by Andrew Wilkie
30 September 2003


A speech delivered to the Charles Darwin Symposium in Darwin

Good afternoon and thanks for your interest in my perspective on irregular migration. For some time I've intended to broaden my commentary to include this important issue, and I feel that the time is now right to do so given that more than six months has passed since my resignation from the Office of National Assessments in protest over the Government's enthusiasm for joining the invasion of Iraq.

Now my aims here are twofold; firstly, to review the irregular migration issue generally, and secondly, to express my concern that the Government's border protection policy is fragile, unsustainable and unethical.

It's important to start by understanding that instability and conflict ensure that the scope of global people movements is almost too big to comprehend. For instance, UNHCR is concerned currently for about 20 million people; including some 10 million refugees, five million internally displaced people and a million asylum seekers.

Some of the big sources of these refugees and displaced people have a chance of recovery. For instance, almost half of the four million Afghan refuges have now returned home, while UNHCR is planning to help return eventually about half of the one million Iraqis under its protection.

But of course the prospects for Afghanistan and Iraq will depend on their stabilisation and recovery. And in Afghanistan any progress has clearly stalled - the Government has no authority outside Kabul, most of the international aid promised has not been forthcoming and anti-Government forces are resurgent. While in Iraq, the current mess and lousy short-term prospects are self-evident.

Additionally, developed countries are meeting the increasing number of people wanting to move internationally with a general tightening of border controls. Anti-immigration sentiments have been on the rise in Europe in particular for some time now, due in part to a clear racist undercurrent, while more recent global efforts to crack down on terrorist movement have resulted in better border controls generally.

In response, would-be migrants are turning increasingly to people-smugglers to help them get to their destination. By some estimates, as many as half of all immigration to Europe is now facilitated by smugglers to the tune of more than US$4billion. Globally, the figure could be more than US$10billion.

Now the big increase in irregular immigration to Australia in particular during the late 1990s was facilitated by the political and financial crisis gripping Indonesia at the time; where the instability, lawlessness and hardships obviously encouraged the emergence of a generation of people-smugglers.

Australia had for years of course been a niche destination for irregular immigrants. But global irregular people movement was increasing, some smugglers had a few success down under, and before long the would-be smugglers got a whiff of the money. The rest is history.

Many of the kingpins were foreigners, including Pakistanis and Iranians, though most of the smugglers' staff and hangers-on were local thugs. The high profile smuggler behind SIEV X, Abu Quassey, is of course an Egyptian.

Initially the smugglers were relatively amateurish. They operated openly, with little concern for the Indonesian authorities, and in the belief they were out of reach of Australian agencies. They did eventually become more professional, but only after Australian and regional countermeasures started to bite.

Importantly, corruption on a scale unimaginable by Australian standards greased their operations and enormous sums of money were changing hands. Moreover, up to $5000 was routinely being charged by the smugglers for just the boat trip from Indonesia to Australia - a survivor of SIEV X said he had paid Quassey $2000. Now the relatively wealthy middle class economic migrants amongst them could afford it, though more often these payments were all that was left of the genuine refugees' cash.

Some good news is that many of the big names have now been pushed out of business - some are imprisoned. The downside is that many hundreds of their clients are still stuck in Indonesia, broke and disillusioned.

There is no simple explanation for the current lull in boat arrivals. Government policy is responsible in part, notwithstanding its arguable ethical dimensions. Operation Relex has also contributed a little, especially the strong action taken in December 2001, after the 2001 election, to return SIEV 11 and SIEV 12 to Indonesia. Tampa, offshore processing, disruption operations, and better inter- as well as intra-Government coordination have also played a role.

But some of the most decisive reasons for the lull have been beyond the Government's direct control. For instance, the sinking of SIEV X sent shockwaves through the smuggling industry and its customer base. Additionally, the fall of the Taliban took the heat out of the pipeline from Afghanistan in particular, while improving border security after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks made irregular migration more difficult generally. Even the weather cycles caused periodic drop-offs in boat numbers.

