Australia’s Controversial Migration Policy

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.

But Australia’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, responded by saying Canberra’s “position is very clear, and that is we are not going to accept people who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat, they will not settle permanently in our country.”

Australia’s refugee policy has been a test in how a country balances the rights of the world’s dispossessed with its own right to determine who enters. And it was one year, 2001, that Australia set itself apart, and one incident, the “Tampa affair,” that brought its policy to the fore.  It was an election year in Australia, and Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal Party, which holds a conservative ideology, was trailing in the polls. But on the policy-launch day of his election campaign, Howard made his stance on immigration clear: “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.” His ideas on immigration shaded him a strong leader and is credited in part with his party’s election victory that November.

At the time, many migrants and refugees sailed and floated to Australia across the Indian Ocean to Christmas Island, an Australian territory 1,200 miles from the mainland, but only a three-day boat trip from Jakarta, Indonesia. Near the end of August 2001, 433 asylum-seekers, mostly Afghans, lost their way at sea on a wooden fishing boat called the Palapa and sent a distress signal. They were picked up two days later by MV Tampa, the Norwegian freight liner. What followed was a game of chicken. Typically, a captain will sail people rescued from the water to the nearest port that will have them. In this case, that would have been Christmas Island, the Australian territory where the refugees had wanted to go, and where they could be processed for asylum in Australia. But Howard refused them entry. A port 12 hours away in Merak, Indonesia, would take the ship, but the asylum-seekers were dehydrated and sick, and they included children and pregnant women. Some of those on board threatened suicide if returned, and the captain doubted whether his crew of 27 could make that far of a trip with the additional 433 passengers. So he sailed toward Christmas Island, and Howard dispatched the military.

As the deadlock became international news, Howard tried to pass a bill in Parliament that’d grant the government power to remove foreign ships from its waters, but he didn’t get the votes. International media, human-rights groups, and world leaders pressured Australia to do something, and after eight days, Howard worked out a deal in which the Australian Navy would take the refugees to Nauru, a Pacific island nation, where they’d be kept in camps while they waited for the government to process their asylum applications. These offshore camps would become central to Howard’s immigration policy, called the “Pacific Solution,” that Australia would pass in 2001.

The new immigration policy changed where a noncitizen could apply for Australian protection. Until then, Australia’s migration zone, as this is known, stretched to its territories of thousands of islands—like Christmas Island. But under the change, Australia excised those from the migration zone, making it so only people who reached the mainland could claim asylum. Australia’s navy was also given the power to stop migrant boats in the ocean, and the country officially started offshore migrant-processing camps in Nauru and PNG.

Over the next two years, Australia deported or diverted 1,544 asylum-seekers to the detention camps, and paid to operate the camps in both countries. It gave Nauru an extra (roughly) $20 million in aid, which at the time was around one-third of its GDP.

As intended, Howard’s immigration plan drastically reduced the boats making it to Australian shores. In 2002 one asylum-seeker reached Australia, and in the next five years, 57 people each year did. Then in 2007, Australia had a change in government.

The center-left Labor Party won the election, and Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister, kept his campaign promise to do away with the offshore-processing camps. It would not last long. In 2009, 60 boats arrived in Australia with 2,726 asylum-seekers; the next year it was 134 boats with 6,555 people; then 69 boats with 4,565. And with those rising numbers came rising refugee deaths as leaky boats or wooden vessels shattered against the rocks in the choppy waters. The Liberals, now in opposition, blamed Rudd’s policy for the increased migration, for the deaths, and for supporting the human-smuggler economy. Rudd resisted critics, but soon found himself losing a party leadership vote to Julia Gillard, who succeeded him as prime minister.

Under her government, in May 2013 Australia excised even the mainland from its migration zone, which basically meant migrants could be sent to the offshore detention facilities wherever their ships landed. Until then, even under Howard’s policies, those who reached mainland Australia could not legally be sent to Nauru or PNG. The asylum-seekers now stay in the camps while their claims are processed. But even if they are found to have valid asylum claims—as 90 percent of them are—they are not allowed to settle in Australia. Instead, they may be settled on Nauru or PNG. Four even went to Cambodia, for which Australia paid the country about $42 million.

