Sections in this issue outline (in order)|
1 What they said. 2 The issue at a glance. 3 Background. 4 Internet information links. 5 and 6 Arguments for / against. 7 Further implications on this issue. 8 Newspaper items used in the compilation of the outline.
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Outline 2001 / 20: Asylum seekers: should those aboard the MV Tampa be able to apply for refugee status from within Australia?
What they said ...
'We are not a soft touch and we are not a nation whose sovereign rights, in relation to who comes here, are going to be trampled on'
The Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard
'This is a humanitarian, decent country'
The Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard
The issue at a glance
The crisis surrounding the MV Tampa has precipitated the passage through Parliament of a raft of Bills intended to significantly restrict the access asylum seekers have to Australia.
The asylum seekers aboard the Tampa were ultimately not permitted onto Australian soil and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is assessing their claims to refugee status while they are detained on Nauru.
The legislation currently before Parliament would make this a much more general situation.
Asylum seekers arriving at Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Island (all Australian territories) would not be regarded as being within Australia's migration zone. This would significantly reduce the claims that asylum seekers arriving at any of these territories could be made for access to Australia. The other bills will redefine the term 'refugee', remove permanent protection visas for this new class of offshore refugee and reduce asylum seekers' avenues for appeal against unfavourable decisions.
Thus the debate triggered by the Tampa's asylum seekers and what should be their fate has become a debate about whether Australia should make it more difficult for asylum seekers to come to this country.
1. Asylum seeker
'Asylum' is refuge or protection. An 'asylum seeker' is an immigrant from another country who arrives seeking refuge. An asylum seeker has to be formally assessed before he or she can be judged a 'refugee'. If the country to which the asylum seeker has come decides he or she is a 'refugee', that person will be given a visa that will allow them to remain legally in the host country for a certain period of time.
Asylum seekers in Australia are held in detention centres while their claims to be refugees are processed. This mandatory detention of asylum seekers has attracted criticism from humanitarian groups and others.
The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention gives a definition of refugee that forms the basis of most national definitions. Australia is a signatory to this Convention.
The Convention states that a refugee is someone who 'owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, ... is unable or ... unwilling to avail himself of the protection of [his native] country ...'
The Convention outlines how someone judged a refugee is to be treated within a host country.
Included in this list of appropriate treatments is that the host country, referred to, as the 'Contracting State' will 'facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees'. Thus, a refugee is entitled to become a permanent citizen of his or her host country and is to be helped to do so.
The host country is also expected to make available to refugees 'the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to ... nationals'. Thus the same welfare assistance is to be offered to refugees as to other citizens of the host country.
3. Illegal immigrant
Most of the estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants in Australia are not asylum seekers hoping to be judged as refugees. Most illegal immigrants arrive by air and overstay their visas.
They are generally tourists, students or people granted temporary-residence permits. They do not get much media attention and the Government does not appear to consider them a serious threat.
It is debatable whether unauthorised asylum seekers arriving in Australia should be termed 'illegal immigrants'.
The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention states that host countries 'shall not impose penalties ... on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened ... enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.'
Asylum seekers are in a transitional state. If their applications for refugee status are accepted then they are entitled to remain within their host country under the terms that country stipulates. (As outlined by the United Nations Refugee Convention this would be on equal terms to the nationals of that country.)
Only if they are rejected as refugees do they unequivocally become illegal immigrants.
A brief overview of the Tampa crisis
The current controversy began on August 27, 2001, when the Australian Government refused to allow asylum seekers about a Norwegian cargo vessel, the MV Tampa, to enter Australian waters.
The captain of the Tampa claimed that he had rescued 438 Afghan asylum seekers from a sinking Indonesian boat, that he had done so at the request of Australian Search and Rescue authorities and that his vessel could not provide accommodation for these people. While still in Indonesian waters Captain Arne Rinnan attempted to return to Indonesia, the last country at which the asylum seekers had stopped, however, numbers of the asylum seekers refused to accept this destination and asked to be taken to Australia.
