Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recently announced asylum policy made headlines around the world. The approach is punitive, insisting that no asylum-seeker who arrives in Australia by boat without a visa will ever be settled there. Instead, asylum-seekers’ claims will be processed in Papua New Guinea; if successful, that is where they will be resettled. The policy also comes against the backdrop of a steady increase in boat arrivals, or irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) in the language of Australian bureaucracy. In 2010-2011 there were 4,750 IMAs, while in 2011-2012 there were 8,092. Current estimates are for even more during 2012-2013. And nearly 1,000 asylum-seekers have died trying to reach Australia by sea since October 2001 according to the Australian Crime Commission: 605 of them since October 2011, amounting to more than one death every two days.
Deterrent policies are increasingly common in the global effort to reduce irregular migration, whether in the form of fences and walls, visa regimes or bilateral agreements that facilitate the return of irregular migrants to countries in conflict. But underlying Canberra’s new approach is the fact that IMAs have become a touchstone political issue in Australia, capable, according to many commentators, of determining the outcome of the national election currently set for Sept. 14.
The newly announced asylum policy is the culmination of a political debate that began with a series of policies introduced by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2001. The central strategy of the so-called Pacific Solution was to “excise” several islands from Australia’s migration zone, meaning that people arriving on these islands—often considerably closer to migrants’ origin countries than the Australian mainland—were not permitted to apply for an Australian visa. Their only option was to apply for refugee status, but with no recourse to Australian courts and with Australia under no obligation to resettle those granted refugee status. Accompanying measures included the active interdiction at sea of vessels carrying asylum-seekers toward Australia, and the mandatory detention of those who did make it to the mainland.