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Tale of refugees all at sea
Dark Victory by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson

Reviewed by Alexander Casella

On August 26, 2001, a 49,000-ton Norwegian container ship named the Tampa, alerted by Australian search and rescue authorities, rescued 433 passengers from a sinking vessel some 140 kilometers north of Australia's Christmas Island.

Over the following weeks, what should have been a normal rescue operation became a highly charged political drama. Coming at the tail end of Australia's election campaign, the Tampa affair became a bone of major contention between Prime Minister John Howard and his opponent.

The days following the rescue degenerated into a free-for-all mudslinging contest that drew in not only practically every component of Australia's political spectrum, but the likes of the United Nations, Amnesty International, Norway, East Timor, New Zealand and Nauru. Within this ruckus, which made front-page news the world over, facts took second place to ideology and posturing became the rule rather than the exception as the spectators of this drama sought to wring the last drop on political gain from a human tragedy.

In writing Dark Victory, the authors, two Australian journalists, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, do not claim to retrace the steps that brought the refugees from their distant and war-torn homeland, Afghanistan, to an almost certain watery grave in the Java Sea had the Tampa not come to their rescue.

Indeed, the refugees rescued by the Tampa are almost incidental to their account. Dark Victory is in essence an Australian narrative; in the words of its authors, it is "the secret history of John Howard's campaign against boat people". In doing so, Howard and his team, so the authors claim, "put lives at risk, muzzled the press, misused intelligence, defied the UN, antagonized Indonesia, closed Australia to refugees - and won a mighty election victory".

If the description of Howard as some sort of latter-day Genghis Khan might appear excessive to anyone not familiar with the vagaries of Australian domestic politics, it is in keeping with the acrimony, compounded by a good dose of irrationality, that typifies much of the migration and asylum debate in Australia.

It is a pity that Marr and Wilkinson made the deliberate choice of becoming part of this internal Australian altercation without first raising the one question at the root of the issue, namely, what is a refugee?

According to its current international definition, a refugee is a person who had to flee his or her country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for political or ethnic reasons. Thus it is the notion of "persecution" that defines a refugee. Except in the case of mass movement, when a person claiming to have fled persecution arrives in a country requesting asylum, he is an "asylum seeker".

In industrialized democracies the request is processed through existing administrative structures and then adjudicated. If the adjudication is positive, that is to say, if the claim of having fled persecution is substantiated, the person is recognized as a refugee. If the adjudication is negative, that is to say if the reasons for departure were other than persecution, the person is not recognized as a "refugee" and must, in principal, return to his country of origin.

How the asylum seeker has entered the country where he sought refuge is not relevant to his status. Indeed, it is internationally recognized that a person who is fleeing persecution is entitled to illegal entry, or even the use of forged documents.

While the asylum issue, in theory, is a simple one, it is compounded by two major problems. First, the world is currently witnessing a major irregular population movement from poorer countries to industrialized democracies. This movement, which has assumed global proportion, affects millions of people and has spawned a multibillion-dollar people-smuggling industry.

For the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who are intercepted every year, claiming "asylum" in order to stave off, or at least delay, deportation has become the rule rather than the exception. The processing of these claims, of which some 95 percent prove to be bogus, has become a major problem for industrialized countries, and the cost is estimated at some US$2 billion per year. Thus "asylum" is increasingly becoming not so much a quest for refuge as an avenue for emigration.

Second, the right to flee persecution does not entitle a refugee to choose his country of asylum freely. Once a refugee has reached safety, further movement to other countries is no longer covered under the asylum umbrella. If such movement occurs, it is defined as "secondary movement", that is to say, movement for the sake of convenience and not to flee persecution. In other words, it is the movement of refugees who already have asylum and are thus in no danger from persecution, as opposed to the flight of those for whom it is an imperative necessity.

Needless to say, this is not the sort of movement that governments like to put up with, especially if it is in violation of their migration regulations. Most do, either for want of better policies, lack of political will or ultimately benign neglect. Australia does not.

Australia, after Canada, is a country that accepts for resettlement the highest number of refugees in proportion to its population. Conversely, and helped by its geographic situation, Australia has a deliberate policy of deterring refugees who already benefit from asylum from entering the country illegally and then claiming refugee status as a ploy to immigrate - a maneuver qualified as queue-jumping.

Thus Australian law provides for automatic detention for anyone entering the country illegally. On an annual basis, Australia has a quota of some 12.000 resettlement slots for refugees, divided into "offshore" and "inshore". "Offshore" includes refugees who are accepted from abroad, namely either from refugee camps or people in pressing need of asylum. "Inshore" includes two categories; the first is composed of people who have entered Australia legally and who have made an asylum request during the validity of their visa. Such cases are generally given bridging visas while their application is being assessed and are accepted for resettlement if recognized as refugees.

The second includes people who have arrived illegally, are consequently detained, and have made an asylum request while in detention. Such cases, if recognized as refugees needing asylum, are subsequently released and accepted for resettlement.

