The Coalition (of the Liberal and National parties) has just won Australia’s national election, partly by evoking its mantra of “stopping the boats” – using the issue of immigration to score political points while turning a deaf ear to the treatment of asylum seekers. But the boats keep coming.
Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott should carefully reconsider some of the measures he proposed during the Coalition’s election campaign, for they run the risk of failing to comply with Australia’s obligations under international law. As part of “stopping the boats,” Abbott has claimed that boats will only be towed “where it is safe to do so,” but that is disingenuous, as towing the kinds of vessels commonly used by irregular migrants into international waters would presumptively expose them to unsafe conditions.
The Coalition’s proposed Indonesian boat buy-back scheme – under which the government would purchase fishing boats from Indonesian fishermen to discourage them from offering the vessels to people smugglers – was already rejected by a senior Indonesian official. It is also likely to simply generate a new trade in leaky boats and up the costs and risks that asylum seekers take. And continuing to outsource Australia’s obligations by transferring asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru simply foist burdens on neighboring countries with far less capacity to process claims and integrate refugees.
A more effective and humane solution would be to encourage more neighboring countries to adhere to international law and adopt the 1951 Refugee Convention and help them develop their capacity to protect refugees. On September 9, the United Nations human rights chief urged Australia, a party to the treaty, to follow the spirit and letter of the Refugee Convention. Does Australia really want to join the likes of countries like Bangladesh, which have refused to let in boats of desperate Rohingya from Burma, and in doing so thumb their nose at international law simply in order to keep non-citizens out?