Thursday, March 25, 2010

Australia's asylum spike bucks world trend: UN report

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Australia jumped by almost 30 per cent last year despite global numbers remaining steady, challenging Kevin Rudd's claim that instability abroad is behind the surge in refugee boats.

As Border Protection command yesterday intercepted two more asylum boats, the third in as many days, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released its annual report on global asylum trends.

Yesterday's boats, which were carrying a total of 79 people, will push Christmas Island well beyond its official capacity of 2040 unless detainees are moved en masse to the mainland or the centre is once again expanded to house the growing population of detainees.

The UNHCR's report showed virtually no change in the number of people seeking asylum in the industrialised world, with 377,200 asylum applications last year compared with 377,100 in 2008.

But in figures that have fuelled claims the Rudd government has encouraged people-smugglers by softening Australia's refugee policies, the UNHCR reported a 29 per cent increase in asylum claims in Australia last year.

In a further complication for the government, Indonesian officials yesterday expressed concern at the growing number of its citizens who are incarcerated in Australian jails for crewing asylum boats.

Speaking to The Australian, a spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in Canberra said most of those caught were poor fishermen with no knowledge of the fate that awaited them once in Australian custody.

"Most of the Indonesians detained in Australia in connection with the arrival of boatpeople are poor traditional fishermen, lured by the promise of money (sometimes as little as $US150) from the organised people-smugglers to carry a boatload of passengers who originally come from as far away as Afghanistan," the spokesman said. "These fishermen are the boat crew and not the masterminds of people-smuggling."

Yesterday's figures provoked a statistical jousting match, with the opposition claiming the UNHCR's report put the lie to the Rudd government's claim that so-called "push" factors were behind the rising tide of boats.

But the UNHCR's regional representative, Richard Towle, said they showed nothing of the sort. Citing a 45 per cent increase in the number of Afghan asylum-seekers - the main group arriving in Australia by boat - Mr Towle said violence in source countries was to blame. "If you look at Afghans globally, there are striking increases of Afghans, particularly in Europe," Mr Towle told The Australian. "I wouldn't say that what's happening in Australia bucks the trend at all. I would say it's entirely consistent."

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the UNHCR's report made it plain the Rudd government's softened policies were drawing asylum-seekers to Australia's shores. "Afghanistan is hardly a regional neighbour of Australia," Mr Morrison said. "People are coming here because they believe they're going to get the outcome that they want as a result of the policies the government is pursuing."

While the number of Afghans seeking asylum worldwide increased, the number of Sri Lankans climbed by a modest 4 per cent, undermining government claims that an exodus of Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka was one of the reasons for the surge. The Rudd government has repeatedly blamed the fallout from Sri Lanka's bloody civil war for the rise in boat numbers.

Despite the concern over unauthorised boat arrivals, the UNHCR numbers showed most asylum claims lodged in Australia were made by Chinese with 1186 claims made last year. Afghans comprised the next biggest category (940) followed by Sri Lankans (533) and Zimbabweans (344).

Broken down by region, Europe experienced a 1 per cent increase in asylum claims last year, while North America had a decline of 5 per cent.

Mr Towle cautioned against comparing Australia's numbers with regional blocs. "If you want to disaggregate it you could look at Australia versus Greece or Australia versus Finland and Norway and you'd get completely different answers," he said.

Mr Towle added that Australia accounted for less than 2 per cent of asylum-seekers seeking refuge in the industrialised world. The US received 49,000 asylum claims, more than any other industrialised country. The US was followed by France (42,000), Canada (33,300) Britain (29,800) and Germany (27,600). This compared with Australia which received 6170 protection applications in 2009.

While an increase on 2008, last year's figures remained well below the high-water mark of 2000 when 13,100 people sought protection in Australia.

Yesterday, Border Protection Command intercepted two boats in two hours off Ashmore Reef and Adele Island. The first boat was carrying 19 passengers and three crew and the second was carrying 55 passengers and two crew.

According to the Immigration Department, there are 2008 people on Christmas Island. But the figure does not include the 79 intercepted yesterday or the 22 picked up on Sunday.

It is likely some desperately needed space will be cleared today when a regular charter plane comes to the island to collect staff, asylum-seekers who have been granted visas and possibly asylum-seekers who are deemed to be on "a visa pathway" and close to receiving refugee status.


Australian shares beat developed world over past 110 years

Forget the carnage of 2008 and early 2009, Australia has been the best performing developed sharemarket over the past 110 years, according to funds manager Fidelity International. Gerard Doherty, managing director of Fidelity’s Australia business, says the Australian share market has posted a real return of 7.5 per cent a year since 1900, outperforming the US by 1.6 per cent and Britain by more than 2 per cent a year.

Next best after Australia was South Africa and then Sweden, with the US -- the world’s biggest economy and reserve currency -- bringing in the fourth best annual real return, The Australian reported.

But the annualised returns are in local currencies, meaning the US’s annual return of 5.88 per cent would look pretty good in Australian dollar terms when the Aussie falls against the US, as it did last year to a low of US62.5 cents in February.

