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Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals (Part 1)

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(Image via @KieraGorden)

In this two-part article by John Menadue and Peter Hughes, the authors continue to debunk the myth that Tony Abbott stopped the boats. Expanding on an earlier article 'A graph on boat arrivals for lazy journalists', we see that Abbott, in fact, helped keep the door open for people smugglers. 

How Tony Abbott helped to keep the door open for people smugglers

THE ABC provided us with excellent coverage of the Turnbull-Abbott shoot out, but the various commentators still swallowed the myth that Tony Abbott stopped the boats. That is a great piece of spin, but the reality is different.

Pearls and Irritations' article on 26 July 2015 ('A graph on boat arrivals for lazy journalists'), argued that Tony Abbott did not stop the boats. The game changer was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on 19 July 2013, two months before the election, that any persons arriving irregularly by boat would not be settled in Australia. Boat arrivals fell quickly and dramatically as a result of this announcement, coming on top of other measures the Labor government had already taken. We will update that blog in the next day or so in Part 2.

For the present, however, our argument is that Tony Abbott kept the door open for tens of thousands of boat arrivals in the first place. His failure to support the Malaysia Arrangement in September 2011 resulted in the surge of boat arrivals over the next two years.

Consider key dates. In May 2011 the Australian and Malaysian governments announced an ‘in principle’ arrangement that up to 800 boat arrivals would be transferred from Australia to Malaysia for their asylum claims to be heard and, in response, Australia would be prepared to accept 4,000 refugees from Malaysia. The arrangement with Malaysia was signed on 25 July 2011. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave it qualified support.

At that stage, people arriving irregularly by boat were running at about 2-300 per month. The table below shows the numbers at that time and what followed in the following 28 months.

Number of illegal maritime arrivals who arrived in Australia by month (1 January 2011 to 31 December 2014), by port arrival date. 

   

SIEVS/BOATS

IMAs

2011

January

3

223

 

February

3

149

 

March

7

419

 

April

6

318

 

May

6

333

 

June

4

235

 

July

4

228

 

August

5

335

 

September

4

319

September

Abbott failure to support Malaysian Arrangement

 

October

5

259

 

November

10

734

 

December

13

1,070

 

TOTAL

70

4,622

2012

January

5

301

 

February

9

849

 

March

3

110

 

April

11

837

 

May

16

1,286

 

June

24

1,642

 

July

31

1,756

 

August

37

2,078

 

September

31

2,062

 

October

47

2,452

 

November

44

2,663

 

December

18

1,017

 

TOTAL

276

17,053

2013

January

11

541

 

February

17

973

 

March

35

2,320

 

April

47

3,329

 

May

47

3,252

 

June

40

2,750

 

July

48

4,230

19 July 2013

Rudd announcement not to settle IMAs in Australia

 

August

25

1,585

 

September

15

829

 

October

5

339

 

November

5

208

 

December

7

355

19 Dec 2013

First Abbott turn-backs

 

TOTAL

302

20,711

2014

January

0

3

 

February

0

1

 

March

0

0

 

April

0

0

 

May

0

0

 

June

0

0

 

July

1

157

 

August

0

0

 

September

0

3

 

October

0

0

 

November

0

0

 

December

0

4

 

TOTAL

1

168

The source of this data is the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru: Submission 31 from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). Crew are excluded. Note that the table refers to the number of ‘Illegal’ Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). ‘Illegals’ is not a term that we think is appropriate, but the term is used in the material from DIBP.

On 31 August 2011, the High Court found against the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s powers to transfer people to Malaysia under the Arrangement. In response, on 21 September 2011, the Gillard government introduced legislation – the Migration Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 – which was designed to modify those parts of the Migration Act which caused the problem in the High Court.

There was strong opposition to the Bill in the House of Representatives by the Coalition led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who were bitterly critical of Malaysia. Bandt (Greens), Katter and Wilkie also opposed the Bill. Oakeshott said he would also oppose the Bill if there were not specific amendments. As the Bill was doomed, the government decided not to proceed with the legislation. (It was subsequently passed by the parliament in August 2012 after the Houston Report).

There were some lags in the response of asylum seekers and people smugglers to gear up to the opportunities the Coalition and others had left open for them. The timing of boat arrivals were also affected by bad weather and heavy seas, typically in the period December-March. Surges of people of different ethnic background can also change the dynamics of people flow. But it is clear that after the legislation stalled, there was a substantial increase in boat arrivals, particularly from Sri Lanka and Iran.

People smugglers saw the High Court decision and the failure of the Australian Parliament to amend the Migration Act as a clear signal that their business could proceed.

From November 2011, monthly asylum seeker arrivals began to trend up again. In the month of May 2012, they reached 1286 and, allowing for seasonal variations, kept rising inexorably to a monthly peak of 4230 in July 2013.

The Coalition had made clear its opposition in every possible way to the Malaysia Arrangement. That left the way open for a dramatic increase in boat arrivals.

The Coalition under Tony Abbott was not interested in stopping the boats at that time. Its primary interest was to stop Labor stopping the boats — and they succeeded. Wikileaks revealed that a key Liberal Party strategist in 2009 told the U.S. Embassy that ‘the more boats that come the better’.

Political objectives drove Tony Abbott’s actions with little regard for the national interest and or the government’s attempts, in cooperation with Malaysia, to start building a regional cooperation framework to manage boat arrivals.

There can be no doubt that the implementation of the Malaysia Arrangement, in the context of the numbers at the time, would have stopped the flow of maritime arrivals. It simply removed all incentive to make the last leg of the journey. It is unlikely that all of the 800 places would have been used. Coalition turn-backs have amounted to less than 700 people over a period of two years according to a recent announcement by the Minister Dutton.

Tony Abbott must bear some responsibility for the more than 32,000 people who arrived irregularly by sea between September 2011 when he frustrated the Malaysia Arrangement and mid-2013 when harsher measures were reluctantly taken by the Labor government.

As we mentioned above, we will also be updating an earlier blog that shows that Tony Abbott’s actions after the 2013 election were not the key to stopping the boats. The new Abbott Government dealt with the tail end of a dramatically reduced flow of people, but the real game changer was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on 19 July 2013 that any further boat arrivals would not be settled in Australia.

The secrecy and drama surrounding a small number of boat turn-backs created the impression that they were the decisive factor, but, it’s time for a cooler assessment of the facts.

Part 2 tomorrow.

John Menadue was Secretary Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-83. Peter Hughes was a senior officer in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for 30 years until he retired as Deputy Secretary in 2011.

This article was originally published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations' on 22 September 2015 and is republished with permission.

You can follow John on Twitter @johnmenadue.

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