Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Australia has long had a reputation of being tough on illegal immigration. Headlines were being made on this theme already some 40 years ago, when burly immigration officials forcibly took a little Fijian girl to the airport after she was denied permission to remain in Australia.
More recently, there have been the warship patrols off the remote northern coasts which in the late 1990s turned back thousands of "boat people," who have been arriving initially from China and later from Afghanistan and Iraq. The naval patrols, criticized as harsh by human rights organizations, have proven effective in that flotillas of leaky, overloaded craft are no longer arriving from the open ocean to make a landfall in Australia.
During the regime of ousted President Saddam Hussein, such immigrants had grounds to claim persecution.... Now, however, with Iraq prospectively on the road to democratically elected government, such grounds are diminished...
As Canberra-based political commentator John Kerin of "The Australian" newspaper says, "It has deterred people-smugglers, and also genuine refugees, from making those dangerous voyages in flimsy boats. If they are fleeing persecution but they believe they are going to be turned around by a warship, I guess that in many of these rickety boats they are taking their lives in their hands anyway. And if they are going to be turned around [at sea] or spend the next three years in detention on an island, they probably [realize they are] not going into a situation which is any better than that which they came from."
The immigration camps have been another sore point with rights activists. Some of these are situated in excessively remote places, like the one near Woomera far in the Australian desert. One is not even in Australia, but on a barren Pacific island called Nauru, some three hours flight time off the Queensland coast. The would-be immigrants are held in Spartan conditions in these camps, sometimes for many months, while immigration officials sift through their applications.
The head of the Australia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Michel Gabaudin, says the Nauru camp in particular has caused concern.
"While the transfer of asylum seekers to other countries, in principle, is allowed under international law, we felt that the conditions in which this was done did not offer all the [human rights] guarantees, because people there were kept in conditions which are tantamount to detention," Gabaudin said.
Gabaudin says the UNHCR would prefer that asylum seekers be taken to mainland Australia and processed using the methods the Australians have developed over the years as part of what he calls "one of the best systems among the Western countries."
He says that in shifting the immigrants to places like Nauru, the authorities have adopted more restrictive assessment criteria, which slow and complicate the process. For instance, there are people who have been finally accepted as refugees, but who still have had to spend lengthy periods in virtual detention while awaiting re-settlement in their new homeland.
Gabaudin says the UNHCR is now in negotiation with the Australian government on solving the problem of those people in Nauru -- mostly Afghans -- who have been denied refugee status but who are refusing an Australian offer of cash and support to restart their lives back home.
The Geneva-based International Committee on Migration runs the Nauru camp for Australia. Spokesman Chris Lom said from Geneva that some 35 camp inmates in that category are on a hunger strike. They have been refusing food since about 10 December 2003, and some have sewn their mouths closed, to back demands to be allowed to stay in Australia.
Lom says the hunger strikers appear to be in deadly earnest: "It is almost entirely youngish single males [on the hunger strike], and clearly some of them do feel that it could be an 'end-game'" -- in other words, they are ready to die.
Political analyst John Kerin says, however, that public opinion in Australia remains firmly behind the government's hard-line policy on illegal immigration.
"I believe it is [popular] with the majority of the electorate, which seems to favor a very hard-line policy on border protection. And certainly Prime Minister [John Howard] used this as a 'wedge' issue [to divide the political opposition] before the 1998 federal election, and it [turned out to be an important winning issue] for him," Kerin said.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone last week (1 January) defended her government from criticism over the hunger strike, saying that on a per capita basis, Australia is third in the world behind the United States and Canada in the number of refugee visas it issues. She said 12,000 such visas were issued last year, which means that Australia is more than pulling its weight in dealing with the flood of the world's refugees. And she said her country is one of only eight states in the world that accepts people the United Nations deems are in genuine need of new homes. She said the Nauru hunger strikers should accept their fate and return home.
But Gabaudin of the UNHCR says it is not that simple. He says conditions in Afghanistan have changed since the hunger strikers were denied refugee status by Australia last year, and he says the UNHCR is reviewing the current situation to see whether that alters the position of the people left in Nauru.
He says that in Afghanistan there are some provinces where there has been a deterioration of the security situation in recent months, and that brings into play a possibility that deportation to these areas could be temporarily suspended until conditions improve. Gabaudin says the UNHCR is now discussing this possibility with the Australian authorities.
A second important group of people seeking to immigrate illegally into Australia in recent years have been the Iraqis. During the regime of ousted President Saddam Hussein, such immigrants had grounds to claim persecution -- and thus the possibility of securing refugee status for themselves. Now, however, with Iraq prospectively on the road to democratically elected government, such grounds are diminished, leaving most illegal immigrants with only the admission that they are seeking a better life economically -- a claim that is normally not sufficient to gain entry into target countries.