Captain Rinnan ignored Australia's refusal to allow his vessel access to Australian waters, claiming that a number of his newly acquired passengers were unconscious and that the situation aboard the vessel was becoming untenable.
Once the Norwegian vessel was in Australian waters off Christmas Island SAS forces were used to prevent the Tampa landing the asylum seekers on Australian territory.
The Australian Government ultimately negotiated a deal with Nauru. This small Pacific island state agreed to accept most of the asylum seekers. Nauru was given $20 million by the Australian Government and the cost of accommodating the asylum seekers will be borne by Australia. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees will assess whether these people qualify as refugees. Nauru has requested this assistance from the UNHCR, as it is not administratively equipped to do the processing itself.
A smaller number of the Tampa asylum seekers, some 140 in family groups, will be accepted by New Zealand and will have their refugee status assessed by New Zealand authorities.
While this arrangement was being reached, a group of civil libertarians had mounted a Federal Court challenge against the actions of the Australian Government in effectively detaining the asylum seekers. Justice North ruled against the Government on September 11, 2001, however, a full bench of the Federal Court later overturned this ruling on September 17. It was a two to one ruling.
Australia's Legislative Response to the Tampa Crisis
The Federal Government has introduced seven Bills into the Parliament to be passed by the end of the September sitting. Only one of these had been introduced into Parliament prior to the Tampa issue and all are relevant to it.
Some of the principal Bills are outlined below.
The Migration Amendment (Excision From Migration Zone) Bills 2001.
This is in fact three Bills. The Bills, if passed, will excise or remove Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands from the Australian migration zone. Any unauthorised person who arrives in an excised area after 2.00pm on 8 September will not be able to make an application for an Australian visa unless the Minister exercises his discretionary power.
People who are determined to be refugees can then apply to the Minister to use his public interest powers to lift the bar, or they can apply to a third country for resettlement.
The Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2001 will introduce a new visa arrangement for people who are processed under the provisions of the Excision Bill. Refugees arriving through Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands (referred to as offshore entry) will not be able to reside permanently in Australia.
The new visa arrangements will provide for a hierarchy of rights depending upon where people made their application. Those who apply from refugee camps in other countries will receive preferential treatment.
The Bill also allows for the detention and removal of unauthorised arrivals in the excision zone.
The Bill will also prevent legal action being taken against the Commonwealth in relation to the entry, status, detention and transfer of an offshore entry person.
Another piece of legislation is the Border Protection (Validation and Enforcement Powers) Bill 2001.
This Bill is intended to confirm the legality of the Commonwealth's actions re the MV Tampa and the Aceng from 27 August 2001 until this Bill commences.
No legal challenges against the Commonwealth in relation to these actions can be commenced or continued.
It will also provide additional statutory authority for future action in relation to vessels carrying unauthorised arrivals and the unauthorised arrivals themselves.
It is intended to put beyond doubt that decisions about who can and who cannot enter Australia is the sovereign power of the Australian Parliament.
The Bill will also introduce minimum penalties of 5 years for a first conviction and 8 years for a second conviction on charges of people smuggling.
Internet information links
Perhaps the best place to start is with 'The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention'. Australia is a signatory to this Convention and laws regarding refugees both here and in other nations have generally been framed with reference to it.
'The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention' can be found at http://www.unhcr.ch/refworld/refworld/legal/instrume/asylum/1951eng.pdf
This file is in pdf format and requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to be read or downloaded. Please note, also, that it takes a long time to load. Persistence will be rewarded and the various provisions of the Convention make valuable reading.
On August 13, 2001, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs introduced into the house a series of amendments to the Commonwealth Migration Act. The primary purpose of these amendments was to clarify the definition of 'refugee' in a way that would reduce the level of access currently being claimed.
The Minister issued a press release outlining these amendments. It can be found at http://minister.immi.gov.au/media_releases/media01/r01117.htm
The Australian Department for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs has an index listing three online Department responses to various aspects of the Tampa controversy.
