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Explosion pokes hole in border

Refugees making their way to Oz

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CANBERRA -- A fatal blast on a boat filled to the gunwales with unauthorized arrivals has turned Australia's attention back to the vexed problem of those incoming tides of people wanting to start a new life in "the lucky country.''

Even the mounting panic sparked by swine flu hasn't deflected public attention from the sudden resurgence of boat people making their perilous way to Australia over the past few months.

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Unlike Canada, Australia has a mandatory detention system for asylum seekers.

Although the nation was one of the first to sign the United Nations Convention on the Status Of Refugees in the goodwill following the Second World War, the passage of time has hardened attitudes towards those who come here seeking protection.

Australia jettisoned much of its international nice guy image in August 2001 when it appeared on the national stage openly questioning the legitimacy of those incoming hordes yearning to breathe free.

The then-prime minister John Howard refused to allow 438 Afghan asylum seekers (or unauthorized arrivals -- the terminology depends on where your sympathies lay) on board the Norwegian-based MV Tampa make landfall.

Howard at the height of the crisis was seen in the Canberra press gallery talking to journalists, furiously defending his right to maintain the integrity of the nation's borders.

"We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come,'' he later famously declared and his domestic, if not international, popularity soared, helping him win the tough 2001 election.

Australia, which had and maintains a relatively generous refugee and general immigration program, enacted tough laws ensuring any unannounced arrivals turning up on boats were processed offshore in immigration centres.

With the arrivals receding since the high water mark of 2001, the subject of asylum seekers also receded in the public mind.

That was until last September when desperate men and women often with children in tow began arriving off the Western Australian Coast, often on isolated Ashmore Reef, fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

Little more than two weeks ago tragedy struck.

Defence Force personnel were boarding a boat filled with suspected illegal arrivals on Ashmore Reef when an explosion occurred, killing five of the arrivals and injuring several military employees.

Many more of the arrivals were horribly burned and are still undergoing their agonizing recoveries in burns units in hospitals around the country.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was faced with accusations his perceived softer approach to handling illegal arrivals had sparked the latest wave.

He immediately confronted the media declaring all people-smugglers should "rot in hell.''

Rudd then announced the nation was going into recession -- an admission which although obvious appeared to distract the headlines away from the subject of illegal arrivals, at least for a time.

But the federal Opposition saw a political opportunity, and kept the issue alive by blaming the Labor government, elected in November 2007, for encouraging the new arrivals and by extension, for being responsible for the Ashmore Reef tragedy and the loss of life.

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has called for an independent inquiry accusing the government of presiding over a "massive policy failure.''

The new Cdn $320-million detention centre on Christmas Island near Ashmore Reef is still well below its maximum capacity of 800, or the 400 it can hold comfortably.

But 234 detainees are now in various forms of detention -- creating another bureaucratic nightmare for the government.

Still, journalist Mike Steketee, writing in the national broadsheet The Australian, suggests the issues may not carry the great political weight it did eight years ago.

Australia is a giant island. Unlike European nations or even Canada it has thousands of square kilometres of ocean deterring those wanting to arrive through the back door.

Steketee cites polling which suggests Australians are more indifferent than xenophobic about the latest arrivals, "even if the debate did seem to proceed on the issue we are open to some sort of mass invasion.''

"The reality is very different: very few slip through the multiple layers of the border protection net,'' Steketee wrote.

"Our controls on people who move by air, which is the main way most would-be refugees come to Australia, are among the strictest in the world.''


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2009 A10

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