Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How To Stop A Boat

Australia finds itself in an embarrassing position. Build a word cloud of our national news over the past fortnight and you'll find all the scary terms in large type: asylum seekers, boats, illegal, refugees, detention centres, racist, people smugglers, Muslims, drownings, offshore processing...

This is who we are, or more accurately, this is what our elected representatives have allowed us to become: a prosperous multicultural nation which has lost her compassion, her generosity. Her heart. We allowed this to happen. We allowed our Government and Opposition to place politics and pride at the centre of their response to a human crisis. People died as a result. 

And if that's not enough to make you hang your head in shame, think about how we look on the international stage. A G20 member with an economy the envy of the world, millions of miles of open space, peace, prosperity, democracy and freedom. In 2010, there were 1,700,000 applications for asylum worldwide. Australia processed less than 10,000 of them.

All hell broke loose when ABC1 aired the now infamous 4 Corners episode about conditions in Indonesian slaughter houses. We risked our cattle industry and our relationship with Indonesia to take immediate action to stop our cattle from suffering, but we can't get out of our own way on the Asylum Seeker Issue. Apparently the life of an asylum seeker - possibly darker skinned, possibly Muslim - is less important than cattle. 

Our elected officials must find their hearts and rethink their priorities. 

There are many options, many more variations and combinations and compromises that could form part of a solution to the Asylum Seeker problem off our North Eastern Coast, but Tony Abbott's "Stop the Boats" slogan-response will fail and fail spectacularly. Think of the 2001 Tampa incident combined with last week's mass drowning and broadcast all over the world.

Here's a hypothetical situation: our Government will get word from officials - AMSA, Customs, Navy, Airforce - that a boatload of asylum seekers is in international waters and heading in our direction. At this stage, assume 100-200 people on board, including women and children. Australia's policy is to stop the boats,which in practical terms means stop the boats and turn them around when safe to do so.

Someone in authority will get on the blower, make contact with a Navy warship or a Customs and Border Protection Enforcement Vessel, and instruct them to intercept the boat. It's impossible to gauge the condition of the boat  from the air; this needs to be done at sea. After locating the boat, the Navy will make radio contact with boat, try to establish its condition and intent, and ask it to go back.

Now things get interesting. The people smugglers will either agree to the request, and the boat will make a U-turn and sale into the sunset, farewelled by their new friends from the RAN or Customs, or they will refuse. What do you think the chances are that the boat turns around?

Assuming the answer is no, our Navy Captain despatches a boarding party in a RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) to board the vessel, assess its condition, offer to provide fuel, food and water, and if the voyage would be safe*, repeat the request that the vessel's crew turn around and go back to where they came from.

Again, the people smugglers refuse. What do you think happens next?

In the absence of a standing order, the Captain has two options. He can let the people smugglers continue to their destination , or he can order that the boarding party take control of the vessel.

The boarding party is expecting resistance, so they may be carrying sidearms for their own protection. We now have people smugglers - criminals - refusing a request from the Royal Australian Navy. 

Two countries, a UN convention, international maritime law, one boatload of illegal activity, one warship, one group of professionally trained, armed navy personnel versus a group of sailor-thugs, plus an audience of terrified, terrorised refugees, including women and children, bobbing around in the Indian Ocean. 

If we're lucky, the crew will surrender, be handcuffed without resisting, and the boat will be turned around. The refugees will be someone else's problem. For now.

But we only get one shot at this. 

A week or so later, another vessel is detected. The same process is followed, but this time the asylum seekers had been warned that the Australians were playing tough. There's no easy surrender. This time, the crew is larger, and well armed. They're prepared for things to get ugly. In the absence of existing Rules of Engagement, the Navy will need authority from far higher up the tree to take this boat by force.

A political decision is made, and authority is granted. With no land in sight, a small, overcrowded boat controlled by people smugglers and carrying desperately scared refugees faces off against the RAN. There are military helicopters in the air, with special forces personnel ready to fast-rope onto the deck of the boat. Perhaps shots are fired. 

How far does this story go? Do the people smugglers set fire to the boat, sabotage the engine, take refugees as hostages or throw them overboard so that our Navy is duty-bound to rescue them? Does the Navy fire warning shots across the bow of the vessel? 

The next step involves gunfire at sea. 

Of course this is hypothetical, and exaggerated to the nth degree. There are civilians involved, and frankly, our military is too disciplined and too moral to allow such a situation to develop. The Navy would in all likelihood back down to avoid such a conflict.

Congratulations Australia. Our politically motivated dithering last week has already won the award for International Selfish Bastards of the Year. We cannot risk our humanity with Tony Abbott's proposal. "Stop the Boats" is at best a catchy slogan; at worst a humanitarian and diplomatic disaster.

* if the boat is considered unsafe, the Navy will ensure that the passengers and crew are taken to safety for processing.