The system hinges on the fact that for every "inshore" case accepted, there is, within the annual quota, one "offshore" slot less for a refugee in dire need of assistance.

It is within this overall context that the captain of the Tampa, on August 26, 2001, rescued 433 Afghans and Iraqis from the Palapa, a sinking derelict Indonesian ferry that had departed clandestinely from Medan, Sumatra, bound for Australia.

There is a valid presumption that the passengers of the Palapa were "refugees", that is to say, people fleeing war or persecution; but there is also a certainty that even if they were indeed "refugees", they were not in danger of persecution and hence in need of asylum. Many presumably came from Pakistan, where they already had asylum. All came through Indonesia, where they already had de facto asylum and could have applied for immigration to Australia. The Palapa was thus a typical people-smuggling operation and was completely unrelated to a quest for asylum.

It is unfortunate that Marr and Wilkinson, who can in no way be accused of not being thorough, chose to overlook completely the smuggling dimension of the operation. Where did the refugees come from, how long did they stay in transit countries, how did they come in contact with people are some of the questions that still beg an answer.

All we are told is that one was a farmer who "had paid US$11,500 to get his family to Australia"; another was a 16-year-old son of a shopkeeper. All had paid the smugglers $5,000 per adult and somewhat less for children for the journey, amounting to a total of more than $2 million. It was a staggering sum, and not only for the smugglers. With an estimated maximum average per capita income of $400 per year, it was a rare, and affluent, Afghan who could fork out the equivalent of 12 years of revenue to be smuggled to Australia. How much the Indonesian police received in the process is not mentioned, but having the group, as we are told, arrive by air in Jakarta and be whisked through immigration without documents must have had its price.

If the captain of the Tampa had had his way there would not have been an incident in the first place. At the time of the rescue the ship was on its way to Singapore and had obtained authorization to land the rescued at Merak, the Indonesian port they had departed from. Conversely, the closest landfall was Australia's Christmas Island, which happened to be the destination of the Palapa.

However, when the Afghans heard that the Tampa was setting sail for Merak they became "angry". With a crew of some 40 men, the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, felt that the situation was getting out of control. What followed was a surreal wrangle involving Canberra, Oslo, the UN and last but not least Rinnan, who had no choice but to sail to Christmas Island.

The final act was the interception of the rescued by the Special Air Service (SAS) and their transfer to Nauru for refugee status processing. Ultimately Australia carried the day; the government's firm stand that the country would no longer tolerate being at the receiving end of international people-smuggling rings met with considerable domestic support and contributed substantially to the re-election of the Howard government.

Thus the Tampa had indeed contributed to the Conservatives' victory. But was it, as Marr and Wilkinson assert, a "dark victory"? No lives were lost. No refugees were forcefully repatriated or exposed to persecution. Granted, as the authors underline, the Australian government, in its quest for a solution, overdid itself, although undoubtedly more by ingenuousness then by guile. Appealing, as they did, to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to the UN in East Timor or to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was a non-starter. Ultimately, the lesson for Australia was that multilateralism had its limits and that when push came to shove, there were some issues that could only be addresses bilaterally.

While Marr and Wilkinson cannot be faulted for having skimped on their research, and some of their chapters are detailed to the point of microscopy, theirs would have been a far more credible work had there not been even a distant inkling that they might not have been totally partial. And while not a single source that conforms to their views seems to have escaped their attention, the reverse is true as regards any alternative opinion.

While partisanship is the essence of democracy, and Dark Victory should be read by anyone who wishes to grasp the myriad facets of Australian politics, the authors bring the art of second-degree mendacity to new heights.

Thus, they write, after having been "chastised" by the UN refugee agency, Australia "cut its core funding to UNHCR by half". What the average reader would derive from these words is the image of a mean and vindictive Australian government slashing its assistance to desperate refugees as a punishment to a UN agency that intervened on their behalf.

That Australia cut its core funding to UNHCR is correct. But what the authors do not tell us is that over the years the administrative budget of the UN refugee agency has grown to such proportions that in some cases it spends $2 in bureaucratic costs to deliver $1 of aid. This is becoming increasingly unacceptable to democracies that are responsible to their parliaments as regards the use of their taxpayers' dollars. With "core" funds tending to support bureaucrats rather than needy refugees, governments are increasingly earmarking their donations to specific projects.

Thus, while Australia did reduce its core financing to UNHCR in 2002 by A$7 million (US$4.9 million), it also gave the agency access to an additional A$15 million, with the result that in 2002 Australia contributed more to UNHCR than it did in 2001.

Ultimately, Dark Victory is sour grapes. An election was lost. Illegal arrivals practically came to a stop, and with it the number of "offshore" refugee visas granted in 2002 reached a five-year high. A dark victory indeed.

Dark Victory by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, 2003. ISPN 0-299-08760-3. Price US$14.95.

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Oct 25, 2003


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