You Heard We’re Stopping The Boats? You Heard Wrong.
By Mike SteketeeAugust 13, 2012
Despite huge efforts to deter and block boat journeys, Australian immigration policies in fact encourage asylum seekers to come by boat.
On a Sunday night in May last year, a young woman flew into Melbourne from Bahrain with her 10-month-old son.
It was the final step in a long journey to be reunited with her husband, who had arrived about four months earlier. But plans went awry at the airport: immigration officials singled her out, ran a computer check and cancelled her tourist visa. The check had revealed that her husband had applied to stay in Australia as a refugee.
"The reason she was stopped initially was because of the country she came from," says Pamela Curr of Melbourne's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. "She had a valid visa and a valid passport." But a provision in the Migration Act allowed her visa to be cancelled, apparently on the grounds that she had not given the true reason for coming to Australia — that is, it was cancelled on the suspicion that she too would apply to stay permanently as a refugee. Her story is a window on a dark side of Australia as a haven for refugees: we do our level best to prevent people coming here to claim asylum — and not just by stopping boats.
Immigration officers sought to put the woman and her baby on a return flight, but there was none immediately available. Instead they took them to an immigration detention centre at Broadmeadows, with the aim of getting them on a plane the following day. In the meantime, her husband, prevented from seeing his wife and child, had contacted the centre where Curr works. A lawyer gained permission for her husband to visit his wife, and helped her to lodge an asylum application.
"We found out they were going to send her to Darwin," says Curr. "It is indicative of the punitive mind set: they wanted to get her as far away as possible."
Curr persuaded immigration officials to reverse this decision, and mother and son were sent instead to a motel near the airport, where two guards stayed day and night with her in a tiny room. "I went and visited and she was sitting there too scared to breastfeed her child. She could not sleep or eat." After a few days she was moved to another room with a separate bedroom where she could feed the baby without guards present. Curr says achieving this privacy required intervention at a high level in the Immigration Department and that it would not have occurred if the couple had not been clients of her centre. A letter Curr wrote to Government MPs and the Immigration Department at the time ended: "What sort of country have we become that such treatment is routine — and it is?" She says she did not receive a meaningful answer.
The story has a happy ending: both husband and wife were accepted as refugees. "They were democracy protestors in Bahrain and had an absolutely rock-solid case," says Curr. We cannot name them for fear of the consequences for relatives in Bahrain, where human rights advocates have been persecuted and killed.
Curr says she knows of another couple who arrived in Perth and were put on a flight back to Bahrain within 10 hours. "They [officials] don't have to give reasons for airport turnarounds, and they don't. But we are sure that they claimed asylum at the airport, even though they might not have used the right words, according to some immigration officer. That is the worst thing you can do: they just turned them around."
The Immigration Department said in response to questions that 1,877 people had been refused immigration clearance during 2010-11 for a variety of reasons, and they included 1,809 at airports. It added that only a small number were removed from Australia but could not provide figures. "A person who is refused immigration clearance and who raises claims or information that may engage Australia's protection obligations under the Refugee Convention or other human rights instruments will not be removed," the department added. But based on the cases above, they may be put on a plane in anticipation of their claiming asylum. In other words, it is a matter of who gets in first.
In the nine months to the end of March, 5,343 people flew to Australia and succeeded in lodging their claims for asylum after entering Australia on a tourist or other visa. Another 4,503 did the same after arriving by boat and the numbers have increased since then.
There are no prizes for guessing which is the more comfortable, let alone safer, way to travel. Recent tragedies have highlighted the dangers of coming on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats, but this is nothing new. An estimated 1,040 asylum seekers died at sea trying to get to Australia between 1998 and 2010, according to Sydney University law professor and refugee expert Mary Crock. Almost 9,000 deaths, including drownings, of people attempting to enter countries in Europe earlier this decade have been documented. Worldwide, four per cent of asylum seekers drown after setting out on boats, according to Khalid Koser, co-editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies and academic dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
Asylum seekers certainly do not catch boats because it is the cheaper way to travel — not at the going people-smuggler rates of $5,000 to $10,000 per person. That would easily pay for a ticket to Australia from anywhere in the world; indeed, from many places they could fly first class. There's another advantage in coming by plane: provided you can jump the immigration hurdles at the airport and claim asylum after you are allowed into the country, you are free to live in the community while your claim is processed, rather than being locked up in a detention centre.