The camps remain contentious, and refugee groups say they violate human rights. In 2014, asylum-seekers at the Manus Island detention center protested and security responded with violence, killing a 23-year-old Iranian. That same year, a former Associated Press reporter described the Manus Island center to the BBC like this:

The refugees live in shipping containers, there’s water everywhere, lights not working, the heat is oppressive, no windows. There was a (detainee) with a bandage over his eye… asking for help in this stinking, hot compound.

Women and children complain of sexual abuse. And recent numbers put the average stay at 450 days, though almost one-quarter of asylum-seekers spend more than two years in the camps.

On Tuesday, as representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees toured the Nauru center, an Iranian asylum-seeker reportedly said, “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.” Then he lit himself on fire—and died Friday. Also Wednesday, five more refugees attempted suicide.

Dutton, the Australian immigration minister, said: “if people think that through action of self-harm or harming a member of their family that that is going to result in them coming to Australia and staying here permanently, that will not be the outcome.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull added: “We cannot be misty-eyed about this. We have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose. … We must have secure borders and we do and we will, and they will remain so, as long as I am the prime minister of this country.”

To be sure, it’s not that Australia has an issue with refugees––in fact, it has agreed to resettle 12,000 Syrians, atop the refugees it typically takes through its Humanitarian Programme. It granted 13,800 refugee visas between 2013 and 2014, and 20,000 between 2012 and 2013.

But the arrivals by sea seem to prompt anger. One reason for this could be that migrants and refugees who try to reach Australia by sea are, in fact, coming illegally. Those that are being resettled through its Humanitarian Programme, meanwhile, are registered refugees being accepted under Australia’s international obligations. The two main parties also contend that its policies deter human-smuggling. 

The problem seems only to be when Australia discusses migration by boats, said António Guterres, the former UNHCR Commissioner, “and there, of course, we enter into a very, very, very dramatic thing. I think it is a kind of collective sociological and psychological question. They receive, I think, 180,000 migrants in a year. If you come to Australia in a different way, it’s fine but if they come in a boat it is like something strange happens to their minds.”

On the 35th anniversary of the year those five young Vietnamese men docked their boat in a northern Australian harbor, a reporter caught up with one of the original boat people, a man named Lam Tac Tam, who now lives a mile from where he first landed. He told the reporter they had no destination when they left Vietnam, and during their trip they talked of sailing to the the island of Guam. It was a U.S. territory, and the U.S. had helped Vietnam in the war––Tam’s brother even knew someone who lived there. “So we were thinking to go there,” Tam told the reporter.

But while in Malaysia they docked next to a ship carrying timber. The captain was from Australia, and he told Tam and his brother Australia was a nice place, big, but with a small population and lot of friendly people. And it was close.

“You should go there,” Tam remembered the captain say, “take a chance there.”

So they did.

The Torture Charges Against Mexican Police

With women explaining periods to men, pop culture is finally treating menstruation as a societal issue everyone should care about.

In the season-three finale of Broad City, Abbi and Ilana find themselves, via participation in the “Birthmarc” program, on a plane to Israel. Early on in the episode, in mid-air, Abbi gets her period. From there, the rest of the finale’s plot revolves around the pair’s airborne quest to find Abbi a tampon. It’s an effort, Abbi and Ilana being Abbi and Ilana, that comes with many, many jokes about the circumstances they’ve found themselves in thanks to Abbi’s uterus. “Ooof, first day. That’s, like, putting your spoon into a molten lava cake,” Ilana says.

“It’s like the first bite of a jelly donut,” Abbi counters.

“It’s like a side of chutney.”

“It’s like fruit on the bottom.”

The exchange—rapid-fire, unapologetically graphic, unrelentingly hilarious—is yet more evidence that pop culture, which for so long has treated periods as the stuff of shame and taboo, is now insistently de-stigmatizing them. Periods have recently been so popular a topic of cultural exploration that 2015, NPR argued, was “the year of the period”—also known as the year, per Cosmopolitan, that “the period went public.”

Zika-Proof Olympic Uniforms?

Zika virus is now influencing fashion standards at the Olympics.

The South Korean Olympic committee has found a way to infuse mosquito-repellent chemicals into the team’s uniforms for this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro. All outfits, which are worn during ceremonies, training sessions, and in the Olympic Village, have long pants and long-sleeve shirts. The provisions will apparently prevent South Korean athletes from being bitten by mosquitoes that may be infected with the virus that’s been linked to birth defects.

