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Jumping the queue: the laughable myth created by John Winston Howard in Australia

Australia and "the queue"

Recently we started researching the myths peddled by the Howard government about "queue jumpers".

Since the 2001 election most liberal MP's follow the wedge politics line of John Howard and Philip Ruddock, who fanatically ramped up the concept of "queue jumpers".

This manipulative spin was to assist them in separating out "refugees with initiative" (on-shore asylum claimants, who come to Australia without being asked) from those who get a personal invite from the Australian government, while they're in one of the refugee camps around the world (off-shore refugees).

Image: Peter Nicholson's award winning cartoon, The Queue Jumper. Courtesy of 'The Australian' and

From The Edmund Rice Centre (ERC) we had already learnt something:

Myth 1 - Boat People are Queue Jumpers

Fact: In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no queues for people to jump. Australia has no diplomatic representation in these countries and supports the International coalition of nations who continue to oppose these regimes and support sanctions against them. Therefore, there is no standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their applications considered. Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and as such asylum seekers are forced to continue to travel to another country to find protection.

People who are afraid for their lives are fleeing from the world's most brutal regimes including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. Antonio Domini, Head of UN Humanitarian Program in Afghanistan, states that Afghanistan is one of the most difficult places in the world in which to survive.

Myth 11: Refugees should stay in the first country they come to and 'join the queue'

Fact: Australia has not taken a single refugee from the UNHCR in Jakarta - from the so-called 'queue' - for more than three years.1 This is despite the rhetoric from Australian politicians for asylum seekers to be processed in Indonesia. It should also be noted that UNHCR centre in Indonesia was set up by Australia with Indonesian support. Refugees cannot stay in Indonesia because Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

1The data in the table below, supplied by UNHCR, shows a discrepancy with this statement.

There is no requirement in international law for refugees to seek asylum in the first country they come to. Some developed countries have made this an additional requirement in order to avoid processing claims, leaving the large numbers of asylum seekers in camps in Third World countries. International law requires that asylum seekers should not be penalised according to the way in which they enter a country. Australia's current policy does not accord with this requirement.

Some people have given up on the 'queue' and resorted to coming by boat. 24 of those who recently died when their ship sank off the coast of Indonesia had already been granted refugee status by the UNHCR in Jakarta. Many more had relations in Australia who had been provided with asylum but were not allowed access to their wives and children. Simply, the 'queue' does not work.

The Indonesian "Queue"

So far an extract from the growing list of myths, debunked by ERC. But - we wanted to go further. We wanted to learn more about "the Indonesian Queue", especially after we had some contact with the 200+ Hazara asylum seekers, stuck on the Indonesian Island of Lombok. Many of these refugees are "pushed-back asylum seekers" - pushed back into Indonesia by the Howard government when they attempted the crossing to Australia's Ashmore Reef, or after they had arrived on Ashmore Reef perhaps, or after they had already been inside Australia's migration zone perhaps ... an issue raising the question how many times Australia has been in breach of its obligations under th the UN Convention - while we Australians didn't know anything about it...

We were told the entire story of such a voyage, and the complications that followed in Indonesia by one such asylum seeker, who sent us the story of his travels just before the day arrived that he flew back to Afghanistan as a desillusioned young man. His story starts from the day he left Afghanistan, describes his travel to Indonesia, then his attempt to complete the next step through working diligently, as the spokesman for his group, with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Jakarta UNHCR Office, and finally, when none of these options worked, he told us how he was coaxed into the hands of people smugglers by Indonesian immigration officials...

What the story reveals, is that as a result of the lack of interest by the Australian government in refugees who are "patiently waiting" in Indonesia, it creates boatloads of people who "jump the Indonesian queue", resorting to people smugglers - assisted by Indonesian Immigration officials - to come to Australia. In 2001, the year of the Federal election and the Tampa crisis, the Howard government admitted just TWO refugees who were assessed and approved by UNHCR, into Australia. Many of the boats came, because asylum seekers were ignored by Australia. The Edmund Rice Centre again:

"Some people have given up on the 'queue' and resorted to coming by boat. 24 of those who recently died when their ship sank off the coast of Indonesia had already been granted refugee status by the UNHCR in Jakarta."

For information on some known vessels that foundered:

Who is responsible?

This unbelievable incident, where refugees who have been approved by UNHCR, take their own initiative and sail to Australia - drowning on the way - begs the question "how long before they set sail had they been approved by UNHCR?"

As UNHCR below, in couched terms, tells us in February 2004:

"... problematic caseload is Australia with 32 pending cases, with most cases submitted in 2002, although a few are pending from 2001 ..."

Secondary movements

The main excuse for its dislike of dealing with the refugees from Indonesia, an excuse used by the Howard government as well as ALP's shadow immigration spokesman Stephen Smith is the issue of "secondary movements". This type of rhetoric conveniently forgets that Indonesia is NOT a UNHCR signatory, that it is not illegal to "make a stop-over" in a country if you're on the way to Australia, and that a refugee is never home until a UNHCR country has been found and entered in order to seek refugee status.