There is a myth — one of many in this debate — that refugees who travel by plane do so legally, while those who catch a boat are "illegals". In fact, those who come by air often do so under false pretences: they obtain a tourist or other visa and then declare their real intentions to stay permanently once they arrive here. But under the Refugee Convention, to which Australia subscribes and whose principles are enshrined in domestic law, both groups of people are equally entitled to use these means to claim asylum.
The obvious reason why people risk their lives on leaky fishing boats is that they do not have an alternative.
Amid all the controversy about the pull and push forces responsible for the fluctuating numbers of boat people over recent decades, one major factor is routinely ignored. Despite the enormous efforts made to deter and block boat journeys, there is a raft of policies that do precisely the opposite: they encourage people to catch boats. One is the way air travel is policed. Some asylum seekers simply do not have the necessary travel documents and cannot obtain them from their governments, as you would expect of people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries.
Others do have the documentation, as we know from the stories of people smugglers telling boat people to destroy their papers before they arrive in Australia. The reason they do so is widely represented as increasing their chances of staying in Australia. More accurately, says William Maley, director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University and vice-president of the Refugee Council, "it doesn't increase their chances of being found to be a refugee, but it does mean it is harder for them to be removed from Australia."
Those asylum seekers who can get travel documents have already achieved a minor victory: they have defied Australian attempts to stop them booking a flight, though, as we have seen with the Bahraini couples, they still have a few hurdles to jump. Electronic travel authorities, or ETAs, are a convenient, widely used means of obtaining permission to travel here for up to three months.
Applications can be made through airlines, travel agents and, for a limited number of countries, online, without the need to visit an Australian immigration office or receive a stamp in a passport. But they are available only to visitors from countries considered "low risk". The current list of 34 such countries includes the US, the UK and most of Europe but none of the nationalities which provide most of Australia's asylum applications. These are, in order according to the latest Immigration Department figures, Afghans, Iranians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, stateless people and Sri Lankans.
The reason is confirmed in a 2007 Australian National Audit Office report, which lists the first item considered by the Immigration Department in its "objective assessment of the immigration risk involved": that is, "an analysis of the level of protection visa activity by nationals of the particular country over the past two years". A protection visa is the official authorisation for people to stay in Australia as refugees.
Another visa, called eVisitor, can be applied for online; it allows multiple entries to Australia over a 12-month period and for up to three months at a time. Its list of 35 countries also does not include any of those from which we receive significant numbers of asylum applications. Those unable to apply for electronic visas have to go through a much more rigorous and bureaucratic process, including meeting health, character, financial and in some cases biometric requirements.
Many Australians would question whether the above list of excluded nationalities can be correct. They probably have never heard of Chinese or Indians wanting to come here as refugees. That is because they arrive mainly by air and receive little attention, in contrast to our preoccupation with boat people. They also are much less likely to be refugees, as opposed to people simply looking for a better life: in 2010-11, only 30 per cent of Chinese asylum claims and 8 per cent of those made by Indians were accepted. That is a measure of the success Australia has in keeping genuine refugees off planes. Another is the nationalities that come mainly by boat. The largest number in absolute terms, Afghans, were accepted as refugees in 89 per cent of cases in 2010-11. For Iraqis the success rate was 90 per cent and for Iranians 94 per cent.
Another reason asylum seekers do not fly here receives even less attention: there is an active program to disrupt their travel. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australia's overseas spy agency, uses the intelligence it collects to frustrate people smuggling, including through airports (in Malaysia or Indonesia, en route to a boat). As well, the Immigration Department has 20 so-called airport liaison officers (ALOs) at 12 overseas airports. Last financial year, they blocked the travel to Australia of 188 people who, in the words of a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, were "improperly documented".
That was a 50 per cent increase on the previous year, although still not many people. But they have a much larger deterrent effect. As the department says in its 2010-11 annual report, "by their visible presence, [they] deter the activities of those involved in people smuggling". The program is reinforced by airlines being held responsible for ensuring that passengers have correct documentation, with fines of up to $10,000 for breaches.
