Strengthening porous borders
Publisher: The Australian
Story date: 11/12/2012
Language: English

Australia has scope to work with Sri Lanka to stop the boats

RECENT figures released by the UNHCR highlight the significance of pull factors in influencing the 2000 asylum-seekers sailing to Australia each month. In contrast with Canada and many European countries that recorded a decline in asylum applications during the first half of 2012, and Britain where the number was steady, Australia received 59 per cent more asylum applications than in the same period last year. The number of applications, more than 7800, will be even higher for the second half of 2012 because more than 11,000 boatpeople have arrived since July.

Faced with a predicament caused largely by poor policies over five years, the government has made a good call in sending Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Colombo next week to plot joint action to stop the boats from Sri Lanka. These have brought more than 3500 people to Australia in three months, including many economic refugees.

More than 600 Sri Lankans have been forcibly returned since September and it is appropriate for Senator Carr to seek assurances that those sent back will not be persecuted beyond the fact they have broken the law by leaving Sri Lanka illegally.

But the continuation of the people-smuggling trade shows that more comprehensive measures are needed. Australia's policy of returning Sri Lankans needs to be publicised widely. And Senator Carr would do well to pursue the opposition's proposal for action to assist Sri Lanka to intercept and return vessels within its 12-mile limit. It is also encouraging that people-smuggling agents in Karachi have told The Australian that asylum-seekers in Pakistan have been discouraged by offshore processing and the tragedy of mass drownings. As a result, the number of asylum-seekers flying from Pakistan to Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia has slowed to a trickle.

That trend, and the outcome of Senator Carr's trip, will help shape federal politics in the new year. After ousting Kevin Rudd in June 2010, Julia Gillard listed border protection as one of her three priorities. Since then, 392 boats carrying 24,500 people have arrived on her watch. Public dismay at her inability to stop the boats is one reason her government has again lost political momentum and is ending the year well behind the opposition in Newspoll.

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