Videos of shark-infested waters, stark warnings of the perils of people-smuggling and taking a tougher line with would-be refugees may be working for Australia, despite outrage by human rights groups.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said that since November, 1,315 boatpeople had turned up off Australia's shores. In the same period a year before, 3,104 arrived by boat, seeking asylum.
"That would suggest that our numbers are well down on what they were the year before, by more than half," Ruddock told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday. "It's because we have taken a strong position in a number of ways."
Australia, a vast island continent twice the size of India but with just 19 million people compared with the subcontinent's billion, saw a sharp influx of asylum seekers over the past two years as it became a hot target for people-smuggling gangs.
Scores of Iraqi and Afghan migrants were travelling to Indonesia and being packed on decrepit boats for the perilous sea voyage down to islands and reefs off northern Australia, and local newspapers screamed about the "invading hordes."
Alarmed, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard tried to lock the doors.
It created a new temporary asylum, locked undocumented arrivals up in camps, went on a publicity blitz in the Middle East to warn against using smugglers and filmed a video of man-eating sharks offshore and deadly snakes on land.
It also went out to other countries to get local governments to help stem the flow, and to crack down on criminal groups making millions of dollars out of the people trade.
HONOURING OBLIGATIONS, BUT NO MORE
"What we have done is to ensure that we honour our international obligations but do no more," Ruddock said. Ruddock shrugs off cries of dismay from refugee groups, who see the government's hardline approach to illegal immigrants as a denial of decades of Australian generosity to people in need.
Rights groups deplore the government's line that there are "good refugees" who apply through the United Nations for asylum, and "bad refugees" who try to jump the queues.
Since World War Two, Australia has welcomed Jews facing persecution, Eastern Europeans fleeing Communism, war refugees from Vietnam and most recently, Kosovars from the Balkans.
"Australia was always seen as the good guy on the block. Now it's turning out to be the pariah," said Margaret Piper of the Refugee Council of Australia.
But Ruddock, who bears the brunt of the outrage, insisted Australia was "not against refugees, not against immigration".
"Ours is not a policy to stop people moving," he said. "It's about ensuring that those people meet your criteria, where there are many more than you can actually accommodate wanting to come."
Canberra was also determined to stop ruthless smugglers making a fortune out of people seeking a new home.
Foreigners who wanted to come to Australia should apply through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement. Australia is one of the leading resettlement nations for the UNHCR, accepting around 10,000 refugees a year.
DETENTION WILL STAY
Ruddock also defended the policy of mandatory detention for undocumented arrivals, including women and children. He said the government had every right to jail asylum seekers until their cases were decided. Otherwise they would disappear.
Recent tensions in the camps, located in remote deserts around western and southern Australia, were only to be expected given that many detainees had already been processed and were being held for deportation, and others were losing hope.
Calls for inquiries following allegations of abuse by guards, and after a series of riots, were largely "self-serving."
"They tend to be allegations designed to put the system under pressure," Ruddock said.