August 2015


Nope, nope, nope

By Richard Cooke
Nope, nope, nope

Rohingya on a boat drifting in the Andaman Sea gather supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter, May 2015. © Christophe Archambault / AFP

Why Australia won’t help the Rohingya

Three years. That’s how long the United Nations thought it would take to solve the world’s refugee problem. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began with this tiny mandate in 1950. It would simply mop up the remaining stragglers from World War Two, then the commissioner could go home.

Sixty-five years later, a job that was expected to become unnecessary is now impossible. The current commissioner, António Guterres, speaking to the Independent, admitted that the humanitarian community had “reached its limit”. He anticipated being “totally unable even to provide the minimum support to the victims”. What had gone wrong? “The world has apparently lost its capacity to prevent conflicts and to try and resolve them.”

These conflicts have already displaced close to 60 million people, the highest number ever recorded. Half are children. Some events that drive people to escape their own countries don’t even have names. The Central African Republic simply has a “conflict”. The Yemeni civil war is only four months old. Together, these crises have displaced almost two million people. People flee Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, both Sudans, Eritrea, West Papua, Vietnam, Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Cambodia, Liberia, Mauritania, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Algeria, Angola and Nigeria. Every day last year, an average of 42,500 people were displaced. If the lost were united into a country, it would be the 24th most populous in the world.

This is not metaphorical. It is a tangible event. Misery washes up in strange places. The geography most likely to attract asylum seekers – islands and stretches of coastline – is also the kind favoured by holiday-makers. In Tangier, the Moroccans call transient Nigerians, Sudanese, Somalis and Eritreans “the burners”. The burning refers to not just burning their papers, but the likelihood they will end their journey cremated instead of on the shores of Europe. Even as Greece founders, more than a thousand arrive on its islands daily. The Daily Mail ran this headline: ‘Thousands of boat people from Syria and Afghanistan set up migrant camp in popular Greek island – with holidaymakers branding the situation “disgusting”’. The paper quoted a local shopkeeper: “It’s terrible for the people that have lost their homes but it’s also causing problems for people with shops and restaurants. Some people stay away because they don’t know how to act.”

So on the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi I have an unusual tour guide – First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee, the man in charge of Malaysian maritime oversight of the Strait of Malacca. After years of fevered political talk about “the boats”, it’s anti-climactic to see them with my own eyes. There are two vessels still here, both tethered and half-sunk among mangroves. One is a feeble wooden Burmese fishing vessel, which could only make it this far by hugging the Thai coast. The other is a former Malaysian fishing boat, repurposed and sold to people smugglers. It arrived on Langkawi with almost 1000 asylum seekers aboard. (They made landfall during the night.) When more ships in the sad flotilla arrived, the passengers having been abandoned by the smugglers, they became trapped in what the International Organisation for Migration called “maritime ping-pong”: a series of boat tow-backs between Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Each in turn refused to take the passengers in.

Admiral Tan shows me a photo of the wooden boat when it arrived, flying a homemade banner that reads “WE ARE ROHINGYA FROM RAKHINE”. There are many accounts of oppression among the world’s 60 million displaced people – Yazidis torn apart by Daesh, Pygmies from the Congo whom other tribes hunt like animals – but even in a world battle-sick and tired of atrocities, the spectacular savagery meted out to the Rohingya in Myanmar stands out. Even those who have spent their whole lives dealing with human depravity say they have never seen anything like this.

“The Rohingya are coming here because they are persecuted,” says the admiral. “For us, we as enforcement officers – we just follow directives from our superiors. Of course commanding officers will make a judgement, if the vessel is not seaworthy, then we relay the message to our bosses. Then maybe we have to do something else. Someone should take the lead in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. Of course that’s higher up. But they are talking. Immediately after that, the Thais called for a meeting, they all sat and discussed what’s the best solution … [The Rohingya] can’t afford to be ping-ponged everywhere.”

At first, Myanmar refused to participate in the meeting if the word “Rohingya” was used. Australia sent Andrew Goledzinowski, its ambassador for people smuggling issues.

