The gravity of the decision made by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Thursday to deny people arriving in Australia by boat any prospect of being settled is difficult to overestimate. It is also a bad day for neighbouring Papua New Guinea, which is not resourced to handle the significant tasks that go with becoming a dumping ground for people not wanted in Australia.
Mr Rudd can say what he wants, and he will, but around the world, this announcement is being condemned. Australia is being seen by newspapers in Britain as abrogating it’s responsibility to safely and humanely process the boat people coming from other countries. I wrote a few months ago about the prospect of Australia going backwards with regards to boat people, after the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a similar announcement. Australia for all of its commitments as stated by its politicians to democracy and a fair go, has a rather unfortunate history of intolerance to immigrants and minorities.
In 2001, facing the prospect of an electoral defeat just before the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the then Prime Minister John Howard seized on a alleged incident on a Norwegian freighter that had picked up refugees from a boat that had lost power. The Royal Australian Navy had sent a boat to assist the Norwegian freighter Tampa and had found people in the water. Through a mis-translated message it was understood that the children had been thrown overboard by their parents in a bid to somehow gain a better chance of entering Australia. However no such thing had happened, but the Government of Mr Howard portrayed the refugees as irresponsible and not trustworthy and Australians believed him.
Over the last several years there have been a number of riots at the detention facilities on Nauru, which better resemble in some respects Guantanamo Bay. The lack of effort by the Australian Government to produce a final outcome for the detainees, contravenes a number of human rights statutes that Australia is a signatory to.
Successive Australian Governments and the international community have failed to look at why these refugees travel by boat to faraway places on the flimsiest of craft. Rather than tackling the problem at its source by looking at its policies on Southeast Asia and how it can change them for the better, the Australian Government has adopted an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach. It appears to have not crossed the minds of Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd that Australian foreign policy may have something to do with the issue by not taking a more proactive stance on human rights violations by other countries. Countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, from where many of the boat people come need to be shown that there is a better way.
This concerns New Zealand. Prime Minister John Key, his Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully and Minister of Immigration all seem to draw significant inspiration from Australian and American policies and might consider something similar here. It would be a major deterioration in our human rights record if they were to do so.