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A Lifeline for Asia’s Boat People

CANBERRA – Sometimes countries arrive at good policy only after exhausting all available alternatives. So it has been with Australia’s belated embrace this month, after years of political wrangling, of a new “hard-headed but not hard-hearted” approach to handling seaborne asylum seekers.

The core of the problem – and what has made it an international issue rather than just a domestic Australian problem – is that the would-be refugees (mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and Sri Lanka) have been dying in harrowing numbers. In the last three years alone, more than 600 men, women, and children have drowned – and these are just the documented cases – while attempting the long and hazardous journey to Australian shores in often-ramshackle boats run by smugglers operating from Southeast Asia. 

The overall number of unauthorized sea arrivals – more than 7,000 a year – remains small relative to other target destinations; the annual figure for such arrivals in Europe from North Africa is close to 60,000. And overall asylum claims made by those reaching Australia by any route are only a small fraction of the number that Europe, the United States, and Canada face every year.

But the moral, legal, and diplomatic issues that arise in confronting Australia’s irregular migration problem are as complex – and the domestic politics as toxic – as anywhere else. So how Australia’s government handles these challenges is being closely watched.