A striking characteristic of irregular immigration to Australia is its predictable responsiveness to changes in Australian and regional counter-measures. Because of this, the need to maintain the perception of counter-measures not diminishing is well known within the Australian Government.

This could explain why Australia-bound Vietnamese boats have appeared this year, not long after the Government and media highlighted the despatch of navy vessels to the Iraq war. News of the navy deployments, available instantly and globally via the internet, might have encouraged the Vietnamese to at least test the waters.

But these latest boats would seem not to have been the first to seek to capitalise on any apparent reduction in Australian counter-measures - the run of boats prior to the 2001 election also appears to have been influenced by the adjustment of ADF force levels.

Let me explain. On 1 September 2001 the Prime Minister announced 'an enhanced surveillance patrol and response operation in international waters between the Indonesian archipelago and Australia.' Operation Relex, as it was to become known, was to 'involve five navy vessels and four P3 Orion aircraft.' The PM noted that the 'enhanced operation will be reviewed after three weeks'.

Straight away Relex appeared to pay dividends. Navy vessels intercepted SIEV 1 on 7 September, SIEV 2 on 10 September and SIEV 3 on 12 September. The ADF's frustrating, dangerous and contentious work was at least sending a signal to the smugglers that Australia was starting to take them more seriously. More importantly, it was also reducing the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster.

On 23 September the Defence Minister announced a review had been completed and 'the Government believes that the operation is working to good effect and will continue.' The Minister acknowledged that 'the presence of major fleet units and RAAF aircraft has reinforced the Government's determination to combat people smuggling and continues to send a strong message about the Government's resolve.' The Minister went even further later in the day when during an ABC TV interview he claimed that 'the decision that we've made is to continue the build-up in the north.'

At least three things are striking about these announcements. The Government implied that Relex would not be varied; that in fact it was being increased. The Government acknowledged its understanding of the importance of Relex as a deterrent. And the Government was stressing its border security credentials only two weeks from calling the election.

All of which sounds fine. Except that the Minister's statement was wildly misleading, because already the Government was secretly rolling back Relex; a point conceded by the Minister himself when challenged on the matter on the Channel Nine Sunday programme on 30 September and at a doorstop interview on 2 October. Despite all the Government's fanfare and claims about sending the ADF to protect Australia from irregular immigrants, Relex had already been virtually halved.

The Government had decided 'we are maintaining a sufficient military capability in that operation to achieve the objectives we first set at the start of the three weeks.' Which begs a question about exactly what objectives the Government was pursuing. Because, in the face of the much diminished Relex, the SIEVS kept coming.

SIEV 4 reached Christmas Island on 6 October with 223 passengers. SIEV 5 reached Ashmore Reef on 12 October with 242 passengers. SIEV 6 reached Christmas Island on 18 October with 227 passengers. And SIEV 7 reached Ashmore Reef on 22 October with 233 passengers.

And of course these known boat arrivals were far from the whole story. At least one vessel is known to have sunk, the vessel subsequently called SIEV X, which went down on 19 October killing 352 people.

The importance of effective deterrence during this time was clearly understood by the Government. In fact, maintaining credible deterrence was one of the Government's arguments against the ALP's coast guard proposal. During his 13 September Sky TV interview, the Defence Minister emphasised 'now, quite frankly, if you are looking for a deterrence what's more, and what's a greater deterrent to illegal activity? Well, I say it's the Royal Australian Navy and the dirty great big Navy ship instead of some Coast Guard manned by a whole army of bureaucrats.'

But yet the Government was secretly cutting back Relex. And it was doing so despite clear indications that the smuggling industry in Indonesia had reached critical mass. Countless smugglers were active, more boats and crews were available than they could ever use, and thousands of potential clients were ready to travel.

Moreover, in Indonesia, deep antipathy toward Australia, lack of legislation, capacity shortfalls and endemic corruption were combining to ensure a bleak outlook for Australian efforts to choke the flow of irregular immigrants. There was no reason to believe that the smugglers would be beaten any time soon.