One is a background paper on unauthorised arrivals. Another is a series of media releases and public statement made by the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs relevant to the Tampa.
This index can be found at
The Australian Department for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs also has a series of fact sheets and policy statements on border control. These can be found at http://www.immi.gov.au/illegals/border.htm
The ABC's 7.30 Report has transcripts of at least seven reports on aspects of the Tampa controversy. They range from August 27, 2001 to September 24, 2001.
The transcripts include interviews with the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the captain of the Tampa and a number of the asylum seekers who were taken on board by the Tampa and are now being detained on Nauru..
They can be accessed through the 7.30 Report's August and September archive listings.
The August archives can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/730ArchiveIdx_August2001.htm
The September archives can be found at
On September 19, 2001, the ABC's Foreign Correspondents Report produced a report on the Tampa asylum seekers being detained on Nauru.
The report was titled, 'Nauru - Paradise Broke'. A summary of that report, giving background information on Nauru, can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/2001/ep11-11.htm#second
On September 10, 2001, the ABC's investigative current affairs program, Four Corners, presented a report on life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The report was titled, 'Beneath the Veil'.
A list of Internet links giving background information relevant to that report can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/s362615.htm
These supply detailed information on living conditions and the extent of persecution suffered by many of those living in Afghanistan. The asylum seekers aboard the Tampa were from Afghanistan.
On May 14, 2001, Marion Le, an academic, migrant and spokesperson for migrant affairs, broadcast one of the Alfred Deakin lectures. The lecture had first been delivered two days before and was titled, 'Migrants, Refugees and Multiculturalism: The Curious Ambivalence of Australia's Immigration Policy'
The lecture gives a critical overview of Australia's attitude toward migrants and refugees from 1901 through to the present.
A full transcript of the lecture can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/deakin/stories/s295948.htm
The Age in its 'Issues in the News' section has a collection of more than one hundred articles dealing with the Tampa controversy and the issue of asylum seekers.
The collection is titled 'Stranded at Sea' and can be accessed from http://www.theage.com.au/issues/stranded/index.html
Arguments in favour of the Tampa asylum seekers being allowed into Australia to apply for refugee status
1. Australia has a moral obligation to remove the asylum seekers from the MS Tampa
Prior to the MV Tampa taking the 433 asylum seekers aboard, Australian Search and Rescue had asked any vessel in the vicinity to assist an Indonesian boat in significant distress. When the asylum seekers, now aboard the MS Tampa, threatened to jump overboard if not taken to Australian territory, the Australian rescue co-ordination centre apparently instructed the captain of the Tampa that he should proceed where he wanted.
Critics of the Australian government's later refusal to allow the Tampa into Australian waters have claimed that as Australian Search and Rescue authorities had first alerted the Tampa to the plight of the asylum seekers and had requested the Tampa's assistance Australia became morally, if not legally, obligated to take these additional 433 passengers from the Norwegian freighter.
The captain of the Tampa repeatedly argued that these people could not remain aboard his vessel as it was not equipped to accommodate them and he was concerned about their health.
It has further been argued that the response of the Australian government was morally wrong, as it will serve to discourage other vessels from rescuing asylum seekers at risk in unseaworthy boats. It has been claimed that one result of the Howard Government's actions is likely to be that more boatpeople will drown.
2. Australia is not legally able to restrain the asylum seekers aboard the MS Tampa
On September 11 2001 Justice Tony North of the Federal High Court ruled that by sending 45 SAS troops on to the Tampa on August 29, the federal government had illegally detained the boat people.
Justice North judged that the government had directed where the Tampa could and could not go, had closed the harbour at Christmas Island to ensure the boat people would be isolated and had prevented communication with them. There was no other reasonable escape option offered them.
Justice North stated that the government 'took to themselves the complete control over the bodies and destinies of the rescuees.'
(Though Justice North's ruling was later overturned, there is a challenge being mounted to have Justice North's ruling reinstated.)
3. Australia currently does not have an 'open door' policy that needs to be strengthened
Australia's current acceptance rate for asylum seekers does not indicate that compared to other nations we are a 'soft touch'.
