Boats, Asylum Seekers and Aussies

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a press conference at Parliament House on June 24, 2010 in Canberra, Australia, not long after becoming Australia's first woman Prime Minister. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Australia is a long way from anywhere else. And, a lot of Australians like it that way.

So when global upheavals threaten blissful isolation, things can get a little uncomfortable, particularly politically. For the past decade or so, the Land Downunder has struggled with how to stem a flow of would-be asylum seekers making their way through Southeast Asia from conflict and human rights hotspots like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The last part of their journey often ends aboard rickety and overloaded boats from Indonesia dangerously and illegally heading across the Timor Sea. Some unseaworthy vessels have gone down with tragic loss of life. A few have made it all the way to Terra Australis, but most are intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy and their passengers rounded up.

The question of how to deal with these "boat people" and to stop more from coming has befuddled various Australian governments since the 1990s. Over the years, asylum seekers have been placed in detention centers in the Outback or even housed on the tiny island state of Nauru in the South Pacific. Processing can take years. But in the end most are granted Australian residency and a few have been accepted by New Zealand.  

How to deal with the boatpeople issue has brought out the worst and sometimes the best among Australians, even though the problem is tiny when compared with illegal immigration in the United States or people smuggling in Europe.

The days of the White Australia policy are long gone. The country now enjoys rich multicultural mix, relatively high living standards and diverse lifestyle choices largely thanks to mass migration since World War II, initially from Europe and in recent decades more and more from Asia.

Australians are proud of what they regard as their nation's innate sense of egalitarianism, which they call giving everyone a "fair go." So, while there is much humanitarian-charged sympathy for the plight of asylum seekers and condemnation of the scourge of human trafficking, some flatly resent would-be refugees cutting in line (ahead of legal immigrants). Some fear that Australia's vast coastline facing Asia is woefully unprotected. Go beyond that and it's not difficult to pick up a whiff of xenophobia around this emotional debate.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who came to power last month in a surprise party room coup) doesn't want to alienate either side of the argument.

"For people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant. It certainly doesn't make them a racist - it means they're expressing a genuine view," Gillard said recently.

She has come up with a surprise solution ... process (and detain) asylum seekers in neighboring East Timor, which is still recovering from a bloody independence struggle, ingrained poverty as well as civil and gang unrest. 

The UNHCR is reportedly OK with Gillard's plan, and so too were the East Timorese, although reports now say they may be changing their minds as negotiations with the Australian Prime Minister proceed. President Jose Ramos Horta (who was almost assassinated a few years ago) apparently isn't sure that his impoverished homeland, which still heavily relies on UN peacekeepers and foreign aid, can cope. Other members of the Timorese government in Dili are starting to say "no".

This is a major foreign affairs challenge for Australia and for Gillard's Labor Government. Recent history shows that how well or badly the boatpeople issue is handled can be the difference between winning and losing elections.

Gillard - who herself migrated from Britain as a child when her family sought a better life - has said she wants to go to the polls before the end of this year. She knows she needs to neutralize the issue, and fast, before hitting the campaign trail.

But is she doing the right thing? 

Geoff Spencer is Vice President, Communications, at Asia Society in New York. He is an Australia-born former foreign correspondent who has reported from Asia and the Pacific.

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Geoff Spencer oversees Asia Society's online, public relations, and marketing departments. He has over 25 years of experience as an Asia-based journalist.