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Reader comment on item: [Australia's] Crisis of illegal immigration

Submitted by Dr Jonathan Marshall (Australia), Dec 8, 2005 at 03:41

Mr Pipes article is, of course, entirely correct that treatment of migrants in a fashion such as that of the Tampa crisis has more or less become the norm in many Western states. His take on the crisis does however fails to mention several important aspects.

The Tampa crisis (as it has become known in Australian political discourse) has indeed been retrospectively mobilised as a kind of precursor to fears regarding the spread of specifically Muslim immigrants, esp. since 9/11. This was not however a particularly major factor at the time (Agence France is not an ideal source for Mr Pipes here) and in Australian political discourse, when one discusses issues such as "immigration from the north" there is always a subtext that Indonesians or other Pacific nationalities are at least partially at stake. The memories of WWII and the (apparently) imminent Japanese invasion from the north run deep.

It should also be noted that many of these illegal migrants were later deemed eligible for Temporary Protection visas as escapees of the Afgan wars as well as from Iraq and Iran, and that it was only the fact that they never reached Australian landfall that prevented them from receiving the legitimate protection they are entitled to under Australian and international law. It is also probably worth recalling that at the time and even now there has always been debate as to whether it was legal for the Australian military to intervene, since the crew of the Tampa themselves were simply acting under the rules laid out under international law to provide relief and transport to landfall those who are found to be floudering at sea.

Irrespective of the polls in Australia itself, it should not be believed that opposition to the actions of the Australian government came from outside of the country. On the contrary, the Tampa crisis became the 1st salvo in a series of conflicts which have led to an increasing politicisation and polarisation of issues related to immigration, multiculturalism, Islam in Australia, the invasion of Afganistan, the 2nd Gulf War and the ongoing "War on Terror" as they pertain to the Australian situation.

Perhaps the most significant detail left out of Mr Pipes' account is the later inquiry into the Tampa and related incidents involving the Australian navy blocking vessels attempting to bring undocumented migrants into Australia. Mr Howard and his government very publicly played up an alleged incident in which the boat people were supposed to have threatened to throw their children overboard if the navy did not back off. It has now been positively established that this never happened, and that the boat people in question were rather attempting to escape their foundering vessel. It has also been definitively established (in a later formal enquiry, I should point out) that the held of the navy also knew this to be the case and forwarded this information to the office of the minister. Sadly, no one has been able to actually prove that Howard and his ministers saw this memo, but if they did not and they were not in fact consciously lying in order to manipulate the public, then their conduct in this affair was grossly negligent if not incompetent.

The issue has generated considerable literature since then. Anyone who would like more information on this opening salvo in these debates should consult: Justin Healey, ed., "Refugees and asylum seekers".

Jonathan Marshall, PhD, MA,
Research Fellow,
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts,
Edith Cowan University,
jonathan.marshall@ecu.edu.au
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