One reason the liaison-officer program is largely unknown is because the government does not talk much about it. For what it says are security reasons, it will not reveal where the officers are posted or how they do their job. According to Leanne Weber, a criminologist and research fellow at Monash University, the aim of the ALO program and the airline carriers' liability policy is to prevent "high risk" nationalities from travelling. In other words, they target the same countries which produce the highest number of asylum seekers, based on aggregate risk categories determined initially by nationality. "Typically, their citizens will face enormous, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in obtaining visas to travel to any safe and developed country," she says. "The lack of a visa might not matter so much if people without visas were merely required to explain themselves at the border. But this checking now occurs well before this, effectively immobilising people in transit countries."
Curr says the activities of ALOs are obvious at airports like Jakarta. "You line up to board a flight to Australia and there's an ALO with a laptop and two mobile phones and he's working furiously pulling out anyone who looks like they come from a third-world country and checking with Canberra on their visas."
We do not know how many people turned back at airports or, more significantly, deterred from travelling by air, are asylum seekers, nor how many then resort to dangerous boat voyages. But the statistics quoted above are suggestive: the largest number of asylum seekers coming by boat are also the ones most likely to be assessed as refugees.
In short, the government's own efforts at border protection are contributing to the flow of boat people, the issue that is causing it so much political grief. "If you block safe modes of travel, people are going to look for alternatives," says Weber. If recent experience has confirmed anything, then it surely is that people who get on boats, despite all the evident dangers, are driven by desperation.
While Australia has a particular paranoia about boat arrivals, it is not the only country trying to block asylum seekers. An inquiry by the UK Refugee Council in 2008 concluded that people fleeing from countries in upheaval, such as Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe, found it very difficult to obtain passports and visas. "Visa regimes are one of the primary reasons why asylum seekers and other migrants must resort to the services of smugglers, use false documents and expose themselves to extreme danger and the possibility of interception and refoulement [forced return to their country of origin]," its report said.
What is the alternative? Relaxing visa requirements and the controls at overseas airports would allow more people who are genuine refugees to travel to Australia safely. Would it mean we would be "swamped", to borrow a Pauline Hanson term? Probably not, since most would not be able to raise the airfare and there would be fewer coming by boat. Perhaps it would touch that particularly sensitive political nerve in Australia — border security — although that has never had much traction when it comes to plane people.
There would be less pressure on Australia if other countries took similar steps to remove some of the barriers facing asylum seekers coming by air. We could follow the recommendations of the UK Refugee Council that asylum claims should be taken into account when checking the documents of travellers overseas.
For all the millions of words uttered and written about refugees in Australia, the misconceptions have proven hard to shift. The argument repeatedly heard against asylum seekers who come to Australia unannounced is that they are taking the places of more deserving refugees who are patiently waiting their turn in camps — that is, they are "queue jumpers". But there is no queue in any meaningful sense of the word. Only a small proportion of asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and only a small number of those are resettled as refugees in other countries. According to the Edmund Rice Centre, it would take 158 years to reach the front of the queue in Malaysia, where there are close to 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
Crock discovered in research conducted in Malaysia a marked difference in the attitude of Burmese refugees, who are more readily accepted by western countries, and nationalities such as Afghans and Sri Lankan Tamils, whose chances of being resettled are much smaller and who spoke openly about wanting to get on boats, despite the risks. As one person told her: "On a boat you die once; here I die a little every day."
People who flee from their country to one prepared to assess their asylum claims are not necessarily any less desperate or worthy of refugee status than those who end up in camps. Some critics hold some asylum seekers' "wealth" against them, on the basis that just because they can afford to come here doesn't mean they should receive preference over impoverished people languishing in camps. But few genuine refugees are wealthy, certainly by any western standard. In Afghanistan, the persecuted Hazara communities pool their resources to raise the money to send those in most danger — often young males who run the risk of being captured by the Taliban — out of the country. As Maley, an expert on Afghanistan, has pointed out, "the willingness of people to part with their life savings may serve to establish just how severe is the threat that those who are in flight actually face." This is the criterion the Refugee Convention applies to asylum seekers: those with a well-founded fear of persecution or death should be accepted as refugees. Income or wealth is not a factor.
