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There are four detention centers in the Northern Territory, the vast region in the central-north of Australia that embraces wetlands in its upper reaches, and the burnished sienna sand of the Red Centre in the south.
Asylum seekers are held in facilities close to its northern border, which faces the Arafura and Timor Seas, near the state capital of Darwin.
Wickham Point, originally an army base, now houses roughly 1,500 men. "You can see it from the side of the road," says Kate Wild, who's writing a book about refugees. If you get up on the roof of your four-wheel drive, she says, you get a better view. At another, less out-of-the-way detention center, the old airport lodge, anyone can walk up to the fence and try to talk to the detainees.
They have similar stories to tell: fleeing political persecution, or seeking economic opportunity, thousands of people from as far away as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia, make their way to Indonesia, where they board rickety boats on the archipelago’s coast and make the perilous journey across the sea into international waters where they hope to be rescued by the Australian Navy. Others board flights to arrive in Australia, which as a party to the Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties, won’t turn away people who face persecution in their home countries for their sex, race, religion and political opinion, among other distinctions.
Of the thousands who've attempted the voyage over the years, hundreds have died. Resolving this crisis has been one of Australia’s critical challenges and a key issue in the country's national elections, set for September 7.
The election pits the conservative Liberal Party (the Australian equivalent of the Republican Party) and its coalition partner the National Party against the Labor Party (akin to the Democratic Party), in a contest largely centered on which side has the better plan to contend with the large numbers of asylum seekers.
Polls and political analysts put the Liberal Party's Tony Abbott ahead and most likely to unseat the current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who only recently reclaimed the top spot himself.
Currently, the so-called 'PNG solution' is in effect. This summer, Prime Minister Rudd announced that people trying to enter Australian waters on Indonesian-chartered boats would be prevented from ever reaching land, and would instead be sent for processing to a detention facility on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG), one of Australia's closest neighbors. If their claim for asylum is legitimate, Rudd said, they would then be settled in Papua New Guinea rather than Australia.
Since the policy was unveiled in late July, more than 2,562 asylum seekers have arrived on 38 boats from Indonesia, with more than 340 sent to Manus Island thus far. The Rudd government will pay the PNG government AUD $30 million (USD $27 million) in aid to accommodate the refugees. "Implementing these sorts of arrangements with people as ugly as people smugglers is always hard," said Rudd in a news conference. "[But] those folks are not going to be allowed to settle in Australia."
This is our country, and we determine who comes here.
Abbott's stance is just as harsh, and perhaps impossible to enforce: he has vowed to stop the boats from leaving Indonesia entirely. If elected, Abbott says, he willimplement an AUD $420 million program (USD $380 million) that will include paying Indonesian villagers for information about smugglers. Additionally, his government would deliberately buy unseaworthy boats in Indonesia that might capsize on the way to Australian territory.
The instability within the ruling Labor Party has strengthened Abbott's hand. In June Rudd recaptured the prime minister's office from Julia Gillard, who had ousted him three years ago. Gillard herself barely secured a mandate to rule in the 2010 election, which lent a sense of transience to her tenure. Australia hadn't had a minority government since 1940.
Now, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton says, "Each party is outdoing each other to see how tough they can be, or how cruel they can be."
"This country is still very well off; we've a much higher standard of living and we've grown selfish with it," he says. The global financial crisis had only a mild impact on Australia, which has "brought greediness, whether it's about keeping refugees out, or having the latest gadgets," Carlton adds, noting that the country's economy is in the pink of health: Government debt is low (though rising); unemployment is at 7 percent (but trending up); the national credit rating is a top-rated AAA; and booming Chinese investment, particularly in the mining and gas industry, has allowed both parties to make generous promises to the public, such as a new paid parental leave and disability insurance policy — promises the Treasury may actually financially be able to keep.
"From afar the economy looks great," agrees Geoff Elliott, business editor atThe Australian newspaper. But there are "pockets where the economy is doing extremely well," in parts of the country where the mining boom is located, while other regions are struggling. "Manufacturing, tourism, retail haven't been tracking so well," he says, and "the Australian dollar's been really high for the last three years and that hasn't helped."
Though the past quarter has seen a slightly higher than expected growth rate for the country's economy, Australia's economy has been slowing down in recent years. For a welfare state like Australia, which will allocate roughly 20 percent of its GDP to social spending this year, the strain on the public purse is growing, making the national dialogue over the future of asylum seekers even more polarized.
"The numbers [of incoming asylum seekers] have certainly surged, but it's created this incredible hostility in Australia that people are queue jumping and we are not in control of our humanitarian intake, which is very high compared to other countries," says Laura Tingle, political editor for The Australian Financial Review newspaper.
Shock jocks on radio perpetuate these ideas that you arrive by boat and you get a showbag of goodies from the government, free housing and a check for $5,000; it's not true, but it doesn't stop them.
"People are whipped up into a great sense of indignation — that asylum seekers are getting a better deal than battling families," Tingle continues. "Shock jocks on radio perpetuate these ideas that you arrive by boat and you get a showbag of goodies from the government, free housing and a check for $5,000; it’s not true, but it doesn't stop them," she says.
Much of the media maelstrom has revolved around the role of media scion and Australia native Rupert Murdoch. Previously a Rudd supporter, Murdoch has planted himself squarely in the fray, tweeting his denouncement of Rudd on June 26: "Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with it’s [sic] sordid intrigues. Now for a quick election."
Murdoch's detractors in Australia have similar critiques of his publications as do their American counterparts. Carlton, the columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, a rival newspaper, says, "The news pages are just as biased and slanted as the opinion pages."
News Corp publications have praised Abbott's policy on asylum seekers, and blamed Rudd's approach for reportedly exposing more territory for refugeesto try to reach, and for the attempted hanging suicide of a 16-year-old Somali teenager in detention, who The Australian wrote was "subject to Labor's new policy to deny boatpeople asylum."
Yet even some Fairfax voices have spoken out against Rudd. Only a few days out from the election Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett, who is also on the board of the Reserve Bank, said Rudd has "been discredited by his own conduct."
"Here's a man that has really done the Labor Party enormous damage, destabilized it and is now wishing to present himself to the Australian people as a prime minister .. and as the incoming prime minister," Corbett told Lateline, an Australian Broadcasting Corp. news program. "I don't think the Australian people will cop that, to be quite honest, and I think that's very sad for the Labor Party."
Geoff Elliott of News Corp's The Australian says that his paper's coverage of the previous conservative government was just as critical and thatThe Australian’s current tone echoes public opinion: This government has been "a disaster. It's a disaster for Labor, it's a disaster for Australia… If you look at the polls, people are over it."
He may well be talking about people like Tony Spink, a 70-year-old semi-retired architect, who lives in the southern Sydney suburb of Cronulla. "It doesn't seem like the politicians want to grapple with the long-term issues, the hard ones," Spink said, such as the prospect of an aging population, a growing population and increasingly limited resources. "They seem to run away from the issues. Keep a band-aid on it and keep people happy."
In Darwin, where she lives with her three-year-old daughter and husband who works for Aboriginal legal aid, writer Kate Wild says the political power plays over issues such as the constant stream of asylum seekers has caused her to be "more disengaged that I have been for any election in the last five or six years probably.
"No one has a sense, neither of the leaders seems to have a vision for who we might want to be," she adds. "Because there's clearly no contest, there's clearly no reason to listen."