Australia’s Left in blunt warning to Asian boat migrants

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia’s centre-left Labour party has warned would-be migrants considering the boat journey from Indonesia they will be forcibly returned if it wins May’s election, embracing hardline policies of the current government.

As right and left fight in Europe and the United States brawl over Mediterranean rescues and border walls, Australia’s bickering political factions head to elections in lock-step on one of most contentious issues in modern politics.

The conservative government has been pilloried worldwide for its policy of intercepting boats and leaving would-be refugees to languish in remote Pacific detention camps for years in conditions that have been roundly condemned by human rights organisations.

The Labour party is ahead in opinion polls and is tipped to oust conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government in elections due by mid-May.

But fearful of being accused by the electorate as favouring soft borders, Shadow Immigration Minister Shayne Neumann told AFP yesterday that migrants would still be intercepted at sea and forced to return under a new administration.

“It does not matter who is the Australian Government – you will be turned back and you will never settle in Australia,” Neumann said in a statement, urging people not to engage smugglers known to ply their trade in the Timor Sea.

“People smugglers are lying to you when they say they can get you to Australia,” he said. “Do not waste your money or risk your life trying to get to Australia by boat – your boat will be turned back.”

The election season has rekindled the debate about how to police the country’s 36,000-kilometre coastline – a distance that, if stretched out, would span from New York to Bangkok and back.

For decades, Australian governments of all political hues have backed the policy of turning the boats around and not allowing migrants to reach Australia by sea – an idea now embraced by hard-right politicians in Italy and Spain.

Australia has long defended the policy on the grounds it deters dangerous voyages that often result in mass drownings.

But in recent months slight differences have emerged between the parties – particularly about keeping asylum-seekers indefinitely in offshore detention camps – raising questions about whether the consensus would end.

Labour has argued for a more humane treatment of migrants and this week served Morrison’s government a humiliating parliamentary defeat on the issue, joining with independents to change the law and allow detained asylum-seekers to receive medical treatment in Australia.

Morrison responded with furious accusations that Labour was inviting more people to attempt the sea crossing from Indonesia. He reopened a detention centre on Christmas Island, an Australian territory just off the coast of Java to underscore his point.