During his previous incarnation as Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd earned the nickname “Kevin 747” because he spent so much time overseas. Yesterday, barely a week after being reinstalled in the top job, he was back in the air, heading to Indonesia to seek assistance for a crackdown on “people- smuggling” networks.
Mr Rudd – a former diplomat and Mandarin speaker first elected in 2007, when his campaign slogan was “Kevin 07” – has already signalled a much tougher line on asylum-seekers who arrive by boat. “Let’s just face some facts here,” he told ABC radio last weekend. “A whole bunch of people who seek to come to this country are economic migrants … [posing] as refugees.”
His Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has gone further, claiming that most of the people making the perilous voyage across the Indian Ocean in often unseaworthy boats are “increasingly not people fleeing persecution”, but from “majority religious and ethnic groups” in their home countries. He has said the asylum assessment and appeals process needs to be tightened up.
Mr Rudd, who dismantled his predecessor John Howard’s controversial “Pacific Solution” in 2008, is anxious not to be seen as “soft” on asylum-seekers, particularly in the run-up to an election where the issue is set to figure prominently. Julia Gillard, whom Mr Rudd deposed last week, reinstated the Pacific Solution, which involved sending boat people to remote Pacific islands for processing.
Indonesia is a key player because it is the main transit-point for asylum-seekers heading to Australia from South Asia and the Middle East. The Australian government believes that people-smuggling networks in Indonesia are stepping up their operations. Nearly 7,500 boat people arrived here in the first quarter of 2013 – an Australian record.
Mr Carr has singled out “middle-class Iranians”, in particular, as economic migrants, claiming that “they’re leaving their country because of the economic pressures … [largely caused by] sanctions” imposed because of the country’s nuclear programme. The Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, has said Iranians whose asylum claims fail should be sent home – a policy Australia has already pursued with Sri Lankans.