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We diverted the boats

The ignorant arrogance exhibited by Tony Abbott in telling European nations that they should learn from his success in stopping the boats was met with the derision it deserved.

Make no mistake, Tony has not “stopped the boats”. Indeed, 2015 has seen the largest number of displaced people on record since the Second World War – over 60 million. 42,500 refugees are displaced per day.

When we add in internally displaced persons and people displaced by disasters, the numbers are even more confronting: two people are displaced every second. In our own region, since the end of 2013 approximately 94,000 refugees and migrants fled Bangladesh and Myanmar by sea, including 31,000 people in the first half of 2015 – a 34 per cent increase compared to the previous year. In April and May, an estimated 7,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals were abandoned by smugglers and stranded at sea for weeks as governments refused to allow them to disembark. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand reportedly pushed boats out to sea.

It is believed that up to 1,000 people died of starvation, dehydration or violence on the boats. People have been starved, beaten, imprisoned and sexually violated, both on-shore but also increasingly on the smugglers’ boats.

They are often held for ransom and non-payment can result in death. The many stranded boats and the discovery of mass graves in smugglers’ camps in Thailand and Malaysia helped to galvanise global attention and a call for action. Australia’s approach to asylum seekers continues to be marked by a parochialism that is at best naïve, and at worst, downright selfish. Although the numbers of refugees Australia receives are comparatively inconsequential, the impacts of the government’s policies are deeply personal, and will have intergenerational effects.

The countless reports documenting abuse and ill-treatment in offshore processing countries, and in detention facilities within Australia’s own territory, are shocking not only for what they detail, but also for the fact that Australia has created a climate in which this kind of treatment can occur. Internationally, Australia’s approach has attracted incredulity and much criticism. Many refugee-hosting States wish for the resources our government has at its disposal, yet watch with incredulity as we spend billions of dollars creating the kinds of conditions that they are desperate to alleviate.

While there have been welcome developments, such as the creation of 12,000 additional resettlement places for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and Australia’s financial contribution of $44 million to those displaced in countries of first asylum in the Middle East, it must nonetheless be acknowledged that these are comparatively small gestures in light of global humanitarian needs. In no way can they compensate for the harm that Australian laws and policies are inflicting on refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived here by boat.

In 2015, Syria has dominated media coverage, which is appropriate for a humanitarian emergency of its magnitude. However, this has been largely at the expense of other significant humanitarian emergencies and protracted refugee situations, which have been too easily forgotten by the international community – crises in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Burundi, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, and longstanding situations in Afghanistan and Somalia. Intensified fighting in Iraq, for instance, resulted in an additional 2.8 million IDPs this year, on top of 900,000 already living in sub-standard conditions without even the most basic services.

UNHCR has warned that this situation may become unmanageable if the international community does not provide greater assistance.

In April, Yemen, which itself hosts a quarter of a million registered refugees (mostly Somalis) saw some 150,000 people displaced in the space of just a few weeks by escalating violence.

In September, the World Food Programme ran out of funding in Jordan, and was forced to cut food aid to 229,000 Syrian refugees there.

The consequences of this were explained by a representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council: ‘Refugees mention to us cuts in food assistance as one of the main reasons for leaving Jordan’ and moving on to Europe.

While conflict may be the initial driver, the failure to address humanitarian needs in countries of first asylum adds to people’s desperation and search for safety. In Africa, thousands of South Sudanese continue to flee conflict each week, with around 1.5 million IDPs and 700,000 refugees hosted predominantly in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Challenges here include land and food shortages, and limited humanitarian access.

The Central African Republic is one of the most poorly funded emergency situations, where thousands of people lack even the most basic survival assistance.

Since the end of 2013, around a quarter of the population has been displaced internally, and close to half a million refugees have fled to Cameroon, Chad, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Too many States are shirking their responsibilities for refugees and asylum seekers, pushing them away, both figuratively and literally, by navies, border guards, walls, fences, visa regimes, carrier sanctions, pandering to hostile public opinion, and adopting domestic laws that flout international obligations.

As UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, has rightly observed, such approaches ‘will never be the answer’ because they simply divert refugee movements along other routes, aggravating ‘already precarious situations in regions embroiled in conflict.’

