Australia and Asylum Seekers

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Australia and Asylum Seekers


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


JUST over a year ago, Australia successfully hosted the largest peacetime event in world history -- the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Australia reaffirmed its international reputation as a friendly country. Now there is an edge of bitterness. But this benefits the Prime Minister John Howard, who was until recently facing an uphill battle to win the next federal election which has now been called for 10 November. Now he stands a very good chance of winning it.

The flash point for this new mood of bitterness was the rescue of some Afghani asylum seekers. On August 26, the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa responded to an Australian Coastal Surveillance alert that a boat was sinking 140 kilometres north of Australia's west coast. The Afghanis had journeyed to Indonesia and then tried to sail to Australia. That ship had run into trouble. The Norwegian ship then rescued the 430 people. The MV Tampa sought permission to land them on the Australian territory of Christmas Island, near Indonesia.

The Australian Prime Minister refused it permission to land. He said that they had to go to Indonesia (because they were rescued in Indonesian waters) or the MV Tampa could take them to Norway. The Prime Minister dug his heels in and most Australians (if opinion surveys and talk back radio are to be believed) supported him. The more international criticism Australia attracted for its obstinacy and its failure to abide by international law, so the more determined the Australian Government became not to give in. The deadlock was partly broken on 1 September, when New Zealand offered to take 150 of the asylum seekers and the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru (population of about 12,000) offered to take in the rest. John Howard's popularity suddenly went up in the opinion polls. Why has Australia reacted so adversely to the arrival of the asylum seekers? The asylum seekers had the misfortune to hit the rocks of some significant Australian concerns. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Fear of Invasion

First, there is the fear of invasion. One of the first acts by the British when they started their settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788 was to build an earthen redoubt and put a cannon on it. It had been so easy for them to seize their first bit of Australia that they were afraid that someone else would come along and take it from them. In those days, the potential enemies were the French and Dutch. Later enemies were the Tsarist Russians, Japanese, Germans, Indonesians, Vietnamese and Chinese, and then the Soviet Union.

The colonies came together to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The first major activity of the new federation was to send Australian troops to South Africa to fight the Boers. The 16,000 Australian troops were to be there until the middle of 1902; more Australians lost their lives in the Boer War than in the Vietnam War in the 1960s-70s.

Ironically, Australia has never had a real threat of invasion. There was no problem at all in World War I. In World War II, as we now know, Japan had no firm intention to invade Australia. A March 1942 Japanese military assessment rejected invasion. Despite their stunning success at Pearl Harbour and in Malaya in late 1941/early 1942, the Japanese did not think that they could invade Australia. Among the obstacles they detected were: it would require 12 army divisions (which I assume to be around 240,000 total personnel) which would need 1,500,000 tons of shipping and the protection of the main body of the fleet (air cover, etc), which would lead to a reduction in personnel deployed on other fronts. Also, the 'national character' of Australians would mean that they 'would resist to the end'. Australians' reputation for rough, cussed individualism (now profitably portrayed by Paul Hogan in the highly successful Crocodile Dundee movies) deterred the Japanese.

However, deep in the Australian psyche there remains a fear of being overrun by foreign hordes. …

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