Langkawi has taken a slow trickle of Rohingya for almost 50 years now. The thousands who arrived this year were a fraction of the total number fleeing to Malaysia, but they overwhelmed the island; they are now being processed in a mainland detention centre. Most of the earlier Rohingya arrivals are settled in one of two fishing villages on the island, where they work the coast on Thai-owned anchovy boats. At first these places look like any other small town in South East Asia, full of beaten-up Mitsubishis with jumbo spoilers and RalliArt stickers that cover half the windscreen. But there is Burmese graffiti on the walls, and the men and women have continued the distinctive custom of powdering their faces. The inhabitants will often deny their heritage, especially to outsiders, and some people on the island still insist there are no Rohingya here at all. When a journalist from the Malaysian Astro Awani TV visited recently, the villagers insisted they were northern Malays.

“Are there any Rohingya in Australia?” asks Mohamed Salazi, a local Malay.

“Yes, a small number.”

“Do they make trouble?”

“Not in the way that you mean, Mohamed.”

But great trouble comes with them.

“The Rakhine are tigers. We are goats. How do you have a friendship between tigers and goats?”

Abdul Ghani left Myanmar a long time ago now, in 1989. His grandmother knew something was going to happen, he says. She would talk and talk about how Muslims would inevitably find themselves in trouble. Others were sceptical. After all, Myanmar had a longstanding tradition of harrying its minorities, especially the Karen, since colonial times. The Rohingya, the offspring of migrants originally from Bangladesh, were sometimes harassed, but it was low-level, tolerable. And at first there was hope that the uneven path to democracy would ease these frictions. The Rohingya had been denied Burmese citizenship in 1982, but there was a feeling that the new freedoms might extend to them.

Instead, democracy has gestated a proto-genocidal mood in Myanmar. Cataloguing the discriminations and violence visited on the Rohingya would fill this article many times over. But it is also easy to summarise: their persecution is total. Rohingya cannot freely work, marry, travel, move, have children, go to school, farm, own land, own houses, eat, shop, or worship. They are taxed arbitrarily – levies on “animal slaughter” extend even to pets dying of natural causes. Their homes and businesses have been destroyed, and they have been herded into camps where almost all humanitarian organisations are banned. Burmese officials, and many Burmese people, refuse to even use the word “Rohingya”. They call them “Bengalis” instead, or “kalar”, a colonial-era epithet that means something like “nigger”. This terminology is used with regularity on state television. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has said nothing about the treatment of the Rohingya.

Most fervent in their prejudice are the Rakhine people of western Myanmar, who share their region with the Rohingya, or used to. The two groups once had good relations, like “twin brothers”, one man told me. The Rakhine, themselves oppressed by the Burmese ruling classes, have been kept poor and poorly educated. Nationalistic monks, with the collusion of the Burmese military, have exploited this neglect. They have fomented a new, militant form of Buddhism across South East Asia. Mobs incited by these monks have destroyed thousands of Rohingya homes, killing hundreds. Thousands of men, women and children have left their land.

“People call these things an ‘ethnic clash’, but how can it be a clash? Our hands are empty,” says Abdul Ghani. “The government took away all of our weapons. We will need to open the dictionary to find a new word for it. It is a silent attack.”

Ghani has used his time in Malaysia to found an organisation called Rohingya Society Malaysia. It meets in an old dental clinic on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where the walls are covered in laminated maps, indices of national flags and photos of NGO luminaries meeting with the Rohingya. Each time I visit to interview displaced Rohingya more people are there. Eventually I am interviewing rooms full of men, all quietly waiting their turn to give testimony. It’s Ramadan and they are tired from fasting, a little hollow-eyed. Some rest their heads on tables between questions.

There’s a strange feeling in the room. An unusual aspect of being subjected to a 21st-century genocide-in-progress is that there are templates, blueprints, precedents. They know the fate of the Bosnian Muslims, of the Vietnamese boat people, of the Tutsis. They know this will take a long time, that their fate is uncertain. There is patience, and much more humour than I anticipated.

“The trouble with the Rohingya,” says one of the men wryly, “is that we don’t have anything anyone wants. We don’t have any oil. The Palestinians have all this attention, because the Arabs care about them, and they have oil. The amount people care about us in comparison? It’s like an ant next to an elephant.” Most unexpectedly there is no particular rancour towards the Rakhine. In fact, there is so little it almost becomes exasperating.

“I sympathise with the Rakhine,” says Ghani. “They have been led astray by these people.” Everyone in the room had Rakhine friends, who abandoned them. People they had known since primary school, played football with, stopped greeting them in the street and turned away. “It’s not really their fault,” says Sultan Ahmed. “After all, these others were trying to kill us and making a lot of noise, so they couldn’t step out to help us.”

