As President Obama heads to Texas to talk with Governor Rick Perry about the surge of undocumented children from Latin America crossing the border, Australia is facing a long-simmering immigration crisis of its own. For years, refugees from Asia have boarded unsafe boats and tried to land Down Under, sometimes with tragic results. An Australia-bound boat carrying 200 men sank in June 2012, with about 90 people suspected to have died. That was just one of a series of fatal incidents since 2010 in which boat people died trying to find refuge in Australia.
Tony Abbott, the conservative prime minister who won election last year while promising to crack down on asylum seekers, is determined to avoid the fate of his Labor Party predecessors. Julia Gillard, prime minister at the time of the 2012 sinking, fumbled the immigration issue and eventually became the victim of a party coup by former premier Kevin Rudd—who went on to lose the general election to Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition in September.
Abbott promised to “stop the boats,” but they’re still coming. His government on Monday said it had intercepted a vessel near the Cocos Islands, specks of Australian-administered land in the Indian Ocean that make up “Australia’s last unspoilt paradise,” as the government website writes. The refugees onboard the ship won’t get a chance to see it, though, or any other part of Australia, as Abbott’s government sent 41 passengers back to Sri Lanka.
Immigration-rights activists say Abbott’s government may be breaking the law by turning away the refugees. The United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday expressed its “profound concern” regarding reports that Australia is intercepting at sea “individuals who may be seeking Australia’s protection.” Just sending the people back to Sri Lanka, where they might face persecution, is a violation of international law. “Handing back victims to their persecutor and collective expulsions are strictly prohibited,” the UN said. The UNHRC yesterday said it was “deeply disturbed” that Australia had returned 41 people to Sri Lanka “apparently without adequate screening of their protection claims and needs.”
“It is indisputable that the right to seek and enjoy asylum applies to people regardless of their mode of arrival,” the Australian Human Rights Commission said in a statement published Friday. “It would be a flagrant violation of international human rights and refugee law to return asylum seekers to their country [of] origin without conducting a fair and robust assessment of their claims.”
Abbott doesn’t seem to mind. Undeterred by the criticism, he also wants to send back another 153 Sri Lankan Tamils recently intercepted at sea in a separate boat. In an interview with Australian television’s Channel Nine today, he said Australia won’t be held “over a moral barrel” on the issue.
For a politician such as Abbott who is facing declining approval ratings, appearing tough on boat people is a no-brainer. “The government is running a really hard line on border security for domestic political reasons,” Monash University political analyst Nick Economou told Bloomberg News. Sure, international groups will not be happy, added Economou, but Abbott “is convinced the majority of Australians support his policy.”