NO AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT wants to look weak on “border security”. Since 2001, when John Howard, a conservative prime minister, turned back a ship which had rescued hundreds of asylum-seekers from a sinking vessel, most of them have policed the country’s borders with ferocity. Asylum-seekers who arrive illegally by boat are carted off to camps in the Pacific outposts of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Australia refuses to admit them, even if they are found to be genuine refugees.
The “Pacific solution”, as this policy is known, is popular with ordinary Australians, who fear armadas of Asian immigrants. When they learn the details of individual cases, however, they often want the government to be more lenient. For instance, the government’s attempt, so far blocked by the courts, to deport a happily settled Sri Lankan family who arrived by boat has prompted a public outcry. The government insists that clemency would only encourage human-trafficking. By the same token, it argues that a law passed earlier this year that allows sick asylum-seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea to travel to Australia for treatment will beget more boat people. It hopes to repeal it when parliament reconvenes this month.
The government normally refuses to release information about “on-water matters”. Yet this week, to keep “the ever-present threat of illegal arrivals to Australia foremost in the public’s mind”, as Scott Morrison, the prime minister, put it, it disclosed that a boat of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka had been intercepted off Australia’s coasts—reportedly the sixth from the country to be turned back since May.
In fact, the threat is more of a trickle. Parliamentary statistics show that maritime patrols turned back 33 vessels trying to reach Australia, with a total of 810 passengers, between 2013, the year the current government came to power, and June 2018, when it last published any data. One hundred times as many people—some 80,000—have entered Australia as students or tourists during the government’s tenure, only to claim asylum once inside the country. This influx exceeds even the surge in arrivals of boat people when a government led by the Labor party, now in opposition, called off the Pacific solution between 2008 and 2012.
Most “plane people” hail from either China or Malaysia, and unlike those who brave the seas, few turn out to be real refugees. But instead of being dumped in offshore detention centres, they can live and work in Australia for the years it takes their applications to be processed. This has given organised syndicates a reason to orchestrate many such applications, knowing they can funnel the applicants into low-wage jobs in restaurants, farms and brothels while their cases are reviewed.
The government points out that most plane people are eventually sent home. But processing times have lengthened under its watch, strengthening the people-smugglers’ business model, notes Abul Rizvi, a former immigration official. It does not help that the tribunal to which asylum-seekers can appeal has been stripped of lawyers and filled with former political staffers. Its backlog has more than tripled over the past three years, to 22,000 cases, says Simon Jeans, a former employee.
For years, Mr Jeans argues, politicians on both sides “have accepted the leakage because the benefits of mass tourism outweigh the costs.” But Labor, which is trying to convince voters that it is not soft on illegal immigrants, is suddenly keen to make hay. “If the government was serious about securing our borders”, gripes Kristina Keneally, its home-affairs spokesperson, “it would be doing something about the blowout in airplane arrivals.” ■