But how can you ever trust such people again? The Rakhine are quite open about their genocidal intentions, even proud of them (although their government insists that no human-rights abuses have occurred). “Of course you can’t trust them again,” Ahmed replies. “But we will never seek revenge. We only want to live in peace.”

There are many different solutions proposed in this room, but most rest on some kind of recognition. Full citizenship, and if not, recognition of the Rohingya as an official ethnicity in Myanmar. There is gentle insistence of the obviousness of Rohingya history, the clear evidence they have lived in Myanmar for generations. But how will this history lesson overcome hatred so intense? “These people are trying to kill you,” I say. “Isn’t their denial of your history an effect of the racism, not a cause?” How can an ID card offer protection against a mob, especially one that has already formed?

“The truth cannot be kept hidden. It will come out eventually,” says Ahmed. “My family is still in Myanmar. I can’t get them over here, but even if I could, part of me wouldn’t want to. Because that is our link to the land. That is our country. And if none of us are there any more, there is no sign of that. But the truth is Myanmar is our nation as well, and eventually that must be recognised.”

I feel a bit ashamed of myself in the face of Ahmed’s composure.

Even those directly affected by the violence are matter-of-fact about it. Bo Min listened on the phone while his sister watched their family home being destroyed. Their father was a lawyer and opposition political figure, with a human-rights background, and they were wealthy enough to live in a Rakhine area. This was a very dangerous combination. The proximity of Rakhine houses meant their attackers couldn’t use the preferred method of burning the place down. Instead they used anything they could find: swords, machetes, axes. The mob was careful to destroy all the documents.

Bo Min’s sister said goodbye to him as the mob approached. At the last minute, police who happened to be training nearby saved her. Usually they would stand by and do nothing. Bo Min, who was in Yangon illegally (Rohingya are prohibited from travelling there), then received phone calls from Rakhine businessmen, who were trying to work out his location. He is one of the very few Rohingya able to escape to Malaysia by plane. Almost all the rest used boats. Since 2012, more than 86,000 people have left Myanmar this way.

It has provided no end to the suffering.

In May, at the ASEAN leaders meeting to address the fate of the Rohingya turned away from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines suggested it would adopt a policy of turnbacks as well, before changing its mind and pressuring Malaysia to give the Rohingya temporary protection. Malaysia suggested that perhaps they could be resettled in Cambodia. Back in Australia, Tony Abbott refused to join the US (and Gambia, strangely enough) in processing any of those aboard. Australia asserted the right of Asian countries to conduct turnbacks.

“There’s a million Rohingya in Myanmar. The suggestion that somehow resettlement is the answer to that issue, I think completely misunderstands what is happening in that part of the world,” said the social services minister, Scott Morrison.

Australia once helped resettle three million people from the same region. But that feels like a long time ago.

My ex-girlfriend’s mother, Karen Pham, told me this story. When she first arrived in Australia after leaving Vietnam, the Hawke government put her whole family up in a motel. They were given a little stipend, and some clothes from the Salvos, the first assisted steps in starting a new life.

One day the maid asked her if they were keeping a pet in the motel. It seemed like a strange question. Of course they weren’t. “It’s just that I keep finding all of this dog food in your husband’s room.”

Shopping at the supermarket, the men had seen a can with a picture of a dog on the front. Tinned fish had pictures of fish on the front, tinned corn had pictures of corn, so it made sense these tins had dog meat inside. And so cheap too!

This was how they began life in a new country: in a motel in Sydney’s west, the women wearing unintentionally funky trackpants, the men chowing down on Pedigree PAL between beers.

Two things are remarkable about this period of Australian resettlement of refugees. The first is the scale of the intake. By 1980, Australia had accepted 48,000 Vietnamese. By the mid 1980s, family reunions brought this number to almost 90,000. It was at the time the most generous per capita refugee resettlement program in the world. Australia’s population then was less than 15 million.

The second surprise is that this story has become obscured by subsequent events. The politics around asylum in Australia have become so rancorous and confused they have taken on an amnesiac quality. We successfully absorbed these asylum seekers, permanently, without too much debate, and can’t even remember how we did it.

