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Preparing for the fifth wave

  • 12 June 2006

In the introduction to this book, Frank Brennan invites us to engage in a simple thought experiment: imagine that every country in the world adopted Australia’s ‘slam the back door’ policy on refugees. A person suffering persecution would be confronted by two stark choices—either endure the situation while waiting in a theoretical ‘queue’ for a protection visa, or flee across a border without a visa and be incarcerated in a remote detention centre for an indefinite period, with no recourse to a judge or right of appeal to the courts. This prompted me to ponder another thought. Imagine that Australia had succeeded in its initial response to the Tampa (refusing to allow it to land or disembark its rescued asylum seekers) and that every other nation in the world had adopted a similar policy. We would have seen a repeat of the ‘voyage of the damned’, the infamous 1939 journey of the St. Louis which took 1000 Jews from Hamburg to Havana, only to be denied entry both by Cuba and the United States. The vessel returned to Europe and many of its passengers ultimately died as victims of the Holocaust. Such scenarios amply demonstrate Brennan’s thesis that Australia’s ‘tampering with asylum’ has been a detour on the path to ‘a more decent and workable asylum policy for first world countries’. He describes the Howard government’s response to the Tampa as a ‘firebreak’ policy, one designed to stop the refugee problem spreading across Australia’s borders but doing nothing to address it at the source. The analogy is apt. It suggests the peculiarly Australian nature of the response—few other nations have the geographical characteristics that would allow for such a firebreak. It also suggests that this kind of policy must be temporary and unsustainable. (Unless the fire itself is put out, how long will it be before the conflagration becomes so fierce that the firebreak is jumped?) The great strength of Brennan’s book is his long engagement and close familiarity with the issues, both as a humanitarian and as a lawyer. He describes the four waves of asylum seekers who have arrived on Australia’s shores by boat since the end of the Vietnam War and outlines the construction of an increasingly harsh policy response. In this way he is able to trace the lineage of the misnamed ‘Pacific Solution’, seeing its antecedents in the 1991 opening of the Port Hedland detention centre by a