Though we appear to assess a higher percentage of Afghan asylum seekers as refugees than does the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, with Australia last year accepting some 84 per cent of cases as refugees and the UNHRC accepting between 32 and 70 per cent, there are other potential refugee groups for whom our acceptance rate is lower.
Last year, Australia's acceptance rate for Iranian asylum seekers as refugees was 30 per cent, while the overall rate from UNHCR decisions was 54 per cent.
In 2000, the total average recognition rate for asylum seekers by national governments and the UNHCR worldwide was 26.4 per cent. By comparison, Australia approved between 24 and 25 per cent of asylum claims in the same period.
Critics of current measures to toughen Australia's procedures for processing asylum seekers, including setting up a narrower definition of 'refugee', have argued that by international standards our current procedures are not an 'open door' policy and do not mark us as an easy target.
4. Australia is not being inundated with illegal immigrants
It has been claimed that relative to the number of asylum seekers arriving in other countries, Australia has a minor refugee problem.
In 1999, Albania received 435,010 unexpected asylum seekers, Macedonia 355,000 and Indonesia 280,000. Compared to this, it is claimed, the 2000 illegal immigrants who arrived in Australia in 1999 appears a small problem.
Critics maintain that even though the number of asylum seekers arriving illegally in Australia has grown dramatically over the last two years the problem is still, by international standards, a relatively minor one. It has been claimed that Australia's isolated position and the fact that it is an island continent act as natural barriers reducing the number of people seeking asylum on our shores.
It has further been noted that the size of the problem Indonesia has with asylum seekers (more than a quarter of a million unexpected asylum seekers a year arriving on its shores) makes it is less than surprising that Indonesia does little to restrain those who wish to continue to Australia.
Critics of Australia's policy regarding asylum seekers have also argued that given Australia's low birth rate and its history of population growth through immigration the nation actually has something to gain through accepting more asylum seekers.
The Australian Democrats have proposed that rather than fearing inundation Australia should accept an additional 3000 to 4000 refugees annually.
5. The 'queue-jumping' concept is not relevant to asylum seekers
Many asylum seekers who pay for passage to Australia are taking the only course available to them.
Former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, has outlined the situation of an Afghan father with two daughters living in a country where his children's lives and wellbeing are endangered by the actions of the Taliban. Mr Fraser suggests that the only real option open to such a man might be to smuggle his daughters out of the country and attempt to get them to Europe or Australia.
In Afghanistan there are no formal channels through which such a father can apply to have his daughters accepted as refugees in Australia. Mr Fraser concluded, 'There is no real queue ... He has some savings, he is resourceful, so he thinks of buying a place on a boat ... If I were that father, that is the option I would chose.'
Those who argue against the idea of queue-jumpers stress that asylum seekers are often desperate people who need to take action immediately. They are not in a position to make official applications and wait for these to be processed. They may also be in countries where there are no official channels through which to apply.
6. The decision to refuse the asylum seekers entry to Australia was politically motivated
It has been argued that the decision to prevent the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa landing on Australian soil was taken in order to win political support for the Government.
According to this line of argument, the fact that Australia will be staging an election within the next couple of months was a factor in the Government's decision to deny these asylum seekers entry to Australia. It has been claimed that this hardline stance has significant electoral support and has contributed to the apparently growing perception among the electorate that the Prime Minister is a strong leader.
Though results have varied, some polls have indicated that approximately 70 per cent of the Australian electorate approve the Government's handling of the Tampa issue and that the Coalition's preferred Government status and John Howard's personal approval have risen significantly.
Some political commentators have suggested that the Tampa debate and the stance the Government has adopted have allowed the Government to win back disaffected National Party and some Liberal voters who had drifted to One Nation.
The Prime Minister, it has been claimed, has attempted to gain political advantage by presenting his government's actions as decisive and the Opposition's as vacillating.
7. The current government policy toward asylum seekers could encourage xenophobia in Australia
It has been claimed that the position the Government has adopted regarding the Tampa asylum seekers has encouraged racist feeling among the Australian population.
