A United Nations expert on people smuggling and human trafficking says Canberra’s tough but “questionable” policy on dealing with asylum seekers arriving by boat has successfully destroyed the current migrant smuggling model into Australia.
Sebastian Baumeister, from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, says the government has halted the boats heading to Australia, but questions remain over the whereabouts of thousands of asylum seekers stranded in Asia.
“With the changes in Australian migration asylum policies, there’s now been a significant drop of arrivals by boat to Australia,” Mr Baumeister told AAP.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared no asylum-seeker boats had arrived in Australia for 100 days.
Mr Abbot dismissed those who had questioned the government’s ability to prevent asylum-seeker boats reaching Australia, but he did not disclose the numbers of vessels turned back under Operation Sovereign Borders.
In January, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection said throughout 2013, there were 300 suspected illegal entry vessels with 20,587 asylum seekers on board.
Mr Baumeister said thousands remain in Asia waiting for a fresh opportunity to travel to Australia.
“I’m pretty sure that there must be still in this region, a lot of people from southwest Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq who were on their way to Australia,” he said.
“Usually people would come through Thailand or from Thailand to Malaysia, and then to Indonesia. So they are somewhere here in Southeast Asia – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. So what happened to them? That’s one question, but I cannot give you an answer.”
He said the government’s policies, while “questionable”, had succeeded.
“In this regard, the Australians I think quite successfully destroyed the migrant smuggling model.
“But I would assume there must be still significant numbers of people who are there already on the move, who are somewhere stranded,” he said.
“So that’s why I tend to believe that people still – migrants from southwest Asia – I would think there are still significant numbers in Indonesia, Malaysia and also perhaps Thailand.
And the question remains where these stranded asylum seekers will travel to next.
“This was a significant change on this route (to Australia). On this route, this was very well organised, the migrant smugglers had specialised basically on persons who had good prospects of being granted asylum,” he said.
“They had specialised on asylum seekers to whom they could sell this basically,” Baumeister said. “So this was a traumatic change and it remains to be seen what happens next,” he said.