Australia’s election frontrunner thinks buying broken Indonesian boats will stave off asylum seekers

If you take away the boat, what happens to the people?
If you take away the boat, what happens to the people?
Image: Reuters/Junaidi Hanafiah
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Tony Abbott, the frontrunner in Australia’s looming general election on September 7, has proposed an unusual solution to the country’s problem with illegal asylum seekers making the trip from Indonesia by sea: buy their boats.

Australia has long been an attractive location for desperate people migrating out of trouble spots in Asia and the Middle East. That’s largely because of its proximity to poorly policed Indonesia, which acts as a go-through point for an outsize portion of asylum seekers from the region. Indonesian smugglers typically ship refugees from one of the country’s many islands to places like Christmas Island, a small patch of Australian land just 350 kilometers off the main coast, the country’s most popular refugee transit point. The number of asylum seekers to Australia has more than doubled in the wake of violence in places like Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar.

As a result, Australia has tightened its policies on asylum seekers, fearing the impact on its culture and economy. Australian authorities recently struck a deal to send all asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, effectively closing the country to even legitimate refugees. Australia’s asylum policy has featured heavily in election campaign fodder, and some draconian policies aimed at winning votes have drawn criticism from the UN, and heightened tensions with Jakarta.

Abbot, who leads the conservative Liberal Party and the Liberal-National coalition that would govern if he wins against the Labor party’s Kevin Rudd, thinks eliminating refugees’ mode of transport from Indonesia is a better, cheaper solution. “It’s much better to spend a few thousand dollars in Indonesia than spend a few million dollars processing the people who arrive here,” he announced on Friday, although his proposed budget for the policy was more in the region of A$440 million ($397 USD million). Up to A$20 million of that would be used to buy fishing boats (most smugglers use old, rickety boats) and another A$67 million to pay Indonesian informers in more than 100 villages, who would work with Australian authorities to locate smuggling gangs, according to the Guardian.

Since announcing the policy, Abbott has been ridiculed by critics who argue that there are too many Indonesian boats available to smugglers to make his plan feasible, or cost-effective. The policy would also further complicate relations with Jakarta, given the policing required on Indonesia’s thousands of islands. “Of all the mad ideas I have heard in immigration, I think boat-buyback wins,” Tony Burke, the country’s immigration minister said.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers are in limbo. Just this week, 106 of them were rescued (paywall) by Australian authorities as their boat sank in the Indian Ocean. In the first half of this year over 15,000 people arrived on 218 boats, hoping to make a new life in Australia. Many others died on the way. And more deaths are sure to follow, especially if desperate refugees are forced to cram into fewer boats.