Community fears and prejudices are never far from the surface during election campaigns. Few targets are as vulnerable as asylum seekers and refugees, who are seen as illegal immigrants competing for jobs and social welfare. The current example is Australia, where the government and opposition are vying to be seen as having the most effective policies to deny entry to boatpeople, mostly from the Middle East and South Asia, who arrive in northern Australia via Indonesia on crowded, often unseaworthy craft. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has struck a deal to send them to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement anywhere but Australia. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has pledged to turn boats back and deny permanent residence, the right of appeal and family reunion to the 32,000 asylum seekers already in Australia.
The appalling loss of life at sea among asylum seekers has, if anything, hardened public opinion against them. Denying them safe haven is seen as a way of destroying the business model of the people-traffickers they pay for passage. Opinion is sharply divided over a more compassionate approach. National security has compounded the division. The UN Human Rights Committee recently found that the indefinite detention of 46 refugees on security grounds amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment, because failure to disclose specific reasons for detention prevented them mounting a legal challenge.
Legal migrants far outnumber boatpeople and Australia is entitled to decide who enters. Illegal migration is now a regional issue involving countries of origin, transit and destination. Ministers from 13 of them signed up this month to share information to prevent illegal border crossings. This is a step in the right direction. But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is right to caution that unless it is backed up with strong refugee protection and migration controls, deterrence can render the market for traffickers more risky and, perversely, even more profitable.