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Australia to stem rising tide of boat people

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A fishing boat carrying Vietnamese asylum-seekers nears the shore of Australia's Christmas Island in April 2013.

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A fishing boat carrying Vietnamese asylum-seekers nears the shore of Australia's Christmas Island in April 2013.

BRISBANE -- The tide of refugees arriving on Australian shores has become so vast the federal opposition this week recommended a military solution.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says if he wins power in the looming federal election he will ask the Australian military to appoint a three-star commander to lead a joint agency task force to deal with people smugglers and border protection.

It's called "operation sovereign borders" and it's the latest move in a political chess game that doesn't bode well for Australia's already-tarnished international reputation for handling the world's most vulnerable.

"This is one of the most serious external situations that we have faced in many a long year," Abbott said as he launched the policy in the northern Queensland capital of Brisbane.

"It must be tackled with decisiveness, with urgency, with the appropriate level of seriousness.

"That's why we need to have a senior military officer in operational control of this very important national emergency."

Australians seem to have little appreciation of the problems faced by land-locked countries across Europe with the millions of asylum-seekers who don't always wait meekly in refugee camps for the stamp of United Nations approval to move to another country.

But the torrent of refugees has become an issue of national importance in recent years. Hundreds of people appear willing to risk their lives weekly, boarding unseaworthy vessels to make their perilous way down to Australia's west coast from Indonesia.

Yet little more than a decade ago a solution appeared to have been found. Under a tough regime pioneered by former prime minister John Howard anyone arriving unannounced in a boat was sent to off-shore processing centres -- the most famous on the tiny Pacific island of Naru.

The policy was attacked as heartless and cruel both domestically and internationally, but it worked.

Arrivals dropped from around 5,500 in 2001 to close to zero in 2002. The changing international landscape (including the arrival of America in Afghanistan, which may have temporarily stemmed the flow of people fleeing the Taliban) was almost certainly a factor but there is no doubt the policy sent a clear message Australia was, in the words of Howard, "not a soft touch.''

With the election of the centre-left Labor government in 2007, the Pacific solution was altered (though not entirely abandoned) and the boats have come back in their hundreds.

More than 17,000 people arrived last year on more than 260 boats and that number is already being eclipsed just halfway though 2013.

The issue has an extraordinary hold on the Australian people. Those advocating a more ruthless approach ("tow them back to Indonesia") are attacked as ignorant racists while those advocating a warmer welcome are shouted down as bleeding heart liberals.

The politicians, professionals at picking up the dominant mood, are now in a race to outdo each other in hard-headed solutions. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced his intention to send anyone arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea for settlement.

A full-page federal government advertisement in the national broadsheet The Australian Wednesday addressed anyone "connected with people" smuggling -- pretty much anyone who arrives by boat.

"If you come here by boat without a visa you won't be settled in Australia,'' the advertisement declared.

As Abbott tried to outdo Rudd with his military solution, an inquest into the loss of life last year after the sinking of a refugee boat known as Siev 358 released heart-rending images of a tragedy that encapsulate the whole sorry story.

The boat, its hull termite-ridden, had no real hope of making the voyage on the regular route from Indonesia to Christmas Island. Dozens of asylum-seekers clung pathetically to its hull.

More than 100 died and more will in the months ahead. Even this week the boats continued to arrive, each one of them carrying people who often want nothing more than a second chance at life.

Arriving at a solution is an enormously difficult process, but the answer should be examined light years removed from the fickle business of politics.

In a democracy that's impossible, and so the political posturing continues.

 

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the

Brisbane based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2013 A11

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