Now there is nothing particularly complicated about the idea of deterring people-smugglers, especially the Indonesia-based sort. Most are bumbling petty criminals. Only the kingpins are particularly smart or in possession of enough cash to ride out the lean times. None are altruists - all want to follow the money along the path of least resistance. So they can be mostly beaten, or at least persuaded to other ventures, by a clever and sustained combination of counter-measures. Just make smuggling too hard and they'll go away.

Effective deterrence is the crucial foundation stone of any effective suite of counter-measures. But deterrence was torpedoed by the Governments decision to roll back Relex. Because any apparent reduction would have come quickly to the attention of the smugglers from their contacts with corrupt Indonesian officials as well as the crews of the hundreds of Indonesian boats that operate routinely between Indonesia and Australia. And, of course, by late September news of the reduction in Relex had made the Australian media, again available in Indonesia instantly via the internet.

By then of course the smugglers were rolling in cash and under pressure from the thousands of people keen to complete the last leg of their long, dangerous and expensive journey to Australia. The sums of money involved were unimaginable for most of the thugs involved in the trade. Just a whiff of news about fewer Australian navy vessels would have been all that was required to encourage them to send more boats.

Keeping things secret from the smugglers was one thing. Keeping them secret from the Australian public was another. Because the arrival of boats was a political hot potato and the Government needed to stress its border security credentials. And time for calling the election was not far off. The Government was positioning itself nicely to run a campaign based on its tough approach to dealing with asylum seekers.

Of course in the middle of all this were the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US, events surprisingly irrelevant to Relex during September, because the commitment of ships and aircraft to the war on terror had not been decided upon, prepared for, or announced, at the time Relex was being virtually halved in September.

In fact, one of the key ships to be sent eventually to the war, HMAS Adelaide, was as late as early October one of the handful of ships still committed to Relex. It was of course the vessel that distinguished itself in the rescue of hundreds of people off SIEV 4, but later was embroiled in the children overboard affair.

The eventual announcement of Australia's commitment of ships and planes to the war did however compound the perception in the smugglers' minds that Australia was reducing its surveillance between Indonesia and Australia. At least now the Government had an excuse for any weakness in Relex.

The smugglers would probably have known that the Adelaide in particular was involved in Relex. So it's high profile 24 October farewell from Western Australia for the war by the PM would have struck a chord with the gangs.

The Government couldn't have done a much better job of encouraging more boats in the last couple of weeks of the campaign. The smugglers had good reason to believe that a much-reduced fleet was left blocking the way to Australia.

Polling around this time was indicating a swing back to the ALP. Newspoll and ACNielsen were recording strong rises for Labour while the Bulletin Morgan poll indicated a narrow Labour lead. And all the pressure on the Government over the children overboard affair was still to come.

Of course the boats kept coming. SIEV 9 reached Ashmore Reef on 31 October with 155 passengers while SIEV 10 limped to Ashmore Reef on 8 November and was set on fire by its passengers, two days before polling day.

Given the proportionately big increase in irregular immigration to Australia by boat since 1998, the asylum seeker issue was set to figure prominently in the 2001 election. It was always going to be difficult for the opposition parties to get the focus onto more important issues like the environment, education and health.

With SIEV 10's arrival the asylum seeker issue domination of the last couple of days of the campaign was assured. No other issue came close. Talkback radio stations were jammed with calls vilifying asylum seekers and expressing support for the PM's apparently strong stand on border security. SIEV 10 sealed the election for the Coalition.

Of course this prompts the obvious question of why the boats did eventually stop. Well yes Relex played a part. But I make the point again that it was the post-election towbacks that sent the strongest signal, along with SIEV X, Tampa, offshore processing and disruption operations, along with the improved inter- as well as intra-government cooperation.

