This article explores the phenomenon of asylum seekers and irregular migrants presenting as ‘boat people’. We evaluate key aspects of policies introduced to deter and contain these people – namely mandatory detention, temporary protection visas and offshore processing. Given the high rate of deaths and injuries associated with unauthorised boat arrivals, we argue that governments should do their best to discourage or prevent people from attempting to enter Australia in this way. However, the available evidence suggests that the rationale underlying deterrent policies is inherently flawed. Most have been totally ineffective in stopping unauthorised boat arrivals. History suggests that the best strategies prevent rather than deter, stopping the flow of asylum seekers at source and/or diverting desperate people away from dangerous and irregular modes of transport. We argue that no Australian government, acting alone, will be able to beat the people-smugglers now plying their trade out of Indonesia. What is needed are cooperative arrangements with ‘source’ or transit governments, coupled with targeted resettlement programs to provide refugees with viable protection options. We challenge claims made about the effectiveness of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution and question Labor’s apparent acceptance that offshore processing in ‘regional’ centres will stop the boats. We ask whether the Conservatives’ loud and internationally publicised claims that Labor has ‘gone soft’ on border control represent part of the problem: ‘loose lips’ may indeed be bringing the ships.