Australia: time to stop accepting asylum seekers?

Conventions, Protocols and Declarations were signed.  But is it time to re-think these obligations?

Although a signatory to international arrangements, many of the Australian "government's obligations under these agreements have not always been honoured", says Amnesty International.  But these documents were signed decades ago, before the flood of Asylum Seekers started.  Is it not now time for Australia to accept it shouldn't encourage people smugglers or economic migrants in a vain attempt to provide refuge to genuinely traumatised refugees?

As Australian liberals and human rights activists protest at the treatment of rioting asylum seekers who'd burnt down their Sydney immigration detention centre, and another boat-load lands - this time 81 Sri Lankans at the offshore Cocos Island in the Indian Ocean - the Australian political elite debates what policy might halt this endless stream.

Australia is a signatory to a raft of international agreements, including:
  • 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights
  • 1951 Refugee Convention, signed 1954
  • 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • 1967 Protocol Relating to Refugees, signed 1973
  • 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
  • 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). 
In the past twenty years the flood of asylum seekers and refugees across the world has risen to epidemic proportions.  In the Canaries, the Spanish have to contend with overcrowded boat-loads of Africans arriving from Senegal.  The Italian island of Lampedusa has been swamped by refugees from Tunisia and Libya, many of whom are Somali, Eritrean or Ethiopian.  Boats carrying hundreds of Haitians consistently land on the beaches of Florida.  Malaysia has to manage huge influxes of Burmese and Indonesian refugees.  This is a global issue.  And should climate change give rise to environmental refugees in addition, this will increase exponentially.  To offset that possibility, India has constructed a 4,000 km long barrier to prevent current smuggling operations and future climate refugees from Bangladesh.  Australia, with no land borders, has other issues. 

Australia is particularly vulnerable. It has small, stretched coast guard services patrolling a massive 34,218 km of coastline and an Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 sq km. That coastline doen't include its offshore islands, like Cocos.  Due to the length of its shoreline, Australia relies heavily on the Royal Australian Navy, the Coastwatch Division of the Australian Customs and Border Service, and the federal or state/territorial Police. Securing such a vast area is problematic, to say the least.  This island continent has only c. 22.6m people.  You might say that it's underpopulated, rich and developed.  And you'd be right.  But Australia is a sovereign nation with territorial integrity, and has the right to decide for itself the speed of its own economic and population growth, without coercion from the international community, lobbyists or people traffickers.

So should Australia now re-examine its treaty obligations?  It has often been in the forefront of evolutionary migration policy and now would be a good moment to lance the boil of the refugee and asylum conundrum.  The hard bit would be to do this without acting inhumanely or immorally. But so long as this remains one of Australia's most contentious political issues, a solution has to be found and a hard decision taken.

Update on May 7, 2011:

Commenting on an impending refugee and asylum-seeker swap deal between Malaysia and Australia, SkyNews reports that Australian PM Julia Gillard described the arrangement as a “big blow” to people-smugglers. “If someone seeks to come to Australia, then they are at risk of going to Malaysia and going to the back of the queue.”  Canberra said the exchange being negotiated would cost A$292mil, said SkyNews.  The Malaysian High Commissioner to Canberra says the deal is a "one-off", according to The Australian.  No permanent solution then.

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