Back to the Future: refugees and terrorism in Australia

As the so-called ‘noughties’ finish tonight, one of Australia’s free television channels is showing the movie "Back to the Future". This appears to be an analogy for the current political climate in Australia: the issues and debates from the start of the decade are again front and centre. In particular, the second half of 2001 appears to be replaying itself. The issues of asylum seekers and terrorism have become central.


During the last six months, the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat has increased. In an attempt to score political points, the Coalition (now in Opposition) have blamed changes implemented by the Rudd Government. According to the new Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, while the issue may not be decisive, "it has been a significant issue in terms of illustrating the comparative weakness of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister." [1] This exemplifies the core of the debate, the issue demonstrates how ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ a politicians is. ‘Weak’ politicians are seen as unelectable. By letting asylum seekers come to Australia, they are portrayed as acting against the national interest, for, as former prime minister Howard said in 2001: "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." [2] The perception that the only accepted position for a government is to protect Australia’s borders at any cost, by turning back the boats and imprisoning refugees on far-flung islands, seems to have become ingrained in the Australian political psyche.


The major problem is that the Australian public’s perception of the scale of the issue is completely overblown, caused predominantly by politicians on both sides using the issue to score political points. An example of this is the current debate over whether changes by the Rudd Government [3] have led to the increase in asylum seekers travelling by boat. There is no doubt that there has been an increase in the numbers, from 161 in 2008 to 2669 in 2009. However, what is open to debate is whether this is due to the government’s policy changes. For this to be the reason for the increase means that asylum seekers in remote regions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka (where the majority come from) are completely up-to-date with the latest policy developments in Australia. While those organising the trips may be aware of this, it is highly unlikely that the asylum seekers themselves would have.


Rather than these pull-factors influencing the numbers, what appears to have caused the increase is the conditions in their home countries. Ex-minister for immigration, Philip Ruddock has used UNHCR data to state that the number of refugees worldwide has fallen, and therefore cannot be used as an explanation for the increased number of asylum seekers coming to Australia. [4] However, while this may have some impact on the numbers coming to Australia, a massive increase (or decrease) in the number of refugees in Africa or South America is unlikely to affect the numbers. What is more important is the number of people of concern in the Asian region. When you do this, it can be seen that the trend is very much the same as for asylum seekers coming to Australia. In 2001, when the numbers coming to Australia peaked, the UNHCR were concerned about 7.8 million people in Asia. This number then fell to 5.5 million in 2003, before increasing to 10.3 million in 2008. In 2003, only 53 people came to Australia by boat, increasing ever since. This data suggests that a strong indicator of the number of people attempting to come to Australia by boat is the size of the population of concern in Asia. The push factors are indeed extremely important, as they always have been.


As is evident when comparing the debate in 2001 and now, people must first understand the actual issue, and further, consider Australia’s moral responsibilities for accepting asylum seekers. In particular, given Australia’s role in the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is surely some moral responsibility to care for those who have been affected by these acts. Given that these two countries are two of the biggest sources of instability and refugees in the Asian region, Australia must provide further assistance to those fleeing these conflicts.


This leads to the second issue which has become central to Australian politics over the last week: terrorism. Since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up the plane approaching Detroit on Christmas Day, memories to 9/11 have understandably come back. The Australian media has even managed to find a local angle to the attack, Abdulmutallab had studied at the University of Wollongong’s Dubai campus. [5] Less than a week since this attack, news reports in Australia have talked about the lax level of security of at Australian airports, linking this to the attack. [6]


While it is concerning that both of these issues are still playing such an important role in Australia, what is more concerning is how politicians have been happy to link them. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister both asserted that there could be terrorists disguised as asylum seekers. [7] Although this theory was quickly debunked, and there has been no evidence of terrorists attempting the dangerous voyage by boat, Liberal MP, Wilson Tuckey reasserted it earlier this year. [8]


While progress is a much sought after commodity in modern life, it appears that Australian politics is stuck in the same place it was almost a decade ago. Asylum seekers are confused with terrorists, and must be kept out at all costs. If not, the government is seen as neglecting one of its fundamental roles and risking the security of the nation. Steps need to be taken to ensure that asylum seekers are offered the protection they deserve and to ensure that government’s don’t use terrorism to implement more draconian measure. At its core, this debate involve the role of the nation-states in world society. But first, back to 1955 with Marty and the Doc.








[3] Summarised in part at








[7] Dennis Atkins, ‘PM Links Terror to Asylum Seekers. Herald Sun, 7 November 2001. For the interview with Peter Reith, see



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