Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Oz: The asylum seeker question

As Australia waits to head to the polls and elect our government on August 21, we could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve woken up in 2001. Indeed, the raging debate of this election, where we choose between the left-leaning Labor, led by Julia Gillard, and the right-leaning Liberals, led by Tony Abbott, is something of a déjà vu for Australian voters. The main election issues are not schools, or hospitals, or even the environment and roads. Rather, we’re back to asylum seekers and immigration.

“Stop the boats!” they cry, announcing policies that would make anyone struggle to tell the difference between the two parties. This sort of pandering to the anxiety of Aussies really bugs me. It used to bug me when I was a radio journalist, and essentially (whether consciously or not) took part in the fear-mongering, and it still bugs me today. It frustrates me like those 6.30pm current affairs programs, seemingly intent on upsetting and incensing viewers who’ve worked hard all day, come home for dinner and the news, and are confronted at 6.30 with stories about people who are “different” from them, who don’t appreciate good Aussie values and traditions. Just last night, I saw an advertisement for a story to air about Muslim's holidaying on the Gold Coast. Accompanied as it was by ominous music, I waited for the point of the story, which as far as I can tell, is that indeed, Muslims are holidaying on the Gold Coast. Chilling. The pandering is obvious and embarrassing, and yet the stories are ratings winners. Why you’d want to be irate and offended while your food digests is beyond me.

And so now, almost 9 years after the Children Overboard Affair, Australia sits on the precipice of another election where it’s been decided the ol’ immigration and refugee issue is our most pressing concern.  
A boat is intercepted
Let’s look at some facts. This year Australia will provide 6,000 places to refugees, under the United Nations' refugee agency, and 7,750 people under our special humanitarian program. The queue jumping myth is just that, a myth. People who arrive in Australia on boats are not queue jumpers. They can’t be. The UN agency makes a list of those claiming refugee status, but our own government sets the intake, and has complete discretion as to who we’ll accept. Arriving by rickety boat from a war-torn country in no way guarantees you’ll be chosen over anyone else claiming to be a refugee. The government, in this instance, already has the power.

It seems like there are more and more boats arriving on our shores these days than ever before. This is true, and not. It’s important to ask why, and looking at the facts, the increase in boat people has little to do with a lack of hard line “stop the boats” policies. In 2001, before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan , there was a peak in boat arrivals: 43 boats and 5,516 people. Most of these people were escaping the Taliban. After the invasion, the numbers dropped again, as the Taliban’s position was weakened. This year, we’re up to almost 3,000 arrivals by boat. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government has caused many Tamils to flee here, to Australia. Simply, increases in asylum seekers are usually due to violence in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Sri Lanka, and have little to do with political policy. Read more on the Department of Immigration and Citizenship website here.

Afghan asylum seekers off the coast of WA
So, the argument is not that we don’t need border security. We do. We need a deterrent for the people smugglers, preying on the vulnerability and desperation of asylum seekers. But what lacks, in all the fear-mongering and lowest-common denominator appeal, is a sense of basic humanity. Aussies have often seemed anxious by the arrival of “others”, from the time of the gold rush, right until now. It’s not just the refugees: Tony Abbott is promising to cut net annual migration to 170,000 people a year. That’ll get them voting! As much as their plight may not personally affect us, it’s our duty as human beings to ask ourselves who these “boat people” are. How terribly unbearable must your life be, the persecution and horror you must be faced with, if you see spending weeks (or months) in a leaky, unstable boat heading to a country thousands of kilometres from your own under appalling conditions, as your only means of escape? Then once you arrive: detention, behind razor wire. I’m lucky. I was born in a free, democratic country, where I can go about my life unharmed and without persecution. I count my blessings every day for this, because it could have so easily been the other way around. Perhaps our future and current leaders might think about that, and employ a little perspective before scaring up the emotions of their constituents.

Article 14.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Even if they arrived on a boat.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.


  1. Yes! Thank you! It's always so exciting to read someone writing the truth.

    However, there is always one point that I come back to in the debate about asylum seekers. I agree that people smugglers take advantage of desperate people and a lot of the talk is about stopping people smugglers. They charge huge amounts (some of this is to pay bribes to officials) to send people on sometimes unseaworthy boats. We don't know how many boats sink on the way here. Yet if we are succesful in stopping people smugglers, how will people be able to flee. Often paying a people smuggler is the only possible way to get out of a country. Stop the people smugglers those attempting to flee may become trapped.

  2. Thank you!

    That's a really excellent point about the people smugglers, too.

  3. Nice to actually read some facts Amy! A lot seem to have become lost in this election campaign, especially the fact that Australia's future population growth and the asylum seeker issue really have nothing to do with each other.
    What annoys me the most about this whole issue is both parties are actually insulting the intelligence of most Australians by assuming we will vote based on their fear mongering surrounding asylum seekers. I know some might, but I'm hoping most voters haven't already forgotten the events of the 2001 election.

  4. I could not agree more Ames. I'm so sick of people missing the entire point of WHY people become boat people. I'm sure they would much rather have been born into a middle class white Australian family like the rest of the whingers in our country, but they weren't.

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