Under current government policy, we take 6,000 so-called offshore refugees a year from overseas locations, most of whom have been referred for resettlement by the UNHCR. In addition we accept a further 7,750 people in two categories. The first are those who are successful in their asylum claims after reaching Australia — the so-called onshore component. The second are those admitted under the special humanitarian program — mostly people sponsored by family members in Australia who have already succeeded in their refugee claims. Because the Howard government linked these two categories, the increased numbers arriving by air and sea in recent years has meant a fall in the numbers under the special humanitarian program. But the 6,000 refugees a year we take under the offshore program have not been affected to date. "The claim that onshore refugees have taken scarce places from patient offshore refugees is entirely spurious," says Maley.
What the link has done is to create yet another way in which people are driven to look for alternatives — in particular, trying to bring family members, usually women and children, to Australia by boat.
The same happened when the Howard Government brought in a policy that Tony Abbott has vowed to reintroduce — temporary protection visas, under which refugees are prohibited from bringing family members to Australia. Crock says the proportion of children on boats jumped from 5 per cent before TPVs were introduced in 1999 to 30 per cent by mid-2001. The obvious way to deal with the current issue is to break the link between the onshore component and the special humanitarian program, reducing the time refugees here have to wait to bring out family members. There is all the more reason to do this if we can achieve better control of the numbers coming under the Refugee Convention.
Which brings us to what the Refugee Convention is all about: assessing the claims of asylum seekers who arrive unnannounced. A person applying to be a refugee under the Convention's terms must be outside their country of origin. It gives the right to refugees to enter a member country to seek asylum, regardless of how they come or whether they have valid travel or identity documents. It specifically prohibits member countries from penalising asylum seekers.
This is what we signed up for 61 years ago when we became one of the first countries to accede to the Refugee Convention. It is what the government and opposition say they continue to uphold. Yet we have been turning ourselves inside out to avoid its obligations, including shipping people to other countries, locking them up in detention centres, even though they have committed no crime, and trying to block their travel to Australia.
There are other options for discouraging boat journeys. At the end of June this year, there were 4,766 asylum seekers and 1,219 refugees registered with the office of the UNHCR in Jakarta. These people are in Indonesia — a country that does not recognise their right to live there — for one reason: they hope to get to Australia, which does recognise their rights under the Refugee Convention, although you would not always know it listening to the fevered debate in this country. In 2007-8, Australia took six refugees who had been processed by the UNHCR office in Jakarta. (No, that is not a misprint.) The following year, we accepted 36 and the year after, 138. Is it any wonder that refugees looked for alternatives and that people smugglers offered them?
When Chris Evans was Immigration Minister, he agreed to increase the number Australia took from the UNHCR list to 500 for 2010-11. The increase was not widely known: Canberra never made much of it, presumably because of fears of increased flows into Indonesia. According to a spokeswoman for Evans's successor, Chris Bowen, "the 2010-11 figure was part of Australia's ongoing co-operation with countries in our region and the UNHCR to improve outcomes for refugees in the region and work towards a more orderly migration system". At last asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia could have a reasonable expectation that their turn might come.
It is hard to tell how much effect the increased intake had during a period when both air and boat arrivals have been rising. The figures suggest it slowed the trend in increasing boat arrivals: in 2009-10 boat arrivals leapt from 690 to 4,591; in 2010-11, the year we increased the Indonesian intake, they rose much less slowlyto 5,175; and in 2011-12, they again jumped more rapidly to 8,092. More significantly, the Government dropped the commitment after one year: in 2011-12, the numbers were down to 181.
Bowen's office would not explain why the intake of 500 a year was not maintained. Rather it pointed to the increased numbers we are taking from Malaysia — 1,356 in 2011-12, compared to an average of 465 in the previous four years. Even though the Malaysia agreement was blocked in the High Court, Australia has agreed to take an extra 1,000 refugees a year processed by the UNHCR in Malaysia.
This may help raise the hopes of asylum seekers in Malaysia of getting to Australia without resort to people smugglers. Whether it has a significant impact is another matter, given the almost 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, not counting another 10,000 who are not registered with the UNHCR.
An independent panel of experts today delivered their report on Australia's asylum seeker policies, arguing that Australia should process asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea and Nauru and increase its humanitarian intake to 20,000 places a year, among 20 other recommendations. Read the full report here.