Critics have noted the large number of callers to talkback radio programs who have attacked the asylum seekers in overtly racist terms.
Steve Price, a commentator on 3AW has noted with concern the nature of some callers' observations. One caller apparently commented, 'I would gladly be in a submarine and torpedo this boat and every other boat that comes along.
The only waste would be the cost of the torpedoes. Everyone I know hates these boat people and Howard is right in his thinking.'
It has further been noted that since the terrorist attacks in the United States ill-feeling within Australia towards foreign immigrants in general and asylum seekers in particular has increased. It has been claimed that some in the Australian population are confusing people trying to escape oppressive regimes with terrorists.
8. Denying those aboard the Tampa access to the Australian mainland has damaged Australia's international reputation.
There are those who are concerned that the actions of the Australian Government with regard to the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa and its treatment of illegal immigrants generally is damaging the country's international reputation.
Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor for The Australian, has stated, 'Australia is the only nation in the developed world that has a policy of mandatory and non-reviewable detention for all asylum seekers who arrive without a visa.'
It has also been claimed that Australia's boast to be among the world's most generous nation's in its acceptance of refugees is known to be fallacious as Australia only compares itself with other nations who accept predominantly UNHCR vetted refugees. Other nations accept far greater numbers of refugees who arrive unannounced, as did the Tampa asylum seekers.
There is concern that the international reputation Australia established during the Sydney Olympics for generosity and tolerance has been severely damaged.
9. Asylum seekers are unlikely to be terrorists
Firstly, it has been claimed that Australia is not a high priority target for international terrorists.
Dr Darryl Jervis, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sydney, has claimed that anti-American terrorists were unlikely to target Australia because of Australia's relative lack of identifiable US targets.
Secondly, it has been argued that terrorists are normally well funded and well organised. Any terrorists coming to Australia would be most likely to travel by plane on a student or business visa and once in Australia would seek to establish a cell to help them achieve their objectives. It has been claimed that none of this is compatible with coming to Australia as a boat person.
It has been claimed that boat people are at far too great a risk of either not arriving in Australia or of being placed in a detention centre on arrival. It has been suggested that no serious terrorist operation would accept such risks.
Dr Jervis has stated, 'The argument is quite ridiculous in some respects. Why spend $15,000 to get on a boat that will take days to get here and almost certainly be intercepted when you can take a plane.'
Arguments against the Tampa asylum seekers being allowed into Australia to apply for refugee status
1. Australia is a generous recipient of asylum seekers
Australia is one of only nine developed nations that support the United Nations' program for resettling refugees. Australia has agreed to accept 12,000 refugees a year. Most of these people, approximately 8,000, are expected to have had their application for refugee status approved by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Australia's Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, has claimed, 'Australia has a long and proud humanitarian record in taking refugees from around the world.
On a per capita basis we are more generous than any country other than Canada and infinitely more generous than some of the countries that have dared to criticise us.'
Mr Howard has further stated, 'Australia's record on resettling refugees and others in humanitarian need speaks for itself with ... some 600,000 coming under the humanitarian programs since World War II.
These include more than 155,000 Vietnamese since 1975 and some 35,000 from countries of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.'
2. Australia is legally entitled to turn the Tampa asylum seekers form its shores
There have been two arguments put forward to defend the legality of the actions taken by the Australian Government in denying the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa access to Australian soil.
The first argument centres on national sovereignty and the legal right of any nation to defend its borders. This point has been made by Prime Minister Howard, who has stated, '... every nation has the right to control its borders and decide who comes and under what circumstances.'
Referring specifically to the situation aboard the Tampa, Mr Howard has noted that the Tampa acted illegally as it had been advised it did not have authority to enter the 12 nautical mile limit of Australian territorial waters.
Mr Howard has stated, 'While necessary medical assistance has been provided, the entry of rescued persons to Australia in such circumstances is neither reasonable nor acceptable under Australian law.'
