddock's contention that boat people are often advised by people smugglers to sabotage their own craft. It then went on to quote Ruddock's successor Kevin Andrews' opinion that the Rudd Government reforms have 'opened the door' to people smugglers.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith recently attributed the spike to an increase in 'push factors' that have led to more people wanting to leave countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The military misadventures of the US and other Western nations including Australia have contributed greatly to the motivation of asylum seekers. The spike in the number of asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia is in fact no greater than that of other destinations.

On Friday, Eureka Street published an analysis of the increase by immigration lawyer Kerry Murphy. Murphy highlights increased tensions in these countries, and also mentions the internal conflict in Sri Lanka.

In addition, he cites the increasing sophistication in the operations of people smugglers, which adds up to more arrivals.

Most significantly, he speaks of the decriminalisation of asylum seekers under Labor, which embraces a mindset that moves beyond a focus on border control to a recognition of Australia's responsibilities as a 'good international citizen'.

He writes: 'On one hand the Coalition were sending troops to deal with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet when people came from those countries seeking protection they were treated as if they had been involved in criminal activity and sent to isolated places such as Nauru with little recognition that they were in need of protection. Now we can see a shift in the language which reflects a more reasoned approach to the issue.'

There is no doubt that Australia has become more humane in its treatment of asylum seekers under the Rudd administration. We were horrified and chastened to read the findings of the Edmund Rice Centre researchers led by Phil Glendenning. About 400 Afghans detained on Nauru were sent back to Afghanistan after having their asylum claims rejected. The researchers established that at least 11 of these are known to