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Australia’s response to asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat


It was in 1992 that I returned to Australia to research Australia’s response to people seeking asylum, and the book The Wellbeing of Asylum Seekers in Australia followed in 1994. I identified critical factors determining asylum seeker policy:

  • The foreign affairs factor whereby some asylum seekers are spontaneously welcomed and others rejected;
  • The immigration factor whereby a country welcomes or tolerates asylum seekers as meeting the prevailing need for labour. Whereas at other times a country may respond negatively to an asylum seeker movement as representing a desire by a group of people to subvert existing immigration arrangements and manipulate their acceptance ultimately as immigrants; and
  • Short-term considerations that are local political considerations, such as a forthcoming election.

My thinking has shifted somewhat. I’m of the view that the dominant determinant is that of ‘power’—the quest to retain or regain power. And, that this dominates politics totally. Nothing else matters. Thus it is not a short-term consideration, and probably never was.

I’m convinced of a constituency (it may well consist of most Australians) that approves of the measures to discourage asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat (Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security operation designed to prevent boats carrying asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by ignoring these people’s human rights (UNDHR48, CRS89) and the provisions of the convention (CSR51, CSRP67). Government qualifies its policy to protect asylum seekers from drowning at sea. (There is also a constituency that approves of this health and safety measure.) Those asylum seekers apprehended at sea are transferred to offshore processing facilities in Nauru and Manus Island to find that men, women and children are held there in arbitrary indefinite detention.

The political focus is on a constituency that is fearful of foreigners (xenophobia), and likely to secure electoral success for the main political parties. The propaganda machine demonises asylum seekers as terrorists, queue jumpers, diseased and refers to them as ‘illegal maritime arrivals.’ Of course, it is the mainstream media’s role to deliver the parties’ messages. These are designed to frighten people and conversely assure them that the government has taken action (or will be taken if elected) to discourage a sea journey and deny entry to Australia by selected measures.

Thus no one can ask for anything more. ‘In return we rely on your vote!’

David R. Cox and Alfred L.C. van Amelsvoort (1994) The Wellbeing of Asylum Seekers in Australia: A Study of Policies and Practice with Identification and Discussion of the Key Issues.


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