Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMA) is the term the Australian authorities use for illegal immigrants who decide to risk everything on a dangerous sea journey to the Australian mainland.
The migrants come from Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Vietnam. But the third largest group have no state at all. These are often Rohingya people from Myanmar, according to Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia.
‘There is very little protection available to people fleeing these places: surrounding states often do not formally recognise people who have fled persecution,’ says Power. ‘Asylum seekers and refugees may not have access to work rights, permission to remain, educational opportunities for children or access to affordable healthcare in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.’
Between 2011 and 2012, 7,300 IMAs came to Australia. By 2012 to 2013 the numbers had increased to 18,000.
The Australian Government’s response has been to militarise asylum operations, under an initiative called Operation Sovereign Borders.
Since September 2013, migrant boats have been intercepted and returned to the country of origin. As the above video suggests, the message is a firm ‘No’ to anyone seeking refuge illegally in Australia.
‘The Australian Government has been trying to use social media campaigns of this kind for some years. There is no evidence to suggest that these deterrence measures work, particularly in situations where people are desperate to get to what they hope will be a place of enduring safety,’ says Power.
Supporters of the Operation Sovereign Borders argue that it has prevented migrant exploitation and deaths by deterring people smugglers who organise the poorly maintained rafts and boats that carry migrants.
IMAs fell to 9,702 between 2013–2014, almost half the number seen in 2012–2013. Of those, 59 per cent were granted refugee status and leave to remain in Australia.
In May, Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, claimed that there had been no successful IMAs in Australia since June 2014. ‘We remain committed to returning boats that try to reach our shores illegally by turning them back where it’s safe to do so,’ he said.
Australia also operates offshore processing for asylum seekers on the Pacific island Nauru, and on Papua New Guinea. Run using private contractors, these centres have been criticised by human rights groups. A 2013 Amnesty International report summarised conditions at one detention centres:
Australia’s government has committed to expanding its Refugee and Humanitarian Programme, which has 13,750 spaces for refugees in 2014–2015. Numbers are to increase to 18,750 places by 2018–2019.
In short, Australia’s policies have deterred migrants from taking to the sea – probably sparing many death and exploitation – but at a cost to the rights of the migrants caught in detention camps, and those with a case for asylum in Australia.
‘Australia’s punitive and deterrence-based policies would be even more disastrous for persecuted people if they were taken up across Asia and Europe,’ says Power. ‘The Australian government has yet to realise that its interest in seeing less unregulated and uncontrolled movement in the Asia–Pacific region is best served if refugees are better protected in countries of first asylum. None of Australia’s neighbours would take Australia seriously if it tried to encourage better protection of refugees while the current suite of policies remains in place.’
Whatever happens with Operation Sovereign Borders, Europe will be watching.
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