The first boat people to arrive on Australian shores were three young friends and two brothers from Vietnam who’d navigated the seas with a map torn from a school atlas. It was April 1976, and they fled the scars of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon on a 65-foot wooden fishing boat. The migrants were called boat people quite simply because that’s how they came to Australia. Over the next five years, 2,054 more would follow.
Most Australians at the time wanted to let these Vietnamese migrants stay in their country, so the newcomers were given refugee status. But that changed. The next wave of boat people came in 1989, and each year, for 10 years, about 170 of them floated to Australia, many from Cambodia. Unlike a decade before, the Australian government first detained these migrants, then processed them through the courts. The third major wave of boat people came from the Middle East, and by 2001 three-quarters of Australians wanted them turned away.
The country’s policy today toward asylum-seekers who arrive by sea is much different: It places them in offshore-detention facilities on two Pacific Island nations, Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), and processes their asylum claims while keeping them there. Human-rights advocates and refugee organizations say the country’s policy is cruel. It sets no bail, no time limit to their stay, and on average asylum-seekers will spend a year in camps, they say. PNG’s supreme court apparently agreed. This week it ordered the country’s government to close the Manus Island center, calling the facility a violation of the migrants’ personal liberties. The PNG government said it would comply.