SYDNEY — Now that the monsoon season is over, the huddled masses of Asia’s worst conflict areas, notably Afghanistan and Iraq, are again looking abroad for refuge. As in past years, they see a big, empty island on the map and steer southeast. Unfortunately for them, the folks already here have other ideas.

Canberra has alerted its border patrol ships and aircraft. The navy will, hopefully, do a better job this year of humanely deterring would-be illegal arrivals than during the political fiascos of last year. However the border-alert season develops, every Australian is readying for another blast from the United Nations.

Already the opposition parties in Parliament are gearing up for another wonderful opportunity to humiliate the federal government. They are still feasting off the worldwide criticism of Canberra for its so-called harsh handling of last season’s illegal immigrants, who are still locked in desert-bound, razor-wired detention camps. If, as expected, more boat people get through this year’s net, the unfortunate arrivals will end up in the same desert stockades.

For Australian Prime Minister John Howard, this is a nice time to be abroad. He is in Washington this week with an appointment to chat with U.S. President George W. Bush. How to cope with illegal immigrants will doubtless pop up during discussions on joint efforts to counteract world terrorism.

Howard will need all the soothing publicity he can get in America. The minute he hits Sydney his bleeding-hearts opponents from the immigration lobby will be in front of the TV cameras with fresh versions of how appalled the world is at Australia’s “inhumane treatment” of suffering Middle Eastern humanity.

Alerted by sightings of the first flush of boat-people this year, the Howard government moved late last week on a new strategy. The maritime cordon across northern Australia will be tightened by removing 1,000 islands from Australia’s migration zone. This means that people arriving on these islands will no longer be able to apply for permission to stay. They will have to go the extra mile to the mainland.

The move follows a decision last year to remove the Indian Ocean territories of Cocos and Christmas Islands and Ashmore and Cartier Reefs from the zone. Asylum seekers who arrive at these places are not considered to have landed on Australian territory.

Canberra took that step so it could remove the thousands of exhausted boat people (quite a few of whom had destroyed their identity papers) who last year landed on these islands expecting to be welcomed as new citizens. It was a time when the Australian public was fearful of a mass influx from the war zones of Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Alarmed, Canberra prevailed on neighbors to accept some of the by-now pathetic arrivals. New Zealand took a few hundred. Less willingly, Papua New Guinea and Nauru took others. Now the neighbors are telling Australia their generosity is strictly limited.

Fearing more scandal, the Canberra policymakers have moved to barricade the borders further by restricting entry on the thousands of tiny coastal islands. Indignant, opposition leader Simon Crean exploded: “Where does it stop? What islands are next? Tasmania?”

This turned out to be not quite as funny as mainlanders — not the Tasmanians, of course — thought. Tasmania is now being mentioned as next on the exclusion list.

The ever-opposing Democrats and Greens say they will block the proposed change in the Senate where the Liberal-National coalition government is in the minority. The Labor Party is making noises about blocking it, too. But Crean, already in trouble for trying to slash union influence in the parliamentary Labor party, hardly dares risk public wrath over this unpopular issue.

Running in the government’s favor is the fact that no boat people have landed so far this year. This compares with a 5,000-person arrival last year. The government claims this respite is due to its get-tough policy, blithely ignoring the fact that the Indonesian government has cracked down on its own people smugglers and the monsoon season has made the always dangerous Indian Ocean crossing far too life-threatening.

The whole issue of what to do about asylum seekers is due to explode sooner than anyone here wants. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has warned that vessels have been spotted off Indonesia heading our way.

Mixed Indonesian reports say Vietnamese or Bangladeshi boat people intercepted may be heading for northern Australia or beyond into the Pacific, with possible destinations being New Caledonia or New Zealand. The prospect of boats skirting southbound around southern Australia gives weight to the near-incredible notion that Tasmania is about to be added to the new list of offshore islands excluded from visa-application rights.

Alerted, the Australian Navy has launched a new phase of border protection, Operation Relex 2, to strengthen Operation Tempo. Patrols circuiting northern waters now include two P3C Orion patrol aircraft, one frigate, one amphibious ship, one survey ship and three patrol boats.

But with much of the northern and western coastline not only uninhabited desert or scrub country but rarely visited, the chances of asylum seekers landing and merging into Australia’s multiethnic population are far from remote.

So far the “old” population has been welcoming of newcomers. The “illegals,” however, stir up a debate nobody here wants to pursue too deeply. The coming months will show just how tolerant we are about extending our much-exalted multiethnic, multicultural society.

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