Dealing with the Boat People: the ethical and moral dilemmas of the PNG

EVENT: 6pm Tues 13 Aug – You can’t come to Australia legally without first obtaining a visa. Airlines refuse to carry in-bound passengers who do not have a visa in their passports – and if they do are obliged to carry them back to the place from whence they came. Asylum seekers, therefore, cannot come by plane unless they have been awarded refugee status outside the country.

This rule does not apply to people who choose to pay extortionate amounts to criminals – otherwise known as people smugglers – to bring them to these shores in boats, many of them dilapidated and unseaworthy. Some of these people are genuine refugees, escaping persecution, even the risk of loss of life. Others are simply seeking a better future in Australia than is possible where they come from. They are often referred to as “queue jumpers”, but that is a misleading description, since most of them simply do not qualify for settlement under the Government’s strict immigration rules. icon Refugees arriving by boat off Christmas Island. So they spend their savings and risk the possibility of being drowned in the hope that the criminals – who are seldom prosecuted – deliver on their promises. In recent years the numbers of both categories have swelled to the point where the question of how to deal with boat people has become a hot political issue.

The two main parties are both agreed that boat people need to be processed offshore – in other words not be allowed into mainland Australia until accepted as refugees. This is partly for legal reasons, but also because offshore processing has been seen as a disincentive to boat people.

This has not proved to be the case – and in the last 12 months the numbers of boat people have risen, leading to even louder cries to ‘stop the boats’. One of the first acts of Kevin Rudd, upon returning to Canberra as prime minister, has been to adopt Australia’s harshest policy yet – an agreement with Papua New Guinea whereby any asylum seekers successful in their quest for refugee status would be settled in PNG, not Australia.

A few days ago, the first group – 40 men, mostly from Iran or Afghanistan – were flown from their arrival point at Christmas Island to a new tent city in PNG. Immigration minister Tony Burke claimed this showed the criminals “no longer have a product to sell”. But the United Nations High Commission for Refugees described the new policy as “troubling.”

And troubling it is – for the latest developments raise many other issues beyond border protection, and the flow of migrants. There is the question of how boat people are treated in detention camps. Many of these camps are constructed and staffed by private companies contracted to undertake supervision, care and every aspect of the boat people’s lives, with immigration officers only involved in application processing. Many of the boat people are traumatized by their experience, and need special attention.

Recognizing that there is a wide variety of opinions on this subject, AIIA NSW has invited Graham Thom of Amnesty International to come and explain why he feels the PNG solution will not work, and that offshore processing is not the answer, for ethical as well as practical reasons.

Dr Graham Thom has been Amnesty International Australia’s refugee coordinator since 2000, working on behalf of individual asylum seekers as well as on broader human rights issues relating to refugees.

Dr Thom has worked with refugees and visited refugee camps and detention centres in India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan the Netherlands and Australia. In 2012, he visited Christmas Island for the fourth time and also visited the detention facilities on the Pacific island of Nauru, the centrepiece for the Coalition’s policy.

Dr Thom publishes and lectures on domestic and international refugee issues and has represented Amnesty International at UNHCR’s NGO Consultations in Geneva for the past six years. He completed his doctoral thesis on post-war migration at the University of Sydney in 2000.

Entry: AIIA NSW members: $15.00, senior/students $10.00

Visitors: $25.00; student visitors $15.00

Book now:


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