Doherty claims $1 invested in the Australian market in 1900 would have been worth $2844 at the beginning of this year. The market levels were provided by the London Business School, which used the major indices of the day over the 110 years.


China sends a message and Rudd obeys

STERN Hu's confession in a Chinese court to allegations of bribery has exactly the same moral and forensic credibility as the confessions captured journalists make in Taliban custody. The confession itself tells you absolutely nothing about Hu's conduct. If I had been in a Chinese jail for nine months and had the prospect of earlier release with a confession or later release without one, I'd confess to anything. It's probably as near to a plea bargain as you'll get in the Chinese system.

But in modern Chinese communist culture, confessions have long had a big part. The classic work on Chinese prisons was by a French Chinese, Jean Pasqualini. His Prisoner of Mao details an astonishingly gruesome experience that included, among other things, 15 months of interrogation leading to a 700-page confession.

China has changed since Pasqualini's experiences of 35 years ago. But it hasn't changed altogether. The hardest heads in the Australian system understand what the Hu business is all about. Beijing has sent a message to Australia: tremble and obey.

The Hu case changes the context for all Australians doing business with China, whether commercial or political. Former treasurer Peter Costello captured this most clearly when he remarked soon after Hu's initial detention last June: "Since Stern Hu is now in detention, someone else will have to lead Rio's negotiations with the Chinese steel mills. My guess is they will not push the negotiations as strenuously as Hu." The manner of iron-ore price negotiations is changing substantially, but Costello's broad point is certainly correct.

Evidence that the Chinese intimidation has worked is sadly mounting up. As this newspaper revealed last Saturday, the government made a secret commitment to the Chinese that neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard would see the Dalai Lama on his visit to Australia last December. This was a change in policy, as Rudd had seen the Dalai Lama in opposition and said he would be happy to see him in government.

Similarly, I have learned that the government has pretty much decided that no Australian minister will visit Taiwan during the Rudd government's the first term. This is a big change of policy and a big act of appeasement of Beijing.

Australia follows a one-China policy that recognises a notional Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. At the same time, Australia opposes any threat or use of force by Beijing to change Taiwan's status, which is de facto independent.

Consistent with the one-China policy, Australia has for many years sent ministers to Taiwan to support Australian trade. In truth these visits also recognise the political achievements of Taiwan.

Taiwan represents every single political value Australia admires: democracy, a free press, a pluralist society, respect for human rights, equal rights for women and a productive and economically successful society that provides for the wellbeing of its own people.

A spokesperson for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says the Rudd government has not made a formal undertaking to Beijing that no minister will visit Taiwan during the first term of the Rudd government. But no Rudd minister has visited Taiwan so far and the spokesperson confirms that there is no plan for a visit.

This will be the first time at least since the Hawke government that a whole parliamentary cycle has gone by without such a visit. If the opposition were not such a complete political and moral vacuum on these issues you might have expected it to have had something to say. It is a signal act of cowardice and appeasement on Australia's part. For a long time we sent a minister to Taiwan every year, but Alexander Downer was weaker on China issues than John Howard and the practice slipped a bit, but certainly we never went a whole term under Howard without a ministerial visit. This is just another way in which China policy is worse, more cowardly and less effective today than it should be.

The world has watched the Hu case. And one lesson is that if you rely on the moral courage of the Australian government or opposition, you are relying on nothing at all.

Could it be that the Vietnamese government, which is preventing two Jetstar executives from leaving Vietnam, drew lessons from the Hu matter ?

Rio Tinto has produced a wonderfully convenient investigation that clears the company of all wrongdoing but leaves Hu's guilt or innocence as a matter on which it cannot pronounce.

Of course it is remotely possible that Hu, like millions of others in China, paid or received a bribe, although there is no reason to think so. But Beijing's decision to prosecute him, and the ostentatiously contemptuous manner in which it has dealt with the Australian government, was taken to intimidate Australia. In this, Beijing seems to have succeeded.


A firm friendship forged over time

By Daniel Mandel (Daniel Mandel is director of the Zionist Organisation of America's Centre for Middle East Policy)

While the current diplomatic overtones may suggest a thawing of the close alliance between Australia and Israel, a recap of that relationship over the past 61-plus years shows that the friendship, like most, has ebbed and flowed

Australia and Israel have experienced a relationship both strong and supple over 60-plus years, but it would be a mistake to regard it as a given, as being somehow the inevitable product of a community of values or interests. If the relationship is warm and stable, as these things go, it is fair to say that it has not always been so - that it has been occasionally marred by tension, and that it has served as the object of internal politics.

The Australian Labor Party, which can be credited a role in Israel's emergence into the community of nations in the late 1940s - courtesy of its deputy prime minister and external affairs minister, H. V. Evatt - has often been split on the relationship, especially since the new Left became a factor in Labor politics in the late 1960s.

The conservative side of politics cannot claim to have had a deep interest in Zionism until after it became an established fact, nor has it ever been entirely free of a constituency more interested in trade with Arabs than friendship with Israelis.

