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How boat people win elections
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 07 - 2013

In the last three years, 34,000 refugees have sought to make it to Australia in flimsy boats generally setting off from the Indonesian island of Java. This week, 157 asylum seekers were rescued while an unknown number drowned when their craft sank shortly after setting off for Australia. The majority of those aboard were from Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sri Lanka.
Had they reached their destination under new rules introduced by the government, they would have been sent immediately to camps in neighboring Papua New Guinea where their claims for political asylum would have been processed. Had they been found to be legitimate refugees in fear for their lives back in their home countries, they would have been granted asylum.
However, this would not be in wealthy Australia but in Papua New Guinea itself, an independent country once run by Australians who still play an important role in its affairs.
One Australian politician announcing these tough new measures, which would seem to mean that no boat people will ever make it to the land of their dreams when they are spotted and stopped, said that the move was designed to send "a tough new message to the people smugglers”. This is an interesting concept. The criminals who facilitate the movement of refugees around the world are most unlikely to take notice of any such message, however tough. This is because they do not care where their human cargo ends up, and do not indeed care whether anyone survives the voyage. What matters to them are the fees, often running to thousands of dollars, that they can charge these wretched people for their perilous voyages.
The boats the people smugglers use are often barely seaworthy and are of such little value that they are not expected to return to make a further voyage. Nor indeed are the “crews” particularly qualified for the task.
Often they are local men promised the equivalent of a year's wage, which might in reality be a hundred or so dollars, who are given a compass and a quick lesson in how to maneuver the vessel. It is not unheard off for the boats to break down far from land because they have not been supplied with sufficient fuel, nor indeed water, to make it to Australia. Therefore, the people smugglers need no “tough new messages”. Nor indeed is it likely that Australia's attempt to stop seaborne illegal immigration will become so well known that the flow of desperate, frightened refugees will melt away. The smugglers will cajole and convince. Asylum seekers have not risked everything without having some strong dream into which the people-traffickers will continue to tap adroitly.
So, therefore, the message is not likely to be particularly effective with the boat people either. So for whom might these tough words from the Australian government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd be aimed? The Australian electorate, of course, who will be choosing a new government by this November. It seems that it does not matter that Australia has long since ceased to be dominated by the descendants of the British who took the country from the aborigines. Substantial immigration from Asia has given the country large and successful Chinese and Vietnamese minorities.
Melbourne is the city with the second largest Greek population after Athens. Yet it seems that clamping down on further influxes of immigrants is still highly popular with voters and might win Rudd re-election.


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