A hazy narrative has taken hold instead, a morality tale about the fate of Australia’s soul. It goes something like this. Gough Whitlam exorcised the White Australia policy, opening the way for a modern multicultural society. This allowed Malcolm Fraser to usher in a golden age of Australian refugee politics, which was then maintained by Bob Hawke and, to a lesser extent, Paul Keating. Boat people, especially Vietnamese boat people, were at the centre of this. Fraser was determined to steer a moral course, partly because of his mother’s Jewish background, which added a personal determination not to turn away the desperate. He quelled any racist undercurrents, the country welcomed boats of the desperate to its shores, and we got on with the business of resettling them. This consensus was then undone by John Howard, who resurrected Australia’s old racist id, and then channelled it to win the 2001 election. We have been plumbing a series of new lows ever since.

Almost none of this story is true. Of the 90,000 Vietnamese refugees who would end up as Australians, just 2059 reached mainland Australia by boat. And those who did sparked exactly the same kinds of anxieties we are riven with now.

Just how similar wasn’t known until 2010, when 30-year-old cabinet papers were released to the public. Jack H Smit of Edith Cowan University presented research in the Journal of International Relations outlining just how much stopping the boats became a priority for the Fraser government. It looked at reducing migrant benefits for those who arrived “without prior authority”, explored boat turnbacks and offshore processing (including buying a remote island to set up an offshore processing facility). Cabinet members fretted about deaths at sea and bad polls. Fraser co-created the term “queue-jumper”, and his government introduced the first anti–people smuggling legislation in Australian history.

Immigration officer Greg Humphries travelled to Malaysia in 1977, where he had boats detained before they could depart, drilling holes to sink them if necessary. Passengers known to have paid their way onto boats were refused resettlement, the government reasoning that doing so would “give support or encouragement to schemes organised by unscrupulous merchants in human cargoes whose aim was financial gain”. The passengers on one of the last ships to reach Darwin, the VT838, were considered too physically healthy to be refugees, and were found carrying cash. They were deported to Taiwan on a Qantas flight, the operation subject to a media ban.

John Howard’s signature refugee policies were in fact 20 years old. What stopped most of them from being permanently implemented earlier? Another way was found to stop the boats.

After the fall of Saigon, and the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Indochinese refugee flows through South East Asia became impossible to control. By mid 1979, 550,000 were in other South East Asian countries. First-entry countries panicked. Boat ‘pushbacks’ became routine. Cambodians were turned away from the border at gunpoint. Ships in international waters refused to pick up the stranded, concerned no nation would take their cargo. Malaysia began expelling boat people, turning back 25,000 in just two months. But the next month, July 1979, saw 65 nations attend a UN conference in Geneva. By the end of it, an agreement was struck to deal with 260,000 refugees per year. ASEAN powers would process the boat people in camps (Fraser helped establish them), and they would then be resettled in developed nations. The complete process would take decades, but ultimately it would save three million of the displaced. The government of Vietnam co-operated, allowing orderly departures and on proper ships, not just the always-leaky fishing boats. Boat pushbacks ended.

Karen Pham, like many who shared her trajectory, left Vietnam for the Philippines. There she was processed and stayed in a camp for two years, along with thousands of others. She arrived in Australian not on a boat, but in a plane chartered by the UNHCR.

In the realm of refugee policy, however, even the relative successes are often failures. Up to 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died in transit. This is what a good result looks like.

The Indochinese refugee crisis was barely a generation ago, but already it feels distant. The world now seems tired, indifferent, seemingly incapable of dragging together such a response ever again. Why? People who have spent their lives working with refugees come up with different answers. Some become fixated on this period, nostalgic for it. Others emphasise the rare atmosphere of the Cold War. Refugees fleeing Vietnam had an added benefit for the Western powers: they were a humiliation for the victorious North Vietnamese. The 1951 Refugee Convention had been partly framed with defectors from communist countries in mind, and here were millions. The US secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, even made a speech where he likened the Vietnamese to the Pilgrims. “We are a nation of refugees. Most of us can trace our presence here to the turmoil or oppression of another time and another place. Our nation has been immeasurably enriched by this continuing process. We will not turn our backs on our traditions. We must meet the commitments we have made to other nations and to those who are suffering. In doing so, we will also be renewing our commitments to our ideals.”

