Rudd's U-turn on refugees a mixed message to Asia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2009, 12:00am

While Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spent last weekend hustling his idea of a European-Union-style Asian community with open borders, his government was pandering to those Australians who are fretting about a handful of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan risking their lives on leaky boats in treacherous waters off the Indonesian coastline to get to Australia.

The image Rudd is projecting about his country to much of Asia must seem a little confusing at the moment. And, at worst, it is reinforcing a commonly held view in Asia that, while Australia is geographically a part of the region, it is still a closed Anglo-European society in the way it deals with Sri Lankans, Afghans and other refugees from Asian and Middle Eastern trouble spots.

Rudd's Asian community idea is one he has been pushing for almost two years and at the East Asia Summit, held at Hua Hin in Thailand over the past weekend, he argued the case again. 'What I detect across the region is an openness to a discussion about how we evolve our regional architecture into the future,' Rudd said before he addressed his fellow regional leaders.

Greater co-operation around Asia in areas such as the economy, trade, the environment and defence are a good idea and they must be predicated on the principle of openness and greater freedom of movement, which would include liberalised migration policies. Australia, as a developed nation with one of the largest economies in Asia, is well placed to take the leadership role that Rudd clearly wants to play in moving towards establishing an EU style of political infrastructure.

But, if Australia is to really gain traction and attract committed followers to the idea, it needs to sort out how it deals with asylum seekers and refugees.

No issue has done more damage to Australia's reputation as a liberal, outward-looking and tolerant nation in recent years than the inhumane and xenophobic way it has dealt with asylum seekers who risk their lives on dangerous voyages, having paid people smugglers their life savings, to flee terror and oppression.

Rudd's predecessor, John Howard, was the architect of a policy that saw asylum seekers, including women and children, detained for years on end on the tiny island nation of Nauru and in detention centres in the Australian outback. This policy was accompanied by tough rhetoric about border protection and the right of Australians to determine who enters their country. The fact that most asylum seekers were at that time Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians reinforced the perception that Australia was suspicious of non- Anglo-Europeans.

In recent months, due to the appalling treatment being meted out by the Sri Lankan government to the Tamil community and the worsening of conditions in Afghanistan, about 1,200 asylum seekers have made their way across to Indonesia and used that country as a launching pad to try to sail to Australia.

Initially, Rudd and his government sought to play down the issue and differentiate themselves from Howard's tougher-than-tough position on the matter. But, as some elements of the Australian media and the opposition parties have begun to whip up fears about 'hordes of refugees' invading Australia's vast coastline, Rudd has decided to succumb and push a populist line. He is asking Indonesia to detain and process asylum seekers - a variation on Howard's payments to cash-strapped Nauru in 2001 to do the same thing.

If the Rudd government projects the sort of image Australia gained a few years back under Howard - that of a selfish, xenophobic European outpost in Asia - then this will undermine the idea that it should be taken seriously on its quest to bring Asian nations closer together.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser. He was a spokesman for a refugee organisation in Australia in 2003-04