The accident of geography should not be the basis on which refugees are supported – or not.

Australia’s current vision for where and how to build regional protection structures is not the model to follow. Whatever has been said about it being “protection of lives” driven, it is pretty clear that the overriding motive has been deterrence. If the boats are fewer, this has been achieved by substituting one set of problems with another.

The holding and processing centres have become long-term and deeply troubled detention centres. They have witnessed repeated incidents of serious physical violence, including rape, and they house many whose mental health gets worse by the day. The resettlement alternatives are not viable for the majority, meaning that these unfortunate people are in practice Australia’s long-term responsibility, at exorbitant cost.

Domestically the policies are hugely divisive. They have had to be underpinned by a swathe of highly contestable laws which are inconsistent with liberal legal traditions and international responsibilities.

Our so-called ‘regional approach’ is all about law enforcement cooperation, border management, information and intelligence sharing on people smuggling, travel fraud and border security, visa cooperation to prevent illegal movements, secure exchange of biometric data, and disruption of criminal networks.

There is little consideration given to how to help those fleeing persecution, war, disaster and poverty. Instead of regional asylum system building we have focused on deterrence. Our politicians need to accept the reality that the number of displaced people is not going to decrease any time soon and make adequate preparation to cope with the inevitable flow of refugees and migrants.

Equating asylum with safe haven for terrorists is not only legally wrong, but it vilifies refugees in the public mind and exposes persons of particular races or religions to discrimination and hate-based harassment.

The success claimed by the Coalition for stopping the boats is an expensive farce that has actively harmed those people we should be helping, deterred others from seeking our help thus closing off their options, and shoved the problem onto other countries.

If your children were hungry and cold, would you lock them outside and think you had dealt with the problem, leaving them there crying at the door as a deterrent to any other children who have nowhere else to go?

If places of disembarkation can be agreed, acceptable reception arrangements can be in place, status can be adjudicated through mobile protection teams, stay arrangements can be settled and migration pathways set up instead of the brick wall or free-for-all scramble we are currently seeing.

The best way to put people smugglers out of business is to open up a safe route with an organised pathway to follow. Co-author of the book Towards a Refugee Oriented Right of Asylum, Professor Juss, calls for a “refiguring of international refugee law as a compensation scheme just as much as a human rights protection scheme… to avoid poor people having to face the consequences of someone else’s military adventure”.

He suggests “if we can give monetary compensation for tortious acts, there is no reason why we cannot give refugee status in the same way.” I would like to acknowledge the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, in particular Professor Jane McAdam and Erika Feller, whose speeches at the conference in November 2015 provided the majority of text for this article.

There are some very smart people in Australia and around the world with a great deal of experience in dealing with refugees and good ideas on how to proceed. It is time the politicians in Australia, who have failed dismally in coming up with a plan, got out of the road and let people who have no political interest set up a programme which works.


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  1. diannaart

    I still can’t get around the fact that we are offering 12,000 places for Syrians and do nothing about those already interred in our concentration camps.

    How does wrecking people’s and particularly children’s lives “send a message” to people smugglers? Rhetorical – it doesn’t.

    Thanks Kaye Lee, we need to keep this issue at the forefront all the way to the 2016 election.

  2. John Kelly

    The incredible size of the problem world wide demonstrates the small mindedness Australia displays in its approach to assisting people trying to flee a “lifestyle” that no Australian would tolerate.

  3. diannaart

    Right on, JK

    How many refugees does Australia take?

    Australia in calendar year 2014 provided a home and new start in life to 11,970 humanitarian arrivals (refugees).

    This represented just under 8% of the total permanent migration into Australia for the financial year, with most of the migrants coming from the other streams such as skilled and family reunion migration. A substantial number also had the stream of migration not recorded. This percentage hovers around 8-10% of total migration most years.

    So refugees made up about 10% of migration, and about 3.6% of Australia’s total population growth for the calendar year 2014. Put another way, Australia’s population in 2014 grew by 1.4% of existing population – refugees made up only 0.05% of this. Refugees barely make an impact on Australia’s population numbers….