In contrast, the War on Terror’s narrative seems ill suited to offers of safe harbour. Those fleeing its turmoil are cast more often as likely perpetrators, not victims. The West has grown as weary of this conflict as it did with Vietnam, but without the accompanying sense of responsibility. The advanced societies to which people flee seem less inclined to look after their own vulnerable populations (and the vulnerable often recoil at the importation of more). Immigration is the issue where political skirmishes about the role of the state, the economy and globalisation are fought most openly, and asylum-seeking has become one of the main thoroughfares of migration. More asylum seekers than legal workers have arrived in Europe every year since 1985.

Ironically, the very success of resettling Vietnamese refugees may have salted the earth for those who followed.

By the late 1980s, ASEAN countries had had enough. Arrivals who had previously been granted asylum automatically were treated as illegal immigrants. Countries closed transit camps that had been open for years. Thailand announced it would turn people away. Another conference was called, where Australia helped alleviate the pressure by taking 11,000 more Vietnamese for resettlement. It would be the last magnanimous gesture of the old order. In 1992 the Keating government responded to yet another uptick in boat people by introducing mandatory detention. It was partly in response to a 1990 Joint Standing Committee on Migration Regulations report, which included this piece of prescience:

The control of illegals has taken on a new urgency in recent years because the problem is coupled with or compounded by fears of an increased movement of asylum seekers. The two issues are, and should be seen to be, different … The presence of illegal entrants has come, whether correctly or not, to symbolise the inability of governments to control their borders, and in Australia’s case, to protect the integrity of its immigration programme.

One theory is that Australia’s shift to punitive unilateralism regarding boat arrivals reflects not just a change in the world’s humanitarian climate but also a regional reality. Few countries in Asia are signatories to the 1951 convention. Those that are often baulk at resettlement. In 2014, South Korea’s population contained just 3489 asylum seekers. At the advent of the worst refugee crisis in history, Japan took in 11 refugees. The previous year it accepted just six.

The reasons regional uptake is so low are complex – ranging from racism, to the ASEAN principle of non-interference, to weak welfare states unable to pick up the slack. When the media says Australia risks becoming an “international pariah” over Operation Sovereign Borders, it really means in Europe and the Anglosphere. There’s a realpolitik argument that, by washing its hands of the Rohingya, Australia will force its neighbours to act. Here’s John Lee running this line in the Australian:

“If anything, the tough Australian policies are putting more pressure on the region to revise its longstanding buck-passing asylum-seeker policy and practices, and may well spur greater regional co-operation to the problem.”

Viewed solely through the prism of incentives, there’s a cool logic to this thinking. It argues that asylum seekers are heading to Australia because of a double failure.

The first failure is in UNHCR camps, where the focus is on repatriation, not resettlement. Refugees have access to only the most meagre resources. Headlines about the UNHCR going broke are almost an annual tradition (‘UN runs out of money to feed Syrian refugees’, Al Jazeera, December 2014). Refugee advocates love to say, “there is no queue”, which is not always true. But in some places, the queue is 40 years long. The front door is a very long way away, so asylum seekers seek entry more directly. Australia is one of only a handful of countries to offer permanent resettlement from these camps. This makes sense with our isolated geography – that we act as a country of sanctuary, not first asylum.

The second failure is regional – that asylum seekers are driven to head to Australia, when they should be able to seek asylum in their country of first entry. Malaysia argues it is already home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and fears becoming a signatory to the convention will put it at a disadvantage. Some Rohingya I spoke to even supported the Coalition’s policy of resettling refugees in Cambodia, arguing that it prevented the perilous voyage all the way to Australia. For them, safety rather than resettlement is the priority. There is now a lone Rohingya refugee in Phnom Penh. Australia covered all of the costs of his relocation, and added $40 million in aid. Cambodia has been adroit at manipulating wealthier powers on immigration issues, even though it has created persecuted asylum seekers of its own. In 2009 it deported 20 ethnic Uighurs to China, and received a $1.2 billion aid package two days later.

It might be expensive and in possible breach of international laws and conventions, but Australia’s harsh stance could be the unlikely genesis of a new style of regional processing. Except it hasn’t been. And throughout the region, Operation Sovereign Borders has been treated more often as an example to emulate than a spur to action. Boat turnbacks don’t work, however, if everyone starts doing them, as the Rohingya discovered this year. An even more ominous element of Australia’s border protection policies is now moving to the heart of regional attitudes towards asylum seekers. Because if stopping boats becomes the monomaniacal priority, then it makes sense not only to refuse and return refugees, but to stop them leaving their site of persecution at all.