At a particular conjuncture of local politics and international developments, the relationship - warm, honoured, secure - can seem suddenly cool, fraught, uncomfortable. Those who remember some episodes during the prime ministership of Gough Whitlam need no reminder of this. It is also undoubtedly something that Australia's supporters of Israel experienced in recent weeks, when a diplomatic spat erupted without warning over the use - it is alleged by Israeli intelligence - of skillfully forged Australian passports by those who eliminated a Hamas operative in Dubai.

Within days, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem had been called in to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for a brow-beating, and a few days later - though a connection with this event cannot be proved - Australia abstained on a United Nations (UN) vote regarded as hostile to Israel, on which it might have been expected to vote against. To say these things is not to understate the liberal and generous impulses that have nourished the Australian end of the relationship, but rather to speak of the brittleness that affects even the most secure of Israel's foreign relations.

It has never escaped the understanding of Arab states that Israel's foreign relationships can be made fraught and even frayed by campaigns of comprehensive hostility that entangle Israel's friends in complications with other states. It was thus in Jerusalem 60 years ago, when the Arab world (save Jordan) took up the Vatican cry to internationalise the city. The government of Ben Chifley, needing every Catholic vote and facing the December 1949 election that consigned the ALP into the wilderness for 23 years, supported internationalisation over Israel's strenuous objections.

The successor conservative government of Robert Menzies showed little interest in the country until 1956, when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, leading in time to the Suez War, at which point suddenly Israel was recognised as a friend of the Anglosphere. Otherwise, Israel remained largely a non-issue - a very minor trading partner - until the 1967 Six-Day War converted Israel in a good deal of the public's mind from plucky defendant to contentious conqueror. The 1973 Yom Kippur War intensified the sea change.

Israel had been lucky with Australia to that point in having a generally well-disposed Australian public, one whose servicemen in two world wars had found hospitality and the kinship of war among the Jews of pre-state Israel. Its servicemen had been led by generals such as Harry Chauvel and Thomas Blamey, who were well-disposed towards Zionism, indeed whose most famed Australian colleague, John Monash, was himself a Jew and exponent of Zionism. After 1973, such historical legacies could be seen to matter less.

Even so, the relationship proved lucky in the individuals managing it. Elements of the ALP Left purported to discern liberation from colonialism in Arab supremacist movements, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), but for every leftist firebrand Bill Hartley, there proved to be a centrist Bob Hawke, who worked hard to prevent recognition of the PLO on Whitlam's watch.

With the eviction of the Whitlam government from office in December 1975, the Liberal-National Country Party government of Malcolm Fraser proved a warm friend, even if individual ministers, such as then National Country Party leader Doug Anthony, were not. When the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed in 1979, it was the Fraser government that dispatched Australian peacekeepers to join in supervising the demilitarisation of Sinai.

It was in this era that Australia often joined what had sometimes become a minority of three supportive votes for Israel in UN conclaves - the other two being the United States and Israel itself - the UN having already long been the instrument of tyrannies of all stripes.

Although that record flagged somewhat when Hawke became prime minister, the passionate sincerity of Hawke's affection for the country led to the relationship being bolstered in other ways - not least in the 1986 Australian parliamentary resolution repudiating the UN's Zionism-is-racism libel. It was also Hawke who made strong prime ministerial efforts to bring about the release of captive Soviet-Jewish dissidents in the last years of the Soviet Union. In these efforts, a wide bipartisanship predominated.

Indeed, the two major parties have normally made a point of stressing the depth and warmth of the bilateral relationship, epitomized nowhere better than in Hawke's successor, Paul Keating. Keating headed swiftly to Jerusalem to attend Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. His eventual successor, John Howard, castigated him for not having included him among his entourage for the occasion. Upon succeeding Keating, Howard made a point of strengthening Australian support for Israel in international forums, evident for example at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, which turned into an organised campaign to delegitimize Israel and promote anti-Semitism.

Howard also proved exceptional in rejecting the language of triangulation that reigned worldwide when Yasser Arafat died three years into the Oslo war he had launched: Howard frankly scolded Arafat for having rejected the peace settlement offered by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton. When Israel's defensive barrier appeared on the West Bank landscape in the wake of Arafat's terror offensive, the Howard government opposed the attempted lynching of Israel in New York and The Hague.

By and large, the tenor and, mostly, the substance of the relationship have abided under Kevin Rudd, even if some individual UN votes have altered. It was Rudd who moved a motion honouring Israel's 60th anniversary in 2008, seconded by then opposition leader Brendan Nelson. "It's good as a nation that we speak as one on something like this," said Rudd, cognisant of the fact that such bipartisanship on Israel is not to be taken for granted, even among democracies. In short, Israel has enjoyed an often lucky relationship with the "Lucky Country", one in which the animosities of individual diplomats and politicians has mattered ultimately less than the support of a Hawke or a Howard.

From Australian Jewish News, March 5, 2010

1 comment:

Paul said...

They've been pulling the passport stunt for years. They like Australian, Canadian and New Zealand passports because they attract less suspicion. A couple of them got done in New Zealand a few years back, if you recall. Helen Clark was not amused.