But South Korean officials are going even further to protect their athletes, as the Associated Press notes:

A team of South Korean government and Olympic officials visited Rio de Janeiro earlier this month to inspect Olympic venues and local hospitals. The Korean Olympic Committee said it expects to soon provide guidelines to Olympic athletes and others traveling to the games about how to protect themselves from Zika.

While all athletes will be able to use mosquito-repellent spray during the competitions, their sporting uniforms won’t have special protections  “because of strict rules and performance concerns,” reports the AP.

U.S. Olympic officials have expressed deep concern over the Zika virus in Brazil, but they have not changed uniforms just yet. During the closing ceremony, both the men and women will wear Ralph Lauren-designed shorts. Still, U.S. Olympic Committee officials did tell leaders of U.S. sport federations in a call in January that some athletes should consider not going to the Games if they are concerned with their health.

Reuters reports:

Federations were told that no one should go to Brazil “if they don’t feel comfortable going. Bottom line,” said Donald Anthony, president and board chairman of USA Fencing.

The Invisible Disaster That Still Haunts Europe

A wolf in a wild wood near Ukraine’s Chernobyl in April of 2012 (Sergiy Gaschak / AP)

Today marks 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In our January 1987 issue, Mary Jo Salter, an American living in Rome at the time of the accident, described the fear and uncertainty of living with the fallout, as public information and government assessments of the danger kept changing. “Although we were living in an increasingly nuclear-powered world,” Salter wrote, “we had also been living in ignorance of the nature of radiation.” She continued:

The newspapers provided some of the information that, I suddenly felt, I should have known already: that iodine comes in a radioactive form, iodine 131, which is often the principal component of nuclear-reactor leaks and which has the relatively brief half-life of eight days. I learned that iodine 131 causes thyroid cancer, that it is readily absorbed by green plants, and, therefore, that it is found in the milk of grass-eating animals. I learned that cesium 137, with a half-life of thirty years, settles especially in muscle tissue and organs, and that strontium 90, with a half-life of twenty-eight years, settles in bones and so can cause bone-marrow cancer.

Almost everyone I knew in Rome had learned at least some of these facts within a few days—a few days not after we learned of the Chernobyl disaster but after we learned that la nube [the radioactive cloud from the explosion] had passed over us.

Salter had a two-year-old daughter at the time, and she and her husband faced agonizing worries over how to keep her safe. They closed the windows for fear of the air. Milk had become dangerous; eggs and vegetables, too, absorbed the poison. Life-sustaining food and water were suddenly vectors of death.

With soil in many parts of Europe still contaminated from the Chernobyl blast, the danger posed by radioactive flora and fauna lives on. Today on our site, Ron Broglio writes about the radioactive boars invading towns in southern Germany, several hundred miles from where the reactor exploded in Ukraine:

They become irradiated by eating plants downwind from the meltdown that contain residual traces of radioactivity—including truffles, tubers, and mushrooms that absorb high degrees of radioactive waste from the soil. Apart from anniversaries like this one, Chernobyl has faded from memory. But for the radioactive elements the disaster expelled, life has just begun. The disaster lives on, but invisibly.

Invisibility is probably the most terrifying part about the aftermath of Chernobyl. How can a threat so insidious as radiation be visualized or depicted, let alone faced? In a piece for us today on Chernobyl’s literary legacy, Michael Lapointe writes:

Through three decades of literary response, Chernobyl has undermined the sort of authoritative depiction that might bring closure. But something closed can be forgotten. The finest works express profound doubts about the power of language to absorb a disaster of this magnitude, and so continually reopen it to new ways of being remembered.

Alan recently curated a photo essay of the post-Chernobyl cleanup, attempting to render the invisible meanings of this disaster visible. The images of Pripyat, the now-abandoned town where the nuclear plant was located, show structures overgrown and fallen to pieces, grass poking between paving stones, branches twined around beams, and the encroaching vines and trees merging with the architecture:

A playground in the deserted town of Pripyat on November 27, 2012. (Efrem Lukatsky / AP)

And Broglio describes the animal life taking over the Exclusion Zone:

Rare species not seen in the region for hundreds of years have returned, including the Przewalski’s horse, the European bison, the lynx, and the Eurasian brown bear. Without fear of being hunted, the animals roam the forest and the ruins of cities in what has become an eerily post-human wildlife sanctuary.