As Marion Lê tells us in her Deakin Lecture on May 12 2001 (Migrants, Refugees and Multiculturalism: The curious Ambivalence of Australia's Immigration Policy) when governments started procession asylum seekers outside Australia, they themselves started creating the context that created secondary movements:

"The official response from [...] Governments [...] up to 1996 was to ignore the redneck solutions and come up with something practical. In 1977, the solution was to send selection teams of Australian Immigration Officials to the South East Asian camps to process boat arrivals for Australia. News that a large freighter, hijacked from the Vietnamese Government in Ho Chi Minh City, had called briefly at the refugee island of Bidong in Malaysia and was currently refuelling in Indonesia to continue its voyage to Australia with "a large number of refugees on board", made the dispatch of selection teams more urgent.

The announcement was made by McKellar and Health Minister, Ralph Hunt, on 23 November, 1977 and the teams left for Singapore and Malaysia the next week with more officials sent to strengthen the task force in Thailand. On 29 November, 1977 the freighter, Song Be 12, finally docked amidst huge international media publicity in Darwin with 183 people on board, including three Vietnamese Communist soldiers under guard in the hold. (Incidently, my future husband was one of the crew on that boat.) Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock was urged to return the boat and its occupants back to Vietnam as allegations of piracy and hijacking were added to the protests by Bob Hawke, then speaking as a Unionist, and other pro-Hanoi voices that these were "not genuine refugees"."

12 June 2004: The Curious Ambivalence of Australia's Immigration Policy - The 2001 Alfred Deakin Lecture, delivered by Marion Lê OAM, who is the 2003 Human Rights Medal winner, a winner of the Austcare Paul Cullen Award, and was presented with the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1990.

The UNHCR office in Jakarta, according to our correspondence with UNHCR, reports "....that they were set up as part of the Comprehensive Plan of Action to deal with Indochinese boat people." It was set up with the assistance of the Australian government.

Australian governments cannot have the convenient attitude of a bet each way, by first setting up 'holding centres' for refugees in foreign countries with the political motives to keep them out - and then, a while later when it's all politically convenient, start creating a second-class refugee status for those who use that holding centre by determining that they are a 'secondary movement' problem.

In fact, as a result of the trend to create punitive measures for 'secondary movement refugees' who are in an in-between country, UNHCR's Geneva Expert Round Table (8-9 November 2001) issued the following statement:

Summary Conclusions on Article 31 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees - Revised


10. In relation to Article 31(1):

(b) Refugees are not required to have come directly from territories where their life or freedom was threatened.

(c) Article 31(1) was intended to apply, and has been interpreted to apply, to persons who have briefly transited other countries or who are unable to find effective protection in the first country or countries to which they flee. The drafters only intended that immunity from penalty should not apply to refugees who found asylum, or who were settled, temporarily or permanently, in another country. The mere fact of UNHCR being operational in a certain country should not be used as a decisive argument for the availability of effective protection in that country.

(d) The intention of the asylum-seeker to reach a particular country of destination, for instance for family reunification purposes, is a factor to be taken into account when assessing whether s/he transited through or stayed in another country.

(e) Having a well-founded fear of persecution is recognized in itself as 'good cause' for illegal entry. To 'come directly' from such country via another country or countries in which s/he is at risk or in which generally no protection is available, is also accepted as 'good cause' for illegal entry. There may, in addition, be other factual circumstances which constitute 'good cause'.

Source Document:

Missing boats

There are missing refugees, and there are missing boats. Asylum seekers who arrived on Christmas Island during the period before the last federal election, during 2000 and 2001, anxiously pointed back at the ocean, trying to tell DIMIA, the people of the island and the Australian federal police, that other boats had been behind them, and that someone had to go and look for them, because they had been in distress.

According to a Project SafeCom member who worked on Christmas Island at the time as a social worker, assisting in the processing of refugees, AFP and DIMIA deliberately ignored these calls.

Below a list of references in the Australian press to drownings (links and articles from the website):

Ali Hassani, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, wrote us from Indonesia in March 2004, asking for help in locating as many as six relatives, who had left Indonesia in search for Australia. See the photos of the six men on our website here:

" November 1999, (32 people ride on the boat from Indonasia jikarta to go to Australia, on that boat 15 people were Hazara, 8 of them are belong to my family and 7 other Hazaras that i dont know the name of them, and 17 Arabs were on that boat."

UNHCR replies to questions from Project SafeCom:

"Rejected asylum-seekers or people still in the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process come under the care of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Once they are recognised, UNHCR then takes over assistance. Normally, only recognised cases are submittted by UNHCR for resettlement."

"Since 2001 3,926 people have been processed by the IOM under the regional cooperation arrangements in Indonesia. 795 of these people have been found to be refugees and resettled in third countries. Australia has taken 125 [of these]."