It’s worth revisiting how this point was reached. The debate has been poisoned in Australia forever now, but it wasn’t always this way. Within the Coalition, the Pacific Solution never had unwavering support. The most ardent of the Howard government’s media fan club, too, were anxious about mandatory detention. Gerard Henderson wrote, “It is true that, at times, the Coalition has appeared to lack empathy on this issue.” In the Australian, Greg Sheridan took up the plight of a young Iraqi man called Humam. “If Humam dies while under Australian care it will be the fault of the determined, vicious cruelty of the border protection policy. This quiet, gentle lad could make a real contribution to Australia. It is insane that he is treated as he is.” In 2005, Andrew Bolt wrote an open letter to John Howard, asking him to remove children from detention. Howard did, spurred in part by a report that was tabled in parliament by Tony Abbott. Liberals Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan, Russell Broadbent and others tamed the policy, and Amanda Vanstone successfully curbed the worst aspects of the immigration department’s culture. Even Howard himself acknowledged that immigration problems represented “one of the many failings of this government”.

Kevin Rudd announced boat turnbacks as a Labor policy on the 2007 campaign trail. He told listeners of Alan Jones’ show on 2GB, “If they’re out in the high seas, then what you’d do is seek to turn them back through the agency of the Australian Navy.” In office this never happened, and instead Rudd removed the mainly dormant architecture of the Pacific Solution. There was widespread approval, but underlying it was a catastrophic mistake. Rudd had made the decision, or non-decision, to replace the policy with nothing. One adviser in particular, Peter Khalil, now at SBS, implored Rudd to at least explain publicly what was happening. Khalil recognised that boats would come again. WikiLeaks records that he tried to encourage the new prime minister “to calmly and rationally put the issue in perspective” by acknowledging that only a small number of asylum seekers were arriving by boat compared with tens of thousands of visa over-stayers each year. But Rudd seemed paralysed.

With the boats at a trickle, Australia was also in a strong position to negotiate regionally. There are dozens of active diplomatic processes trying to work this stuff out: the Asia-Pacific Consultations on Refugees, Displaced Persons and Migrants; the Manila Process; the Budapest Process; the Global Commission on International Migration … Most pertinent to Asia is the Bali Process, an international consortium on people smuggling and irregular migration. Every few years it releases a statement along the lines of “we should really do something about this”. Rudd could have exerted effort for a more meaningful outcome, but was uninterested.

The most dangerous part of the new policy was how it was interpreted. Deterrence was still central to Australia’s asylum policy. But the new deterrent was the sea. Tony Kevin, a former diplomat and one of the leading critics of the Pacific Solution, recently described the culture that developed in the Border Protection Command (BPC) and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA):

under Labor, BPC and AMSA had fallen into a de facto work ethic of disdain for asylum seekers and second-class rescue practice when their boats were possibly or probably in trouble. The philosophy of “we won’t rescue you till we absolutely have to, and only after we have given you a good punitive scare” was leading inevitably to mistaken assessments and consequent deaths. In the end, BPC was even declining to retrieve bodies from the water in international waters, lest this might lead to legal requirements for embarrassing inquests.

In the subsequent debates over deaths at sea, this agency negligence was rarely mentioned. The 1100 asylum seekers who died off Australian shores between 2007 and 2013 produced a seismic political effect. The Labor Party, and the left more generally, were unprepared for them, and struggled to articulate a position. Most fell back on the same talking points they had employed in 2001, repeating “it’s not illegal to seek asylum” like a protection mantra. But the fatalities ultimately persuaded some of the Coalition’s most fervent critics, people like Robert Manne and Paris Aristotle, that offshore detention had been necessary. Even Australia’s most prominent refugee spokesperson, Julian Burnside, is a supporter of mandatory detention (under strict conditions). Tony Kevin himself has now become a supporter of boat turnbacks, believing they are better than the alternatives. The diplomatic response he feared, he says, has never eventuated.