The other obvious question is whether or not the pre-2001 election roll back of Relex was intended to increase somehow the Government's chances at the polls. Well I don't know the answer to that. But in light of the Government's habitual dishonesty on other issues, I couldn't blame some people from drawing that conclusion. Certainly such behaviour would have been consistent with the Government's broader and enduring preparedness to manipulate national security issues for its own benefit.

Looking ahead, the current lull in boat arrivals is very fragile. Recent Government successes mask the fact that Australia is not immune from the global trend towards increasing people movement. Nor is it immune from the increasing trend towards irregular migration facilitated by people-smugglers.

The traditional sources of irregular immigration to Australia - Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam - will probably continue to feature in the flow of people to Australia.

Afghanistan and Iraq in particular will continue to be big potential sources of asylum-seekers, at least so long as serious doubts remain over those countries' stability and prosperity. The morality of the Government's haste to return asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq in particular is especially dubious.

And new sources of people flows to Australia are bound to emerge, sometimes with little or no warning. Significantly, the scale of potential flows from non-traditional sources like India, Indonesia and Africa are far in excess of anything Australia has ever experienced.

Economic migration in particular will increasingly drive people flows, as traditional drivers are overtaken by labour market globalisation and demographic changes. Remember that almost all population increases over the next decade or so will be in developing countries. The increasing disparity between rich and poor countries, and the youth bulges in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East in particular, will become powerful drivers of emigration to developed countries.

Crucially, the Indonesia-based people-smuggling industry is far from broken. There is still a core group of smugglers scheming while being kept afloat by other ventures. Plus a new generation is set to re-energise the industry if given half a chance. One successful boat venture now could provide that spark.

Meanwhile the Government's strategy is looking tired. The Bali conferences on people-smuggling have been desperate attempts to keep regional countries engaged, despite the reality that these countries are still more concerned with their own immigration problems than with helping Australia. And the ADF is still grumpy about it's ongoing, grinding and contentious border protection role.

In the background of course are some of the much more worrying immigration and security problems. 1,000 or so travellers are still being detected each year trying to 'unlawfully' enter Australia by air. The number not detected is unknown. This is especially troubling given the ease with which terrorists could enter Australia on bogus documents. Moreover, there is an enormous visa overstayer problem.

Australia cannot close its eyes to these real pressures. They will not go away by pretending they're not there. Existing policies for dealing with them are unsustainable and unethical. They would be overwhelmed by a determined and sophisticated people-smuggling operation tapping into the enormous reservoir of potential customers.

Remember the ADF's grinding border protection duty is a difficult, contentious and dangerous job. It wears down both people and equipment, especially during periods of high operational tempo as has clearly been the case for years now with Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomons. The strain on the ADF, and with it the serious absence of surge capacity, will continue at least so long as the government is so enthusiastic about supporting the US at any cost; and so long as senior government officials remain unprepared to say 'no! enough is enough.' This of course may not help their careers, but at least it could help the ordinary people left to actually do the Government's dirty work.

Finally to my assertion that the Government's border protection policy is unethical. The problem here is that irregular immigration is regarded simply as a security problem, rather than as a combination of security as well as humanitarian considerations. Yes, identity fraud is routine amongst would-be irregular immigrants, as is the more general incidence of attempted economic immigration. But most are genuine asylum seekers or people otherwise fleeing desperate circumstances. Remember, despite the Government's innuendo to the contrary, no terrorist has ever been detected amongst irregular immigrants arriving by boat.

I'm concerned also about the Government's preparedness to excise portions of Australia's migration zone, and by its resort to the export of our detention, as well as asylum seeker processing arrangements. This is an outrageous manipulation of both Australia's sovereignty as well as our international obligations.

And while I'm on the subject of detention, I need to add that some of the Government's specific detention arrangements are clearly at least excessive. While I agree with the need for some form of initial detention for security, health and claim checks; I find that the practice of lengthy, sometimes indefinite detention, especially for children, in an Australian version of the Soviet gulags, to be simply barbaric.

Thank you.


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