The second argument refers to the finding of the Federal Court's full bench that ruled two to one that that the federal Government's exclusion of the Tampa asylum seekers was legal. The ruling claimed that as the asylum seekers had no legal right of access to Australian territory, in being denied access to Australia soil they had not been illegally detained.
3. Australia's current assessment procedures are too liberal
It has been argued that relative to the number of asylum seekers approved by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Australia's approval rating is too generous.
It has been noted, for example, that while Australia accepts some 80 per cent of Afghan asylum seekers as refugees, the UNHCR accepts somewhere between 14 and 70 per cent. (The approval rating of the UNHCR for Afghan asylum seekers is disputed and depends on whether those whose applications were not proceeded with, rather than dismissed, are regarded as having been dismissed.)
In response to concern that Australia's assessment criteria are too liberal, the federal government is seeking to have passed through parliament laws that would redefine the term 'refugee'.
4. Australia is facing a growing number of illegal immigrants
The number of unauthorised asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores has more than doubled over the last two years - from less than 2000 in 1999 to more than 4000 in the year 2000. Some social commentators and others are concerned that this rapid increase marks an unsupportable trend.
There are currently just over 22 million 'persons of concern' to the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees of which 11.7 million have been assessed as refugees and are destined to spend years in camps in countries such as Pakistan and Iran.
There are a further 1.2 million unauthorised asylum seekers, whom Australia usually refers to as boat people, who arrive at other countries to plead their case.
Australia's concern is that the number of people seeking to enter Australia illegally is growing and appears likely to grow still further.
There have also been those who have argued that if the United States and its allies ultimately take military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, this will increase the refugee problem still further. Already large numbers of people are fleeing Afghanistan in anticipation of American reprisals.
5. Asylum seekers who follow proper procedures should be given precedence
In recent years increasing numbers of asylum seekers have entered the country illegally. Last year 4,000 asylum seekers were judged refugees and allowed to remain in Australia. As Australia's quota is fixed this meant that these people took the places of an equivalent number of refugees currently living in very difficult circumstances overseas and awaiting acceptance into this country.
Critics of these uninvited asylum seekers argue that they are 'queue jumping'. By this is meant that they are taking illegal action which forces them to be assessed in Australia and which may result in their receiving a place in Australia's immigration quota ahead of those assessed abroad by the UNHCR. It is argued that this is unjust as it leaves those waiting in United Nation's monitored camps at a disadvantage.
The further suggestion has been made that asylum seekers who arrive in Australia illegally may be less worthy of acceptance than those waiting in camps or in their countries of origin because 'boat people' have had the money to pay a people smuggler to get them to Australia. It is argued by some that only the most economically disadvantaged should be considered for acceptance into Australia.
6. Australia's policy re asylum seekers is bipartisan and not politically motivated
The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, has repeatedly claimed that his Government has taken its current stance on asylum seekers because it believes this is the right thing to do, not because it is seeking political advantage.
It has also been argued that the Opposition has supported all the Government's actions with the exception of the original version of the 2001 Border Protection Bill and that, with the redrafting of that Bill, the Opposition will now accept both it and further changes that the Government plans to make to its management of asylum seekers.
Some political commentators have suggested that the Opposition is either in essential agreement with the Government in its handling of the asylum seekers issue or that by accepting the Government's policies, the Opposition is trying to remove illegal immigration as an issue from the forthcoming election. Whatever the Opposition's motivations, it appears that Australia's policies re asylum seekers are now largely bipartisan.
Some defenders of the Government's actions claim that they cannot have been acting for political advantage when they have generally acted with the support of the Opposition.
7. Australia wishes to discourage people smugglers
The Prime Minister, Mr Hohn Howard, has made this point forcefully. Mr Howard has stated, 'Australia should no longer be seen around the world as a soft touch for the growing and illicit people smuggling trade.'
It has been estimated that people smuggling can net people smugglers as much as $10,000 per illegal immigrant or asylum seeker.
