Paying People Smugglers Sinks The Excuses For Our Heartless Refugee Policy


If the allegations that emerged last week, that the Australian government paid people smugglers to turn around and head back to Indonesia, are found to be true, then the cynical lie that Operation Sovereign Borders was designed along humanitarian principles; to stop people from dying at sea, and at the same time disempower and divest the vast, wealthy, criminal network of human traffickers operating across the region, will finally and indisputably be laid bare.

The Indonesian government is now investigating claims that Australian border protection officials paid $5,000 each to six people smugglers, crewing a ship that had recently left Indonesia bound for New Zealand with 65 asylum seekers aboard, to turn the boat around and return to Indonesia.

Tony Abbott’s repeated refusals to deny the allegations all but confirm them.

After Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton issued their own denials early last week, it seems highly unlikely that the Prime Minister would obfuscate to this extent unless he had obtained information to the contrary. His description of the Australian border protection agencies as being "incredibly creative in coming up with a whole range of strategies" to stop people smuggling, and his insistence that the boats must be stopped “by hook or by crook”, further suggests the veracity of the allegations.

The narrative that has underpinned Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s heartless and regressive current policy on refugees arriving by boat, was designed from inception to provide the nation with a false sense of moral legitimacy.

‘Turning back the boats’ was not about denying a certain type of vulnerable person entry into the country; rather it was about saving their lives by discouraging a perilous trip across the sea.

Processing people in foreign countries was not a violation of our international treaty obligations, but a way to stop nasty ‘queue jumpers’, who refused to patiently await the slaughter and dehumanisation of themselves and their children in their home countries.

The grandest moral pillar of them all was that we refused to be held to ransom by the vast criminal network of people smugglers who profited off of human misery and war, and who sent vulnerable and desperate people to sea on rickety boats that often succumbed to the forces of nature. By denying the possibility of resettlement in Australia, we were essentially undermining the people smuggler’s business model. No possibility of resettlement in Australia, no customers.

The recent allegations utterly debunk this narrative in two ways.

Firstly, the Australian government has never, and will never, ‘stop the boats’. What they have done, to varying levels of success, is diverted them to other locations.

This boat was en route from Indonesia to New Zealand, many thousands of nautical miles further than the trip to Australia, through more hazardous seas. While such a trip may count as a notch on the Abbott government’s belt for ‘stopping the boats’, it drastically increases the likelihood of deaths at sea of the refugees, and in no way disturbs the lucrative business of the people smugglers.

Secondly, if proven true, by paying the people smugglers the Australian Government is providing a whole new boon to their business model.

On Sunday Abbott told the media that “It’s very important that the Indonesians know that the Australian government is absolutely resolute in our determination never to see this evil trade start again”.

Yet this bribery incentivises the people smugglers at a whole new level. What human trafficker in their right mind wouldn’t now round up a cargo of hopeful refugees, take whatever money they and their families have managed to pool together, motor a few hundred kilometres offshore, collect their bribe from the Australian border protection officials, and then head back? Far better to be paid twice.

It’s difficult to fathom the reactions of the Australian public and politicians if it were to be alleged that the Indonesian government had been systematically bribing human traffickers to redirect their operations to the Australian coast.

Needless to say, we would see it as a hostile act from a neighbouring government and a gross violation of our sovereignty, an inhumane neglect of their international responsibilities, and an irresponsible boost to the business of a vast criminal network. It is doubtful that this will be the attitude taken by the Abbott Government if these claims are proven true.

The sad fact is that any outrage that will emerge if these allegations are confirmed will likely emanate from the same few people who already see our border protection policy for the affront to human rights, and stain on our international reputation, that it is.

It is difficult to conceive of what further revelations must come before this nation, let alone our politicians, comes to terms with the terrible and ever escalating series of mistakes that have characterised our policy on refugees since at least the Howard government, and arguably before.

We already deny asylum seekers judicial process, sanction their assault and abuse, place them in hostile environments, fly them back to dangerous countries where many died upon return, and keep them indefinitely imprisoned without having committed a crime.

It now seems likely that we fund and encourage the human traffickers that provide the logistics for their perilous journeys. What else must we put them through before we wake up and begin to dismantle the unjust, inhumane, and unaccountable system of bureaucrats and enforcers that we have built to ensure their continued suffering?

Sadly, it seems that we are destined to find out.

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