Asylum Influx A Fresh Threat To Australian PM Rudd

Asylum influx a fresh threat to Australia PM Rudd

By Rob Taylor
Reuters, September 28, 2009

Canberra (Reuters) — An influx of refugee boats poses a new threat to Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and could divide Australians a year from elections and reignite an immigration row that carried conservatives to victory in 2001.

Two rickety boats carrying 40 asylum seekers were intercepted by Australia's navy on Sunday. A total of 1,640 asylum seekers have arrived this year aboard 28 boats, exceeding the total number of boats for the past seven years.

In 2001, a high-seas standoff between commandos and 433 Afghans on the Norwegian freighter Tampa put border security at the heart of national politics. It also secured an unexpected election win for then-conservative prime minister John Howard, who went on to govern for five more years.

'The Australian government remains vigilant and committed to protecting Australia's borders,' Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said on Monday, deflecting criticism that a softening of border laws by the center-left government was to blame for the increase in asylum seekers.

'Situations around the world mean that large numbers of displaced persons are looking for settlement in stable, democratic nations such as Australia and can be targeted by, and fall prey to, people smugglers,' O'Connor said.

Immigration historically divides Australians, despite the country being a nation of immigrants. A quarter of the near 22 million population was born overseas.

Xenophobic Fears

The 2001 Tampa incident split voters between supporters of Howard's election-race declaration 'we will decide who comes to this country' and opponents who saw it as xenophobic.

Rudd's Labor in March cut the migrant intake for the first time in a decade as growth in the economy slowed to 0.6 percent from 4.2 percent in 2008 and jobless levels hit 5.8 percent, on its way to a forecast 8.5 percent.

O'Connor said the influx of asylum seekers was related to conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. It was not, he said, linked to the unwinding of Howard's 'Pacific Solution' policy which saw arrivals placed in detention on island nations, at times for years, as their refugee claims were assessed.

But the conservative opposition, well behind in polls ahead of elections due next year and aware of the issue's hot-button potential, has been quick to blame the government and its preference for international arrests over border security.

'The Rudd government must make it clear that we have border protection laws in place and that we have a strong immigration system,' said opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop.

Amnesty International said any increase in asylum seekers was part of a wider global trend and urged the government not to toughen its asylum policy.

'Seeking asylum is a fundamental right that should be available to all human beings,' said Graham Thom, Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia.

The issue has not yet captured public attention as it did in 2001, when 5,516 people arrived.

'It's always a sensitive issue, but with global warming, the collapse of the world financial system, people's attention is on higher things at the moment,' Australian National University politics and immigration analyst James Jupp told Reuters.

Stopping Boats Crucial

While the government keeps processing asylum seekers offshore on remote Christmas Island, between Australian and Indonesia, Jupp said boat arrivals would remain a side issue for Rudd.

'As long as the naval patrols are stopping the boats, it's no threat. But if people starting getting through to the mainland, that would become an entirely different thing,' he said.

Canberra has worked closely with Indonesia, urging it to block people smuggling routes and Australian police are also in other transit nations like Thailand and Malaysia.

The government is eager to counter any perception that this year's arrivals are the start of a larger wave, comparing Australia's 4,750 asylum seekers in 2008 with Europe's 333,000.

But the government has also proposed using a failed casino complex on Christmas Island as a temporary housing center in case the A$400 million purpose-built detention center there, capable of holding 1,200 people, overflows with new arrivals. (Editing by Michael Perry and Ron Popeski)