Soon after Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the September 14 federal election, opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison confirmed the Coalition's startling plans to turn back every refugee from Sri Lanka without exception.
This would include a new plan to enlist the Australian and Sri Lankan navies to detain and return to Colombo any refugee trying to flee the country by boat, Morrison told ABC's Lateline on February 4.
When asked if this would entail a “navy blockade” in international waters — which would be illegal under international conventions — Morrison said this was a “detail”.
The ultimate plan would be to forcibly prevent any boats to reach Australian territorial waters, where they could ostensibly apply for protection.
But the Coalition has already promised to deport all refugees from Sri Lanka without hearing their claims for protection. Morrison told Lateline that on a recent visit to Sri Lanka, he decided: “The choice to actually go to Australia was represented as economic and lifestyle”.
He said he was told that Tamils who had voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka after the war “hadn't been violated”.
Morrison and opposition deputy Julie Bishop have singled out the mostly Tamil refugees who have fled Sri Lanka in increasing numbers since the 2009 war that massacred tens of thousands of Tamils. Bishop continually calls Tamils “economic migrants”.
Encouraging misunderstandings of the plight of refugees is a key part of the Coalition's anti-refugee strategy, which will likely be a focus of opposition leader Tony Abbott's election campaign.
The Coalition's plans for refugees were released as part of its “Our Plan” policy document last month.
Under the section for “stronger borders”, the document puts locking up, punishing and denying protection of vulnerable asylum seekers front and centre. Coming before “fighting terrorism” and “improving foreign affairs”, policy to ensure that “the boats are stopped” indicates the Coalition's clear intent to make asylum seekers as election-deciding issue.
If elected, the Coalition would “immediately give new orders to the Navy to tackle illegal boat arrivals and 'turn back' the boats where safe to do so”.
Abbott has spoken often about how former PM John Howard turned boats back to Indonesia, often with disastrous results. This is despite the Australian navy and customs objecting to the practice, saying it violates the law of the sea.
The Coalition would also reintroduce “temporary protection visas” (TPVs), which deny refugee permanent refugee status and family reunion, and hold over them a constant threat of being deported.
The policy plan would severely penalise what the Coalition wrongly calls “illegal boat arrivals”. It said offshore processing would be “rigorous” so that “bad behaviour has consequences”. It would “establish presumption against refugee status for people who arrive on boats without identity papers” and “deny benefit of the doubt” to refugees who discard their papers.
This contradicts international and Australian law, which says no asylum seeker can be discriminated against for having the wrong papers or no papers.
It also appears the Coalition would cut its humanitarian intake back to 13,750 a year and “reserve” 11,000 of these each year for offshore visa entrants — that is, refugees in camps awaiting resettlement.
It is pandering to the myths of a refugee “queue”, and “good versus bad” refugees.
Abbott has called the Coalition's policies the “full Howard package”.
But as horrific as this sound, it is not a far stretch from what Labor has been steadily implementing over the past year, peaking with its wholesale reboot of the reviled “Pacific solution” last August.
Hundreds of refugees — mostly Tamils but also dozens of men from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan — have been deported since the government restarted the “Pacific solution”. The government says they “chose” to return to the countries they fled rather than be detained on Nauru or Manus Island.
Labor's introduction of bridging visas has allowed several hundred refugees to be released from detention and live in temporary accommodation with minimal financial support. They also live with the fear of being re-detained or deported.
A Tamil man living on such a visa in Perth committed suicide last month. Local refugee groups and Tamil organisations said he had suffered crippling uncertainty and feared he could have his refugee claim denied and be deported at any time.
Bridging visas do not offer permanent protection, and only differ from the Coalition's version of TPVs in that it is an even more precarious way to live in Australia, with no work rights and almost certain poverty.
Labor's announcement that plans were under way to build more permanent structures in the Nauru detention camp mean there would be little work for the Coalition to do on offshore processing if elected other than expand it.
The Labor Party has appointed Brendan O'Connor as its new immigration minister, after Chris Bowen took on the role of tertiary education minister.
O'Connor was the government's home affairs minister between 2009 and 2011, who frequently took responsibility when refugee boats sunk or were lost at sea.