"Resettlement times vary from country to country. Between resettlement, country interview and departure it may be as short as 3-4 weeks (New Zealand). With European countries, the waiting period is about 6 months and with countries like the USA, Canada and Australia which have lengthier medical and security checks, 8-10 months is normal."

"However, UNHCR's current caseload in Indonesia has had significantly more delays, in particular UNHCR in Jakarta has a group of seven USA cases which have been waiting between 1.5-2.5 years for departure - pending USA security checks. The next problematic caseload is Australia with 32 pending cases, with most cases submitted in 2002, although a few are pending from 2001 and there are some newer 2003/2004 submissions."

Table: annual intake & boat arrivals

Boat arrivals in the table below are sumarized from the database at the website, and annual intake figures have been received from UNHCR Australia.

Note the "pending cases" - about whom UNHCR writes:

"Resettlement pending, part of the 2004 annual load. Of the pending cases, 15 cases (58 persons) have a spouse on a TPV in Australia and are mostly Afghans."

This means, that there are 58 people who have a husband, or a wife, living in Australia as approved refugees; while after a UNHCR assessment in Indonesia, they are also approved convention refugees - yet, their cases are pending, because under the clauses of a TPV, a Temporary Protection Visa, there is cruelly enough, no mercy: the TPV does not allow for "family reunion" in Australia.

So, Australia, and Australia alone, is to blame for this "pending" status: it keeps 58 marriages of genuine refugees from functioning.

"Indonesian queue" refugee settlement in Australia
UNHCR Jakarta - Australian resettlement boat arrivals
year % cases persons boats4 passengers4
pending² 37% 32 cases 121 persons    
2004 10% 9 cases 18 persons    
2003 34% 30 cases 84 persons 2 boats 57 people
2002 17% 15 cases 39 persons - -
2001 2% 2 cases 2 persons 46 boats 6341 people
2000³       51 boats 2865 people
1999       86 boats 3727 people
1998       17 boats 200 people
1997       11 boats 329 people
1996       19 boats 646 people
1995       7 boats 237 people
1994       18 boats 953 people
1993       3 boats 81 people
1992       6 boats 213 people
1991       6 boats 213 people
1990       2 boats 198 people
²Resettlement pending, part of the 2004 annual load. Of the pending cases, 15 cases (58 persons) have a spouse on a TPV in Australia and are mostly Afghans.
³Note 2 April 2004 - we're awaiting the remaining figures that complete the UNHCR table data.
4The number of boats and passengers includes those boats that foundered and sunk whilst trying to reach Australia, as well as a considerable number of passengers that drowned when the boats sunk.


  1. Because most boats attempting to reach Australia's migration zone sail from Indonesian ports - many of them with passengers from Indonesian refugee camps, Australia's failure to fully address the refugee load jointly with Indonesia and its Jakarta UNHCR office, is partly responsible for creating "the boat people problem".

  2. Many of the asylum seekers in Indonesia are "pushed-back" asylum seekers. Australia under the Howard government may well be guilty of many more breaches of its obligations under the Refugee Convention than is known to Australian citizens. Answers need to be provided to the Australian public about how many times boats were 'pushed back' and when, and if these boats had been inside the Australian migration zone prior to being 'pushed back'.

  3. 'Pushed back' asylum seekers are and will remain Australia's responsibility.

  4. Reports of missing boats seem to have not been duly followed up by the Australian Federal police and DIMIA representatives at the time of these reports. While Australia is aware of the tragic sinking of the SIEV X boat, inquiries may need to be established to find out when, if, and how many other vessels, attempting to reach Australia, did not arrive.

  5. The pattern of delay in the resettlement to Australia of accepted Convention refugees compared to New Zealand's almost immediate resettlement is abysmal and should immediately be corrected.

  6. The drowning of 24 approved refugees who set sail for Australia after having been approved by UNHCR, may, if investigated, well point to delays in resettlement of such seriousness that the Australian government could be held to account for their deaths.

  7. Indonesian immigration officials cannot be trusted because they are open to working hand-in-hand with people smugglers. Australia has a direct responsibility to prevent this and pre-empt this way of working be being generous in its refugee resettlement and acceptance, and make this known to Indonesian officials and its government.

  8. The Australian government as well as the Australian opposition parties need to urgently revise their outlook on what they call "secondary movements" and fall in line with UNHCR in recognising that "a refugee is never home until a Convention country has been reached" and an asylum application in such country has been finalised.

  9. Australian governments should stop calling refugees who use their Jakarta UNHCR presence as a 'stop-over centre' incorrectly 'secondary movement asylum seekers', because Australia itself created that stop-over option for refugees (from Indo-China) in Indonesia by helping to establish the Indonesian UNHCR Office.

  10. Australia should immediately call a stop to the immense cruelty it commits by keeping separate 58 approved UN refugees from being reunited with their spouses in Australia, who live in Australia on a Temporary Protection Visa.