Within the ALP, the deaths were considered a political disaster. They were instrumental in Julia Gillard’s decision to oust Kevin Rudd. “The issue of asylum seekers,” she wrote to him in June 2010, “… is working on every level – loss of control of the borders feeding into a narrative of a government that is incompetent and out of control. As you know I have been raising this with a great deal of anxiety and I remain desperately concerned about a lack of progress.” This anxiety would drive Gillard, and then Rudd himself, to implement the Papua New Guinea Solution, a deformed mockery of a regional processing regime, cobbled together under duress. It’s often thought of as a continuation of the Pacific Solution. But the deaths at sea had changed the whole nature of Australia’s asylum policy. The rationale for the Pacific Solution was control of Australia’s borders. The rationale for the PNG Solution, and Operation Sovereign Borders, was to save lives, at least according to the rhetoric. This might seem just a cynical piece of window-dressing. (The cartoonist David Pope summed up the transition with a Cronulla rioter’s amended slogan: “F**k Off We’re Full Deeply Concerned About Your Safety At Sea”.) But the change has had disastrous ramifications: any kind of outcome is permissible, as long as it is not worse than death. It’s no accident the cruelty of the detention regime has increased.

Around the time of the debate’s lowest point in 2012, Clive Palmer suggested that asylum seekers coming via Indonesia could be resettled in Australia by plane. “We can eliminate the people smugglers. We can eliminate the problem. We can eliminate the drownings. We can treat people as human beings,” he said. “What sort of a nation are we if we don’t follow our international responsibilities and allow people to come here safely?” This was treated as an offbeat thought bubble from an eccentric billionaire, instead of the resurrection of a policy that had worked for many years. It was one of many sensible and workable suggestions ignored or discarded. The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers convened in 2012 under the Gillard government (and including Paris Aristotle) emphasised the centrality of regional processing, and the importance of humane detention.

“The [report] is an integrated package. You can’t break bits off it and apply them and assume they will work,” said Aristotle, as the report was immediately stripped for its most draconian parts. The humane bits never arrived. The Abbott government followed up by jeopardising any further chance of an ASEAN agreement with boat turnbacks. Stopping the boats – at any cost – is not just a policy that determines Australia’s actions on migration. It is now the central pillar of our foreign policy.

“Support for democracy is, and will continue to be, a key thread in the overall fabric of Australia’s engagement with the region, reflecting our desire to make a contribution as a good global citizen.”

– Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, 2013

When asked if Australia would resettle any of the stranded Rohingya refugees, this was Tony Abbott’s response: “Nope, nope, nope … Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life … I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.”

Let’s strip aside the obvious for a moment. (For the Rohingya there is no access to a front door – they can’t seek asylum while in Myanmar, and can only leave via boat. Attempts to leave by land will result in arrest or shooting.) If the Coalition government hopes to encourage front-door use, there should be signs such a process can be utilised. Instead, the situation beyond Operation Sovereign Borders is a mess. Like many other areas of Abbott government policy, it somehow manages to be both narrow in its focus and yet still incoherent.

We have a dismal record of using official humanitarian channels to resettle refugees stuck in Indonesia. Between 2001 and 2010, Australia accepted only 56 refugees from Indonesia per year. This number will become zero. Scott Morrison described this as “taking the sugar off the table”. But at the same time, he reduced Australia’s humanitarian intake from 20,000 to 13,700. Nauru and Manus Island have become legal sinkholes, where those found to be genuine refugees are trapped, waiting years to have their location decided, if it happens at all. More asylum seekers on Manus have died than have been resettled elsewhere. The government’s approach has shifted from carrot and stick to all stick, all the time.

Instead of working with human-rights abusers to put an end to human-rights abuses that create refugees, Australia has been working with human-rights abusers to assist them in detaining possible refugees. Australia’s recent history in Sri Lanka is a case in point. Under both Liberal and Labor governments, it has been dismal. Tony Abbott recently described it as “the closest possible co-operation”, then proved it by going jogging with a war criminal’s son. At the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Australia under the then Labor government pushed for meetings with the Sri Lankan military as quickly as possible. This wasn’t to press for accountability, or end human-rights abuses, but to discuss people smuggling. The Sri Lankan navy, which months before had been shelling civilian safe areas, was given millions of dollars to prevent refugee departures by boat. Airports were fitted with surveillance equipment to ensure the skies were closed as well.

In 2009, the then foreign minister, Stephen Smith, visited Sri Lanka. Previous visitors from Britain, Sweden and France had visited Tamil camps and made pointed public statements about human rights. Smith instead signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sri Lankan government on people smuggling, and increased aid by $11 million. An Australian Federal Police post opened in Colombo.

