Safety our first, most urgent role

Canberra Times
June 25, 2012


Beyond the bitter posturing of different sides of politics about which party has the best ''solution'' for repelling boat people is an uneasy feeling that Australia is doing less than it could to protect those who, by boarding leaky and rickety boats in a voyage to Christmas Island, put their own lives at great risk. There is, already, an official inquiry into last week's tragedy, in which perhaps 100 people drowned, but it is far from the first in which there were long delays between Australian official knowledge that boats were in deep trouble and action at the scene of the tragedy to rescue survivors. Last week, it seems the primary trouble was not so much our delay in warning Indonesian authorities of a boat's being in trouble, but the simple inability of Indonesia to mount an appropriate response quickly. But there was a gap of more than 24 hours between when we knew of impending disaster and actually did anything effective about mounting a rescue. About half of those on board were saved; it is at this stage impossible to say how many more might have been saved had rescue efforts been more prompt. In another recent tragedy, there was a four-hour delay in warning our rescue authorities, while AFP officers and Customs officials negotiated with each other for a form of words able to conceal their secret intelligence.

It would seem unthinkable that anyone would consciously decide that the safety of lives at sea would be anything less than the first or the most urgent mission of anyone involved in Australia's border security. Australia has always taken seriously its responsibilities in this. We know too that other nations in the area have considerably less in the way of resources able to detect, steer towards, or manage rescues. We have had, in many rescues, considerable help from the fraternity of the sea, not least 11 years ago when a Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, went at an Australian request to rescue 438 Afghan passengers on a fishing boat in severe trouble. The Tampa, and those rescued, were treated shamefully for their pains, but at least lives were saved. The so-called Siev-X affair saw suggestions that the navy and others were less than active in monitoring the progress of a vessel which sank with major loss of life. Other disasters have made clear the need for active intelligence surveillance of planned voyages, and preparations for prompt rescue should this be necessary.

To this, there is a practical, if heartless, objection that even the positioning of potential rescue boats on the route to Christmas Island might well encourage more people to make the difficult and dangerous voyage, as well as enhance the so-called ''business model'' of people smugglers. Bluntly, the very danger, difficulty and high risk of the trip is a substantial deterrent, even if, obviously, far from totally effective. If reducing the risks actually increased the traffic, would it be better, in effect, to fold our arms and knowingly to let people drown? No politician would directly say such a thing, of course, but, given the heat of the controversy about boat people, it is no surprise that there are shock jocks and other public commentators who have said so. No doubt, as well, they hope that official callousness will ''send a message'' in just the same way as others hope that the so-called Malaysia solution, or the Nauru solution, or both, will provide the complete disincentive towards making the trip.

The point being missed is that potential boat people understand quite well the desperate risks they are taking in their search for refuge, for safe haven, and for secure places where they, and their families, can again take up their lives. They, or at least the overwhelming proportion able to make out their cases for refugee status, have a perfect right to approach Australia for protection, and Australia has for more than 60 years put itself under an international duty to provide that help. We would obviously prefer to manage what we do - which is, in international terms not much and increasingly grudging - further away from our borders, and at a civil, economic, human and social cost far cheaper than through a detention system. Yet supposed ''solutions'' - not least of temporary visas, suspension or prevention of family reunion, or the shameful pretence that boat people disrupt an otherwise orderly queue of refugees - actually work to make the dangerous voyage more likely if families are to be reunited, or some haven found. Both Labor and Liberal leaders are posturing about the efficacy of their supposed ''solutions''. Even a mix of the two will have little effect. Australia should, instead, be focused on regional ''clearing the camps'' plans, based rather more on helping our neighbours provide better facilities and rights for the hundreds of thousands of refugee already in their country. These nations bear a far higher burden from refugees than we do, and it is little wonder that they view our domestic debate on the subject with contempt.


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