  4. mars08

    And, of course, we all remember that the ALP has announced that it WILL NOT change this policy. Right?

  5. Kaye Lee

    More from the conference,,,,

    “As part of the international community – and a democratic, prosperous, educated country at that – Australia has both a legal and moral responsibility to share in the search for durable solutions to displacement. This means modelling best practice in our own region, stepping up to assist and protect those further afield, and heralding the significant economic, social, demographic and cultural contribution that refugees have made, and continue to make, to our society.

    The reality is that forced migration is a long-term, global challenge. The best that States can ever hope to do is to manage spontaneous movements, not prevent or control them. States need to move beyond haphazard approaches towards smarter, holistic responses at the national, regional and international levels. This can only be done by bringing States together across multiple policy areas to create more integrated, predictable and protection-focused responses.”

  6. Kaye Lee

    Of the over 17 million refugees, 85% live in developing countries, most of which suffer human rights and governance issues of their own. Less than 1 in 40 refugee situations are resolved within 3 years and many continue for 10 or more, with donor funds progressively drying up and millions of people left in sub-standard living conditions with no foreseeable future prospects. The overwhelming majority live outside any refugee camp, with one in six refugees living on less than $40 per person per month.

    Greece is in deep trouble as it tries to cope not only with a debt crisis but a people crisis, with some 6 – 9000 persons a day arriving on its outlying islands. Over 750,000 crossed into Europe via Mediterranean routes in 2015, and over 3,400 lost their lives in the process.

    We can’t just ignore this problem. It isn’t fair.

  7. Backyard Bob


    And, of course, we all remember that the ALP has announced that it WILL NOT change this policy. Right?

    But they’ve promised a humane and compassionate approach, and free fairy floss and bicycles and stuff:

  8. lawrencewinder

    Beautifully written analysis… “…The success claimed by the Coalition for stopping the boats is an expensive farce that has actively harmed those people we should be helping….”
    We have become a very nasty nation…aided and abetted by Labor, the ruling rabble appeal to the most selfish “aspirationals” in the country.

  9. Kezzz

    Our species is trapped tween religious manacles, corporate global evil, insular patriotism and sloths . It’s a damnable squalid mess.

    The secular, progressive rationalists are our only chance.

  10. mars08

    @diannaart…. it you want to be really, really disgusted, check how we compare when it comes to GDP per capita. Poorer countries, with higher populations, are doing far more than our piddling “effort”. Where is the shame?

  11. diannaart


    My link to the graphic above clearly shows just how little Australia is doing.

    I don’t think I could get any more disgusted, but then I see the USA’s conservatives’ response to President Obama on gun control… USA setting the way for the rest of the world… Aussie see Aussie do…

    Trevor Noah Goes After FOX News For Claiming Obama Faked Crying About Gun Violence

    I recommend watching Noah Taylor’s presentation – clearly this was the man to take over from Jon Stewart.

  12. diannaart

    I’m not meaning that I think Australia simply follows the USA – we can be heartless & ridiculous all on our own.

    But, worldwide, where is the leadership?

    The respect for others?

    We speak our truth, which we have considered carefully and we get personal insults, just because we are not in agreement with some other bozo.

    raw onions – a problem for the GOP and Abbott, who’da thunk it?

  13. mars08

    @diannaart… I saw the Daily Show clip this morning. The loopy conservative spin is breathtaking! Those tools jibber “All lives matter” whenever someone comments about trigger happy cops…. and the number of black people killers. But it’s clear NO lives matter when it comes to being able to own the precious guns.

    The Oregon federal building siege is another example of how their corporate media picks the PC path when it comes to flag-waving, armed white men threatening law officers.

    I’m sure our own paranoid, bigoted, bogan, mental midgets are taking notes.

    “America the brave” Ha! That’s a joke!

  14. diannaart


    We are very much on the same page – in bizarro world it really helps.

  15. Bronte ALLAN

    All I can say is “Stop the Tony Abbott”!

  16. jim

    But did we stop the boats ???well no one can talk about “on water matters” so we don’t know at all and remember when in opposition a Liberal stooge blurted out “the more boats going to Oz the better”, This is how the Libs behave if they don’t get their own way and they’ll do it again, you bet you is, to me this is Treason, fn toe rags fn Liberals.