Nature is taking back Chernobyl, which is almost reassuring until you remember that radioactive elements are still in the soil. Thirty years later, the legacy of nuclear disaster—which, Broglio notes, could ultimately lead to 4,000 deaths—perpetuates a paradox: Gradually, life returns to the dead zone; and gradually, death grows.

The Historical Case for ‘Czech Republic,’ the Bonus Case for ‘the Czechlands’

The banner from the home page of the organization promoting use of “Czechia”

In the previous posts collected in this Thread, I argued that the country officially known as the Czech Republic should resist the idea of changing its “short English name” to Czechia.

Under a proposal from the “Go-Czechia” group, people inside the country would still refer to it as Česko, and its full official name would remain “Czech Republic” in English and Česká republika in Czech. But just as the place officially known in English as “People’s Republic of China” goes by “China” in common international parlance, and just as “Republic of China” goes by “Taiwan,” so too (according to supporters of the plan) should English references to their country be to “Czechia.”

I received a lot of ill-humored mail from people in the Czech Republic after I said that I thought Czechia would sound strange in English. A representative note from a scholar who works as a translator from Czech to English and German began, “I have to strictly oppose your argumentation in the article ‘People of Czechia’ …”

I wrote back to several pro-Czechia correspondents, and have had an extended exchange with Petr Pavlinek, who originally was trained at Charles University in Prague and is now a professor in the geography and geology department at the University of Nebraska — Omaha. (Bonus info: in my role as in-law to an extended Czech-American family, I’m aware that Nebraska is one of the centers of Czech settlement here, along with Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, and of course greater Chicagoland, where all of my wife’s Czech grandparents began their American lives.) With Prof. Pavlinek’s permission I’m quoting the back and forth. It clarifies some issues, and also is just interesting.

Round 1. Professor Pavlinek begs to differ with my views:

Your article on Czechia is very subjective and uninformed. It is very disappointing. Please, learn basic facts first before writing.

The fact that Czechia sounds weird to you is not an argument against using it. Czechia is perfectly fine in terms of linguistics. No one is taking the Czech Republic away and it stays in place as the official political name of the country.

Arguing for using Cesko in English is the same as saying that we should not use Austria but Osterreich or Deutchland instead of Germany in English. This does not make sense. To write an article based on what your family thinks without knowing the basic facts is unprofessional to say the least.

You can find the basic information about Czechia here:

You should write a new article to put this right.

I sent a note back saying: OK, thanks, I’ll quote people on your side of the argument [as is happening now].


Round 2. He wants to make sure I understand:

OK. Fair enough as long as you get your facts right. As I said, the basic facts are at This is NOT about renaming the country but about standardizing its short geographic name. The Czech Republic remains in place as the political name.

By the way, you need to know that in order for a geographic name to be registered with the United Nations it first needs to be standardized and approved nationally. Czechia was standardized by the committee of 55 geographers, historians, linguists and others in 1993. Bohemia was not standardized and will never be because it is wrong geographically as you know. It does not include [Silesia] and Moravia.

Czech has no chance either because it is an adjective, a member of the Czech nation, the language. Czechia is the only one that is correct. The Czechlands is incorrect since the Czech Republic is not composed from any lands. That would be the first question the UN committee for the standardization of geographic names would ask: what lands is your country composed of now?

Please, see attached about the UN rules and procedures. If you study all of this, you will get a better understanding of the subject.


Round 3. In another post in this series, I quoted part of the Go-Czechia manifesto that I found unconvincing. That part said, “The Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are the only two countries in the entire world that do not have readily available short names.” I said, only two? What about New Zealand? Costa Rica? Sierra Leone? Etc.

Prof. Pavlinek was one of many to write back and say: The length of the name is not what they’re talking about! (Despite all the emphasis on coining a new “short English name.”) The complaint is that “Czech Republic” refers to a political entity rather than a geographic place. Sample:

This [my use of Costa Rica and New Zealand as counter-examples] is completely wrong. So for example. The political name of Costa Rica is the Republic of Costa Rica, Costa Rica is its geographic name (as is Czechia), Sierra Leone is the geographic name, its political name is the Republic of Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Tobago is the geographic name, its political name is the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. I am sure you get it now.

New Zealand goes by only by its geographic name, the same is the case of Burkina Faso, Upper Volta (the geographic name) – its political name used to be the  Republic of Upper Volta. Some countries do not have political names.