There are those who claim that people smuggling is replacing heroin smuggling and is seen as preferable by some smugglers both in terms of the money to be made and the relative leniency of the penalties it attracts.
Critics of people smugglers argue that they take money from the desperate, often all the money these people have, and offer them little in return. The transport people smugglers provide for asylum seekers or illegal immigrants is often unsafe, the journeys involved are hazardous and there is no certainty of acceptance by Australia or any other destination country.
8. Illegal immigrants may be terrorists
This point has been made on several occasions since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
The Herald Sun in its editorial of September 14 stated, 'The Federal Government must ... ensure that those who seek to live here have clean records - in particular, that they are not undercover agents of terror.'
This point has also been made by the Federal Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello, who has stated that the 'horrific terrorist attacks on the United States' had strengthened the Government's resolve that only those who could demonstrate they were genuine refugees would be allowed into Australia.
Some letter writers have also put similar positions. Rod Sutherland, in a letter published in the Herald Sun on September 13, 2001, stated, 'All the bleeding hearts should spare a thought for what happened in America and the people who died.
Most of the so-called refugees coming to Australia are from the same region and possibly the same country as the suspected perpetrators of the attacks on America.'
9. Large numbers of 'illegal immigrants' could undermine social and cultural stability in Australia
On August 31, 2001, London's Daily Mail published an editorial praising Australia's response to asylum seekers. The editorial argued that only a closely regulated migration policy could retain a sense of social cohesion and cultural identity within a nation.
The editorial states, 'Australia has a firm, but fair, policy on immigration ... Just because some European countries have forsaken their right to preserve their national identities does not mean they should apply the same standards to Australia. That country is only successful because it has such a strong identity - which gives it courage, self-belief and a sense of identity.'
The argument being put here is that a refugee acceptance scheme which was too liberal or was not properly accepted by the Australian population who dilute this sense of national identity and create social disharmony.
Interestingly, other commentators have suggested that it is because Australia's sense of social and cultural identity is already under strain that we cannot afford the assault on our national sense of unity that refugees might represent.
Further implications and author's comment
This is a difficult issue to keep in perspective. The figures regarding Australia's supposed generosity toward refugees vary dramatically according to who is termed a refugee. The United States, for example, accepts large numbers of asylum seekers who cross its borders without visas. Australia does not. A majority of the asylum seekers accepted into Australia have been 'in the queue', that is, they arrive with a visa, generally having spent time in a refugee camp where their applications for refugee status were processed.
Therefore, if Australia is compared with the United States in terms of support for the United Nations' refugee resettlement program then we appear generous (as this is our preferred mode for accepting refugees). If, however, we are compared with the United States in terms of our acceptance of unanticipated asylum seekers then we do not.
One difference between Australia and many other nations is that as an island continent we do not have a land border that we share with another nation, as does the United States with Mexico and Canada.
There is a perception of inviolability about our borders that may come from their being 'girt by sea'. There is, at the same time, an acknowledgement that Australia's thousands of miles of coastline are difficult to police. We appear to cherish two almost contradictory notions - that our national borders are sacrosanct and at the same time vulnerable. This may help to account for the extremely heated nature of the debate that has been conducted within Australia about boatpeople.
As part of this debate we have constructed two classes of asylum seeker - the 'good' refugee who has an invitation, a visa and has already had his or her refugee status assessed and the 'bad' illegal immigrant who has arrived on our shores independently, having paid significant amounts of money to a people smuggler, and whose refugee status is as yet undetermined. What is interesting is that these classifications appear to be fixed, so that even when someone in the second group is finally judged a genuine refugee, he or she will, under the new legislation, not be able to obtain a permanent protection visa.
Many Australians apparently believe that asylum seekers should only enter Australia when invited to do so. The popular perception would appear to be that voiced by the Prime Minister, that we are a generous people but will not be taken advantage of. We seem to see unsanctioned asylum seekers, especially those who arrive by boat, as a threat to our national sovereignty.
