The Pacific Solution myth

Sue Hoffman
22 December 2010
The Drum

It was introduced at the very end of August 2001 and by mid-December 2001 the boats had all but stopped. Hence the widespread assumption that the Pacific Solution was a significant factor in stopping the boats.

But thatís all it is, an assumption and one that overlooks other significant events in the latter part of 2001.

To explore this further, I did two things. First I produced a timeline of possible contributing events such as the dates of the departure of boats from Indonesia and their arrival in Australian waters; in relation to returned boats, when they were returned; in relation to passengers disembarked on the Pacific Solution islands of Nauru or Manus Island, when that occurred; the timing of the SIEV X tragedy; and the dates when a number of key figures in the smuggling trade were arrested.

Second, I asked refugees and a smuggler who were in Indonesia in 2001 why they thought the boats stopped.

Of the boats we know about, four left Indonesia for Australia in June 2001, two in July and five in August.

In the four months from September to December 2001, there were 13 boats. September saw three (SIEVs 1, 2 and 3) leave Indonesia. Seven left in October (SIEVs 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and X). Two boats left in November and one in December.

Hence, there was an increase in boat departures after the announcement and inception of the Pacific Solution. And six boats left Indonesia after the sinking of the SIEV X was known about back in Indonesia. This suggests that neither the inception of the Pacific Solution nor the SIEV X tragedy had immediate impact on boat numbers.

Of the people I spoke with who were in Indonesia in 2001, none of them mentioned the Pacific Solution in relation to boats stopping. They spoke about SIEV X and boats being turned back to Indonesia. Simply, the Pacific Solution just wasnít that significant in the scheme of things between August and December 2001 for asylum seekers in Indonesia.

As for the few who were unwilling to get on a smugglerís boat again because of SIEV X or other disastrous attempts to reach Australia, they were easily outnumbered by those prepared to try for a second or third time regardless of safety issues.

As best as I can tell, the Pacific Solution was initially perceived as another form of Australian detention, but offshore. Australian officials and UNHCR were involved in setting up the camps and the system of visa processing. Should anyone have been monitoring the formation of the Pacific Solution, they would have known the initial arrangements with the Pacific islands limited the stay of the asylum seekers to six months. This was changed later of course but that was not known in 2001.

Groups of people were taken to Nauru mid-September, October and November 2001, and January 2002. Once there, it was many months before they could access the outside world. There was no way asylum seekers in Indonesia in 2001 could know whether conditions in the Pacific Solution islands were better or worse than mainland facilities. They certainly could not know in 2001 how long people would be left on the islands.

So the evidence such as it is does not support the position that the Pacific Solution was responsible for stopping the boats by mid-December 2001.

According to a smuggler, government response to the arrival of the Tampa signalled that the window of opportunity was closing. Hence the larger boats carrying hundreds of passengers. But until the order was given for the navy to return boats to Indonesia which happened in September 2001, there was no reason for the smuggling trade to stop.

Plenty of people were wanting to get on smugglersí boats and although some smugglers had been incarcerated there were others still in operation. So the boats didnít stop for lack of customers or lack of smugglers. Even if taken to Nauru and Manus Island, there was still a chance for permanent resettlement. But once the boats were returned to Indonesia, there was no hope.

If anyone thinks thatís an option for the future, itís extremely dangerous, probably breaches international law and Indonesia has already made clear it would not accept returned boats. At least one man, years later, is tormented by memories from such an experience. After being escorted back to Indonesia by the Australian navy, the boat he was on broke down at night about 300 metres from the shore. Passengers had already spent 14 or so days at sea, part of the time under guard, without adequate food or sleep, and were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. They were also terrified. Two men drowned trying to reach the Indonesian shore.

While the introduction of the Pacific Solution indicated that the government was ramping up the rhetoric and response, of itself it was not a deterrent. Mandatory detention was never effective as a deterrent and neither is offshore detention. The effect of dismantling the Pacific Solution needs to be considered in this light. Further, the international experience as well as Australiaís clearly demonstrates that the numbers of boat arrivals ebb and flow across the decades for a myriad of reasons. ĎStopping the boatsí as a policy goal is misdirected. The emphasis should be on finding solutions for asylum seekers so they donít need to get on risky boats.

Sue Hoffman has recently submitted her doctoral thesis concerning the journeys of Iraqi asylum seekers to Australia.


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