Sri Lankans who did manage to leave were subjected to “enhanced screening” by Australian authorities (“enhanced” here means the opposite; the screenings were cursory enough to almost guarantee failure), suspension of assessing asylum-seeker claims, and involuntary repatriation, both under Chris Bowen and Scott Morrison. Since 2012 alone, Sri Lankan authorities claim to have stopped 4500 trying to leave. Most were detained, and Australian delegates have shown little interest in determining their fate. The Human Rights Law Centre reported, “In one instance where Australia received a complaint that a returnee had been ‘severely tortured’, the Australian Federal Police officer in Colombo, despite being in the police building where the complainant was being held, declined an invitation to meet with the complainant to assess his wellbeing.”

These “investigators” won’t even climb a flight of stairs.

Emily Howie, director of advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, has seen Australia’s new priorities firsthand at the UN Human Rights Council. “Australia has made stopping Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving in Australia the only real priority in its bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. It has done this at the price of justice and accountability for some of the gravest war crimes and crimes against humanity in our region in recent times.”

Australia’s foreign minister publicly opposed the UN inquiry into Sri Lankan war crimes, infuriating US and UK allies who had championed it.

“In Geneva, Julie Bishop’s comments sounded truly bizarre, echoing more the kind of attitudes expressed by Russian, Chinese or Iranian governments who opposed international intervention,” says Howie. “I had comments that this was Australia’s darkest hour at the Human Rights Council … Australia’s reluctance to support a credible initiative that will help to achieve justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka was counterproductive, short-sighted and extremely disappointing.”

At the moment, Australia feels more at home with the “non-interference” line. In another example, we have remained silent about Nauru’s slide into authoritarianism. Judges have been expelled, journalists prevented from visiting, opposition MPs arrested (the former president had a heart attack in custody), protests outlawed, and social media banned. New Zealand’s parliament passed a motion of concern, and Murray McCully, the New Zealand foreign minister, threatened to cut funding to Nauru’s judicial system. Julie Bishop, on the other hand, called President Baron Waqa for a “confidential discussion”. Any stronger criticism of the nascent dictatorship might threaten Nauru’s processing of asylum seekers. Its settlement process now involves placing those found to be genuine refugees in the general community, which has led to routine and unprovoked violence from locals, including regular random beatings of refugees, even adolescents. Things became bad enough that the refugees protested. The refugees were then arrested.

It’s a sign of what boats have come to symbolise that a Coalition government can propose military co-operation with an Axis of Evil power. All it takes is fewer than 1000 failed Iranian asylum seekers. Tehran has made Julie Bishop pay dearly for their proposed return. Other likely inducements are Iranian consulates opening in Sydney and Melbourne, downgrading travel warnings for those visiting Iran, and offering Iranians scholarships and work visas. (Australia already shares information with Pakistani intelligence services to prevent Hazaras leaving Afghanistan.) In 2012, when Prime Minister Gillard’s special envoy was about to visit Iran, Bishop released this statement: “If the visit goes ahead it will be another example of the Labor government compromising longstanding foreign policy principles in pursuit of votes for its campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.” It turns out they were compromising longstanding principles for the wrong reasons.

Last time Julie Bishop visited Myanmar, she brought up human-rights abuses and tried to meet with Rohingya political leaders. But in the current diplomatic climate, “close co-operation” with the junta to prevent boats leaving seems a more likely outcome. After all, Myanmar now knows how cheaply Australia’s silence can be bought.

Among the Rohingya themselves, there’s still a belief that Australia can help broker some agreement between the group and its enemies. “Perhaps Australia can help make a bridge between the Rohingya and the Rakhine,” one man said to me. Most Rohingya are uninterested in being resettled to a third country. Instead they want to return to Myanmar once their rights can be guaranteed.

It’s difficult to explain that Australia is now more likely to assist the Myanmar government than the Rohingya, because of boats thousands of kilometres away. Our policy now is to advocate for the “front door” while closing it, to emphasise humanitarian resettlement by reducing it, to save lives by driving people to self-harm, and to stop the flight of the persecuted by taking up the cause of the persecutors. Perhaps this refugee crisis is now too large to be solved. But if it can be, it will be in spite of our efforts, not because of them.

Research for this article was completed with assistance from the GetUp! Shipping News fund. Additional research was conducted by Mariam Chehab. Donations to the Rohingya Society Malaysia can be made at          

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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