Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:04 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:04 | SYDNEY

Boat arrivals: Nostalgia is not a policy


Andrew Carr


13 September 2011 15:01

I'm somewhat confused by the concerns of Stewart West, an Immigration minister in the Hawke Government:

The Prime Minister [Julia Gillard] affects concern about the danger of boat travel. Certainly it is dangerous. But the people on the boats are already fleeing persecution and danger. It is perverse that, after fleeing one dangerous situation and braving another, they be sent to further danger in Malaysia....After Vietnam, Australia participated in the evaluation of Vietnamese asylum seekers in other countries. As immigration minister, I visited Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and inspected the situation. These were countries of first refuge. Once claims were successful, refugees were settled in a third country. Thus tens of thousands were resettled in the US and Australia. Today's asylum seekers reaching Australia are really reaching a country of first refuge.

So, when people fled the Vietnam War it was OK to process them in Malaysia. But when people flee the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's deeply immoral to process people in Malaysia?

The Hawke Government, it must be remembered, had only nine boats arrive during its entire term (1983-1991), carrying 438 people. Yet, it was under Hawke that Australia moved from rarely detaining unauthorised migrants (boat and air), to doing so largely by default and sometimes for extended periods. After numbers rose, the Keating Government formalised this approach as mandatory detention.

We can also thank Hawke for popularising concepts such as 'queue jumpers'. In 1990, after publicly doubting that Cambodian asylum seekers would be accepted (throwing into question the impartial nature of Australia's processing system), Hawke went on national TV to insist that 'We have an orderly migration program. We're not going to allow people just to jump that queue by saying we'll jump into a boat, here we are, bugger the people who've been around the world'. The courts unsurprisingly found Hawke's comments about subverting the processing system to be 'grossly improper'.

Stewart West is right that 'a humane refugee policy is possible', but the Hawke Government didn't have the answers to this problem, it simply got lucky and almost entirely avoided the issue. When it did confront the problem, its approach was hardly different or better than that taken by our current generation.