Australia’s Labour government said yesterday it remained on guard against illegal immigration, dismissing fears of an influx following softer laws and a plan to shut down the navy over Christmas to cut costs.
The arrival in recent weeks of three boats from Indonesia, carrying 36 people, has prompted accusations from opposition politicians that the government has reopened a gate firmly shut to refugees over more than a decade of conservative rule.
Evans [Chris Evans, minister of immigration] in July said the centre-left government, elected last year, would dump a controversial policy of jailing asylum seekers, almost seven years after conservatives sent commandos onto a freighter at sea to block illegal immigrants.
Former prime minister John Howard established the policy in late 2001, splitting the nation between critics and supporters, after a stand-off involving 439 mostly-Afghan refugees blocked from landing in Australia by special forces soldiers.
Howard’s so-called “Pacific Solution”, which included sending the navy to blockade Australia’s northern coast and processing asylum seekers in small Pacific island countries, was strongly criticised by the UN and rights groups.
But opposition MP Sharman Stone said the reversal ordered by Evans now threatened a fresh boat influx, with people traffickers likely to take advantage of a long stand-down by navy ships and personnel not on patrol. “Minister Evans . . . must try to convey that the Labour government has not gone soft,” Stone said.
Fears of an influx were reinforced last week after navy chief said chiefs said ships not on operations would be ordered to port and sailors sent on leave between December and February as the fleet grappled with serious personnel shortages.
Evans’ office said just three asylum boats had arrived this year, while five arrived in 2007 with 148 passengers. In comparison, nearly 30,000 boat people arrived on Italian shores over that period, while 19,900 landed in 2007.
Jupp [James Jupp, an immigration expert at the Australian National University] said anger in Australia over illegal immigration had mostly subsided and there was no incentive to make it a public issue with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd riding high in opinion polls and Australians focused on current economic turmoil.