What is missing from our debate is the recognition that asylum seekers may not be acting illegally under international law. It is legal to flee one land where you fear persecution and enter another. Once in a new land, the asylum seeker will have to demonstrate that his or her claims to be a refugee are genuine, but the act of entering another country under these circumstances without sanction or invitation is not a crime. Internationally, especially for those nations, like Australia, who are signatories to the United Nations 1951 Convention on Refugees, the individual's right to self-preservation is as significant as a nation's right to protect its borders.
At base, Australia's reaction to asylum seekers appears to be founded on fear. For generations we saw ourselves as a bastion of British civilisation at risk of being overrun by the hordes to our north. Our response to asylum seekers often seems to echo this fear.
What we appear to want is control; we will accept some asylum seekers but we will determine when they arrive and they will first have been vetted somewhere else. That is clearly the intention of those bills that seek to remove Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands from Australia's migration zone. We are fortifying the moat with Australian territories that for migration purposes can be regarded as another country.
We also appear to believe that if we treat asylum seekers ungenerously enough they will go away. The minister for immigration, Mr Philip Ruddock, spoke in parliament recently about reducing the 'pull factor'. This is at least in part the rationale for detention centres. It would also appear to be the rationale for denying asylum seekers access to most community services and making it impossible for them to get permanent protection visas. We are also conducting an extensive advertising campaign to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Australia.
There is something a little quaint about all of this. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees currently estimates there are some 22 million 'persons of concern' worldwide. Recent developments in Afghanistan have added more than a million to that number. Advertising campaigns and border games may not be enough to reduce our exposure to at least some of this human misery.
1/9/01 page 1 (News Extra section) analysis by Michael Gordon, 'All at sea"
1/9/01 page 1 (News Extra section) comment by Peter Mares, 'Soft touch? Hard facts say no'
5/9/01 page 16 editorial, 'The refugee debate we had to have'
5/9/01 page 6 cartoon by Wilcox
6/9/01 page 15 comment by Muriel Porter, 'Christianity drowns in a sea of hysteria'
12/9/01 page 1 news item by Darrin Farrant, Darren Gray and Kerry Taylor, 'Let them land here, says judge'
14/9/01 page 12 news item by Peter Gregory, 'Canberra push for right to expel'
18/9/01 page 15 comment by Malcolm Fraser, 'Wrong way, Mr Howard'
1/9/01 page 7 analysis by Megan Saunders, 'Millions pleading for a new life'
1/9/01 page 18 editorial, 'PM digs deeper into refugee policy quagmire'
6/9/01 page 11 comment by Greg Sheridan, 'Inflammatory denial of human dignity'
7/9/01 page 1 news item by Eric Ellis, 'We needed blankets ... but we got guns'
7/9/01 page 13 comment by Rosemary Neill, 'Offshore option can solve all our problems'
10/9/01 page 1 news item by Robert Garran, 'We'll fight them at sea and on the beaches: the PM's boatpeople plan'
12/9/01 page 13 comment by Paul Kelly, 'Willpower or chronic ineptitude'
12/9/01 page 13 comment from The Economist, 'But for the grace of nations'
The Herald Sun
1/9/01 page 4 editorial reproduced from the Daily Mail, 'Aussies lead the way'
3/9/01 page 19 comment by Andrew Bolt, 'The great cringe'
4/9/01 page 5 comment by John Howard, 'A clear message sent to the world'
4/9/01 page 18 editorial, 'First step for boat people'
5/9/01 page 19 comment by Steve Price, 'Lazy and fearful'
7/9/01 page 20 comment by Bob Carr, 'Jamming in millions'
9/9/01 page 8 news item by Gerard McManus, 'Law change on illegals'
12/9/01 page 3 news item by Norrie Ross and Michael Harvey, 'Let them in - judge'
13/9/01 page 16 news item by Andrew Probyn, 'Tough battle against illegals'
13/9/01 page 20 four letters to the editor, 'Terror attacks could happen here, too'
14/9/01 page 28 editorial, 'A wake-up call for us'
20/9/01 page 19 news item by Michael Madigan, 'Terrorist refugees unlikely'