Back in 2000, Australia didn’t have a policy for offshore processing of asylum seekers, but as more boats reached Australian waters the coalition government’s attitude began to harden.
Arrivals were on the increase and there had been a number of incidents of unrest among asylum seekers including mass escapes from three mainland detention facilities in June.
Documents from 2000 – released by the National Archives of Australia – show that in November, cabinet agreed to measures proposed by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock for increased penalties including a maximum five years – up from two years – in jail for escaping a detention centre.
There was also to be a new power allowing officials to strip-search detainees for weapons and to frisk-search visitors.
In its comments, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade observed that it had an interest in ensuring domestic arrangements were consistent with international legal obligations, with the potential for misperception to harm Australia’s international image.
“Australia’s mandatory detention and temporary protection visa regimes have taken us close to the minimum standards of treatment the Refugee Convention, international and domestic law and human rights standards will bear,” it said.
Asylum seeker boat arrivals have fluctuated, from single figures in the early 1990s to a peak of 20,587 people on 300 boats in 2013 under the then-Labor government.
Asylum seeker boat arrivals had edged up through the 1990s but really took off in 1999 with 86 boats carrying 3721, followed by 51 boats with 2939 passengers in 2000 and 43 with 5516 passengers in 2001.
Initially, the government didn’t seem too concerned.
In a submission to cabinet in March, Ruddock noted the arrival in January 2000 of a boat carrying 52 Christians from Indonesia’s Maluku Province.
Archives consultant historian, University of Canberra Associate Professor Christine Wallace, said the “routine tenor” of Ruddock’s submission – which canvassed whether to offer protection visas or temporary safe haven visas – is fascinating in the context of the tougher stance taken in 2001.
The majority of boat arrivals in 1999-2000 were from the Middle East, including people-smuggler-organised vessels in Indonesia carrying Afghans fleeing the Taliban and Iraqis fleeing the regime of Saddam Hussein.
As more boats arrived, pressure on the detention system increased, as did unrest by those detained.
Cabinet was told detainees had been given false expectations by the people smugglers about processing times and were frustrated at the perceived delay.
Further, intelligence reports pointed to a surge in arrivals in the summer of 2000-2001, with concerns that numbers could exceed the capability of Australasian Correctional Management, the company contracted to manage the detention centres.
This was fast becoming a major political issue for a government facing an election in 2001.
It would get worse, as the government would discover the next year, prompting it to resort to what was called the Pacific Solution, with all arrivals to be transported to Nauru and Manus island for processing.
From that came two enduring issues – the “Tampa affair”, where Australian special forces seized a freighter carrying rescued asylum seekers, and the “children overboard” scandal.