  17. paul walter

    Noted mars comment and include this:

    The huge queues of people escaping from Syria and Africa, having arrived penniless, hungry and freezing appear to have had no recourse for survival other than to pickpocket Germans at railway stations and the like, but isn’t this the way things’have been done for decades? Its not about controlling oil fields for the big banking and resource cartels, so it is left to chance and the frictions will continue.

    Do you note that even a respectable publication like the Guardian is prepared to milk the story for what it is worth..soon the Murdoch etc tabloids will have all the ammunition they need to fire up right wing groups and there will be a wealth of stories about skinheads attacking Muslims, let alone any eventual provoked retaliations.

    If the US and Western Europe and places like Russia, Israel and Saudi Arabia kept their bibs out of these places, there would be no strife and no need for millions to flee.

    Now, I think Kaye Lee actually is asking, how is it that we must beg yet again, for some sort of rationality and fairness in the world. A little bit of charity seems beyond the system, let alone substantial reform. Yet band aid stuff is all that seems left, unless you consider the alternative answer, that somehow the Oligarchy self-reforms or is somehow forced to meaningful economic and political reform. The means is there to fix things, but the lazy, greedy and powerful will not budge.

    The thing is, refugees are one of several faces of global poverty. Billions not yet able to move live like dogs in sabotaged post colonial kleptocracies supported by Big Powers usually interested in controlling mineral or agricultural resources.

    How do we get a change of heart from the people running things?

    Why is it so hard for them to see and feel what ordinary bystanders like us can see and feel?

  18. Florence nee Fedup

    I wonder if we would have similar results if the many millions we spend on a ongoing basis was spent in the refugee camps most first flee, instead of our cruel offshore detention camps on Christmas, Nauru and Manus Island, along with Sovereign Borders and Border Force.

    Many millions people are facing their fourth year, under canvas, extreme weather and lack of food with no prospect of returning home.

    We have along with many others cut our funding and aid.

    Do they have any choice but flee. Danger of drowning appears to be the best option.

  19. Kyran

    “It is time the politicians in Australia, who have failed dismally in coming up with a plan, got out of the road and let people who have no political interest set up a programme which works.”
    Truer words are rarely uttered.
    The Australian government, in many manifestations, has argued what it won’t do, not what it can’t do, for decades.
    Surely, it’s no longer acceptable to question the validity of someone’s right to flee danger, when it is a demonstrably clear and present danger.
    Surely, it’s no longer acceptable to question the integrity or possible criminality of those fleeing when such questions are based solely on the means by which they flee their persecution (or their nationality or religion, for that matter).
    Surely, it’s no longer acceptable to discuss which version of the government is ‘less bad’.
    As stated in the article, the numbers fleeing desperate circumstances from numerous countries are rivalling post WW2 numbers. The stories of the many abuses inflicted on them, whilst fleeing demonstrable danger, is unconscionable.
    As best as I can find, the global population in 1945 was about 2.5 billion and the resettlement of over 50 million was handled globally because it was considered imperative. And it was understood to be a global problem.
    It’s 2016, the global population is about 7 billion. Questions pertaining to logistics are difficult. But our ability to answer those questions globally are vastly better than 1945.
    Please, government, just get the feck out of the way.
    Thank you, Ms Lee. Take care

  20. Buff McMenis

    Leaping out at me from the page are the words “Cuts to Food Assistance”. It’s not ONLY Doofus Dutton who is responsible for this .. as the Minister responsible for Aid Funding why Australia (one of the richest countries and the best of food-producing countries in the world) why we have paltry Aid Funds available now, especially tied to the despicable “turn back the boats” lies the LNP are telling the sheeples!!

  21. Kaye Lee


    That struck me too. If we provided more foreign aid to countries of first asylum less people would have to keep moving. We talk about our concern for the people in the camps and think that giving $44 million is good (certainly better than nothing) but we are spending billions locking a few hundred up and keeping others away. It makes no sense.

  22. Sunday

    Where do we house all the refugees though? I’m having trouble paying my own rent. I am waiting for the Royal Commission into housing also.

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