The number of words in the country name does not determine whether it is the political or geographic name. The political name included the nature of the political regime such as the Kingdom of Denmark, the Kingdom of Spain, the Czech Republic. Geographic names are then: Denmark, Spain and Czechia.

I hope you understand now. Should we expect a third article then?


Round 4. I noted to my correspondent that we were nearing a delicate and unfair reality of modern life. I have spent many decades wrestling with a range of languages, but the only one in which I dare undertake professional work is my own native language of English.

Thus I greatly respect the burden, challenge, and bravery of people doing professional work in their second, third, fifth, etc language, and I try always to make allowances for this uneven playing field. Still, when it comes to discussions of how things sound in English, a riposte that begins “I have to strictly oppose your argumentation …” works with an extra handicap. (To spell it out for any non-native speakers reading along: That sentence sounds really odd and stilted in English.) So I suggested that since the audience for “Czechia” was the non-Czech-speaking, English-functional international community, perhaps the group should include some native English speakers in its deliberations?

In specific, I said, two parts of the argument raised problems for English-speakers. One is the heavy emphasis on a “short” name, when their complaint has nothing to do with the name’s length. (Ie, with what English speakers would understand from the word “short.”) Rather it is about names based on political organization — “republic” — instead of a geographic place.

But for me that leads to the second problem. In fact, there are two pretty famous examples of countries known by their political name: the United States, and the United Kingdom. In the American case, you can use “American” as an adjective, just as you can use “Czech.” But the uniforms at Olympic games, the name tags at international conferences, etc say “United States,” “US,” or “USA.” So too for the Brits. We know all the common geographic names: England, Britain, Great Britain. But none of them is officially equivalent to the United Kingdom. (England is just England; Britain brings in Wales; Great Britain is the whole island, including Scotland; and the UK is all of them plus Northern Ireland.)

It’s one thing to say: the Czech Republic should change its name, because that makes it part of an outlier category whose only other members are the D.R. and the C.A.R. But the category seems more impressive and mainstream if it also includes the U.S., the U.K., and previously the U.S.S.R.

In reply, with emphasis added at one point:

Yes, you are absolutely right that it is very difficult for non-native speakers to make their point clearly in English…

As for America, you are absolutely right that it is not an official short country name (it is not included in the UN’s database) and it is not used in any official events. But the truth is that it is used informally in everyday speech as the geographic name for the country, including presidents and presidential candidates (“America first,” for example now) however wrong it might be.

The implication is that America and Britain are used in the everyday speech and in the media for the United States and the United Kingdom (shortened political names). As such, I would argue that these two countries are very different cases from those of the Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic.

I am not trying to convince you. Not at all. I just want you to have your facts right in your article. In this case about the difference between geographic and political names and examples used. Then it is perfectly fine to argue against Czechia.

Now tell me one more thing: you recognize the difficulty for non-native speakers to understand the English language. How should then the Czechs who are not English speakers decide about how the word Cesko is properly translated into English? Isn’t it the same situation as if I asked you how America should be properly translated into Czech?

Also, in your arguments you need to consider that the geographic name Cesko (Česko) is commonly used in Czech. The whole issue with Czechia and the fuss about it is actually about the proper translation of Cesko into English. Many people translate it as Czech, Czecho etc. which is wrong for obvious reasons. There is a need for the grammatically correct translation of the Czech term Cesko into English.

Your article shows clearly that translations of Cesko into other languages, such as German etc. are commonly used. What would be your advice then for its translation into English? Sticking with the Czech Republic as the only option for translating Cesko into English is not going to help here and it is not correct. What is your suggestion?

What the government is doing now is making the translation of Cesko into English as Czechia official so that these wrong translations (Czech, Czecho) are not being used. I would be interested to hear your take on this because this is really what the whole argument is about.

Otherwise, I enjoyed reading your article.


To answer the two possibly rhetorical questions: if I were trying to re-brand “America” for a Czech audience, I’d mainly ask the Czechs for advice! And if they were asking me about how to present their country in English, I’d go back to my original post. Either just stick with Czech Republic (and soon I’ll quote another historian on a very interesting reason why), or go all in with Česko. We non-Czech speakers will get used to it more easily than Czechia, and we’ll admire the pride and panache.

Thanks to Prof. Pavlinek and others for their correspondence. There is a ton more, at least some of which I’ll quote in a follow up.