There are places that Americans never think about from one year`s end to the next, but whose affairs occasionally shed light on important topics. There is, for example, Australia. You`re going to need an atlas for this one: I shall pause while you pull it down.
Got it? Good. Now fix your eye on Cape York, which is the northern-most point of the Australian mainland—the tip of the "terrier`s ear," for those who like to fancy they see human and animal images in the shapes of countries. (Britain is a man riding a pig. Italy is a boot. China is a pot-bellied dragon. The U.S.A. doesn`t look like anything.) From Cape York, scan westwards about forty degrees of longitude, to a point in the ocean a couple of hundred miles south of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. There you will find a tiny place with a charming name: Christmas Island, so named because the first person who bothered to name it (one Captain William Mynors of the East India Company) arrived there on Christmas Day, 1643. Christmas Island belongs to Australia, and is much in the news down there this past few days.
This story began early Monday morning, August 27th, when a Norwegian cargo ship named the Tampa, on her way from Singapore to Fremantle in Western Australia, picked up a distress call from another ship that was sinking. Tampa went to the rescue, as she was obliged to do, both in humanity and under maritime law. She found an Indonesian ferry boat, the KM Palapa 1, in distress, with more than 400 souls on board in peril of their lives. The Tampa, a small vessel with a crew of only 23, took them all aboard, tallying 369 men, 26 women—four of them pregnant—and 43 children. (Subsequent recounts have altered these numbers slightly.) Her next step, under international law, was to take these people to the "nearest feasible disembarkation point," which would have been any one of three or four Indonesian ports. At this point, politics kicked in.
Those 400-odd people turned out to be "asylum seekers"—a phrase already very familiar to Europeans and Australians, and which will be coming soon to a U.S. entry point near you. Most of them are from Afghanistan, a few from Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia. They are "seeking asylum" because, for one reason or another, life is intolerable to them in their own countries, and they want something better elsewhere. "Elsewhere," of course, means a country with a high standard of living, a demand for cheap labor, and a mature welfare state. In this particular case, it means Australia. The people the Tampa rescued want to go to Australia. They made this unmistakably plain to the captain, threatening him and his way-outnumbered crew with harm if he did not take them to Australia. In effect, they hijacked his ship—an act of piracy. The captain thereupon headed for Christmas Island, the nearest Australian territory.
The Australian government, once they knew what was happening, refused permission for the Tampa to land its "passengers" on Christmas Island. For one thing, the island is tiny and well-nigh uninhabitable. The current population is 1,500, so the Tampa`s guests would have increased it by thirty per cent. In fact, because of its status as Australian territory and its closeness to Indonesia, Christmas Island is a favorite destination for "asylum seekers," and hundreds have already landed there in recent weeks. Australia has ferried them to the mainland and interned them in camps in the deep outback while their cases are processed. For another thing, the Australians are fed up with "asylum seekers," who they believe to be economic, not political, refugees. It is known that Indonesian cartels are running huge people-smuggling operations into Australia, with customers from the Middle East, India and China paying $5,000 each to be dumped on Australia`s 16,000 miles of coastline. (That`s a yard and a half of coastline for every man, woman and child in Australia. You see the problem.)
Measures of the fed-upness of Australians are not hard to find. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, told a cheering parliament: "It remains our very strong determination not to allow this vessel or its occupants, save in excepting [sic] humanitarian circumstances clearly demonstrated, to land in Australia. ... We cannot surrender our right as a sovereign country to control our borders. We cannot have a situation where people can come to this country when they choose." Opinion polls show support of Howard`s policy in the range 80 to 90 per cent. (There is, let me add, an election coming up in Australia.) Newspaper editorials and radio call-in shows reflect this sentiment. When the ship entered Australian waters off Christmas Island, it was boarded by a team of Australian commandos.
Notwithstanding all of which, I hereby predict that the "asylum seekers" on the Tampa will eventually become Australians. Why? Because no-one else will have them. The Indonesians have already made their position very plain. They have threatened military action if there is any attempt to land the "asylum seekers" on Indonesian soil. A spokesman for the Indonesian armed forces said: "We will not allow these illegal migrants into the country. The military is ready to take any measures to ensure the government is able to carry out this policy." Nobody thinks he is kidding.
Asian countries have a straightforward approach to boatloads of refugees that appear off their coasts: they refuse them entry, towing them back out to sea if necessary. Sometimes they sink them. In one incident, a boat-load of 93 refugees was used as target practice by the Vietnamese navy; only eight survived to tell the tale. The ironclad rule in these situations is: Whichever country is most squeamish about watching kids drown off its shores, ends up by taking in the "asylum seekers."
Or, to put it another way: Nice guys get illegal immigrants.
In any case, the "asylum seekers" do not want to go to Indonesia, and have threatened to jump overboard if the ship heads back there, or even if it just leaves sight of Christmas Island. They want to go to Australia. These people are not, or not only, fleeing from, they are fleeing to. They didn`t pay five thousand bucks a head to get to Jakarta. Back in the days of the Vietnam boat people, twenty years ago, several thousand ended up in detention camps in Hong Kong, under fairly unpleasant conditions. Moved by compassion, the Republic of Ireland—this was in the days before the "Celtic Tiger" awoke—offered residence to a certain number of them. There were no takers.
Well, you can follow the rest of the Tampa story on the AP wires . There is a good email-in discussion on the BBC News "Talking Point" website. All I want to do here is to make my point about the inevitability of these people eventually becoming Australians. They will become Australians because Australia is a Christian country with a strong humanitarian tradition, an Anglo-Saxon legal system, and a huge load of white-liberal guilt about poor people in poor countries.
Already the armies of what my Uncle Fred calls "the love-the-world crowd" are mustering. Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a four-star generalissimo in those armies, has declared that Australia bears "primary responsibility" for the immigrants and should accept them. Just to remind you: Australia is involved because the "asylum seekers" hijacked a Norwegian ship and ordered it to make for Australian waters. This is how, in the mind of Ms. Robinson, you acquire "primary responsibility."
In related news, as we say in the bloviating business, Michael D`Andre, a county legislator here in my own county, is being asked to step down because of remarks he made during a public hearing last Tuesday. The hearing was one of many, many we have been having here in Long Island`s Suffolk County on the issue of "day laborers"—illegal immigrants from Central America who gather on certain street corners to get a day`s work from local contractors. Mr. D`Andre`s own town has not yet been afflicted by this blight. He felt moved to say that if it was: "We`ll be up in arms. We`ll be out with baseball bats." You can imagine the reaction of the local Mary Robinsons, of whom Suffolk County has a good supply. In the dismally predictable way these things always develop, D`Andre—the 78-year-old son of Italian immigrants, legal immigrants—has issued a grovelling apology, a course of action that will, of course, do nothing to prevent him from being torn to pieces by a howling mob of love-the-worlders.
"Asylum seekers." "Day laborers." "Undocumented aliens." Welcome to the great issue of our times. Just don`t expect to hear your legislators talking truthfully about it, much less taking any decisive action. The latest news I have is that Australian Prime Minister John Howard is "seeking a compromise." That`s what politicians in Anglo-Saxon countries do. They "seek a compromise." Then they surrender.
[John Derbyshire (send him mail) is one reason we keep reading National Review. (The other is Jonah Goldberg.) You can buy his new book Fire from the Sun on-line, and read all his published columns on his homepage.]
September 04, 2001