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The land of fair go or no go?

Turning back the boats containing asylum seekers is not the way to help refugees, writes Kate Walton.

Australian Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott believes he’s found the solution to Australia’s asylum seeker woes. Abbott, only months into his new gig, recently stated that Australia must come to terms with the reality of the situation and “be prepared to turn the boats around”.

Needless to say, this is an even more extreme position than anything we’ve witnessed recently, even during the reign of former Prime Minister John Howard. At least current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vaguely attempted to appear somewhat concerned about the plight of refugees by abolishing mandatory detention, albeit before adopting a “tough but humane” stance that seems rather heavy on toughness and light on the humanity. 

60 boats carrying asylum seekers entered Australian waters last year. The boats, which held more than 2,700 people, became one of the most heated political debates of 2009.

However, to put things into perspective, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that at the beginning of 2009, there were 10.5 million refugees around the world. Additionally, a further 4.7 million registered Palestinian refugees were being looked after in camps in the Middle East. More than half of the world’s refugees are located in Asia; another 20% are situated in Africa. On top of this, there are more than 26 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) trapped within their own countries. IDPs are essentially would-be refugees who are unable to cross a recognised border into another country. 

Australia receives only a tiny proportion of the total number of asylum claims registered worldwide. At the beginning of 2009, there were 838,000 “asylum seekers of concern” to the UNHCR. Most of these applications are lodged in Europe. Italy alone became the landing zone for almost 37,000 asylum seekers in 2008, and has now established a detention centre on the island of Lampedusa, similar to Australia’s current usage of Christmas Island. 

Despite its tough stance on asylum seekers arriving by boat, the Australian government is rather relaxed about immigration in general. In fact, in 2008/09, the government actually increased its settler intake to 158,000, up from 149,000 in 2007/08. Add to this the 50,000-odd travellers who overstay their visas, and 2,700 asylum seekers seem like barely a drop in the ocean. 

So why is the Australian government so hard on boat people? Why does it believe that being tough on asylum seekers is what the Australian people want? And why is it a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees if it does not want to live up to its stated commitments? 

The vast majority of people arriving in Australia by boat are not a threat. These people are not terrorists, despite what MP Wilson Tuckey would have us believe. Nor are these people warlords, Islamists, pirates, drug dealers, paedophiles, rapists, or any other sort of ‘bad person’ that one might legitimately have a beef with. Importantly, they are not “queue jumpers” either – there is no queue.

Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are able to be resettled by the UNHCR every year; Australia has a total intake of just 10,000 refugees annually. Refugees could spend their whole lives waiting to be resettled if they relied solely on the UNHCR. 

Most asylum seekers are just ordinary people faced with extraordinary situations. War, forced displacement, famine, violence, and political oppression, just to name a few. Almost all are legitimate refugees. Those who are not, will not be granted refugee status and will be sent home. Those who are, will settle in Australia and start their new lives. 

For most refugees, resettlement is their only option. They are often unable to return to their home country and cannot remain in the country they escaped to. This means that resettlement in a third country is the only viable solution. For example, many refugees currently seeking asylum in Australia originated in Sri Lanka, a war-torn, poverty-stricken country uninterested in assisting its oppressed Tamil population.

Due to their ethnicity, these Tamils are unable to remain in Sri Lanka for fear of persecution; this causes them to flee the country, with many arriving in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia. Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and thus does not have any legal obligation to resettle refugees.

This means that refugees have no way of living in Indonesia except as illegal immigrants, which in turn leads to further desperation and to their coming to Australia by boat in order to seek asylum. 

It’s hard to believe, but the Australian government hasn’t always behaved in as despicable a manner as it has recently. The Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser accepted around 100,000 refugees fleeing Vietnam after the Communist government of the North reunified the country in 1975. And it would be seen as highly unusual these days, but Fraser’s plan faced no political opposition. 

Fraser himself recently rubbished the political game-playing of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. He branded Abbott’s proposal of turning the boats around as a 1930s, Pauline Hanson-esque, “impractical, inhumane approach”, and said that “Politicians would be surprised how much support a political party would get if it truly stated the case for asylum seekers and explained the circumstances which they are fleeing.” 

We haven’t quite reached the point where we begin charging refugees for their own detention costs (hello, 1992 Federal Labor), but we’re not far from it. Rudd’s policy, while a slight improvement on John Howard’s, is anything but humane; Abbott’s proposed stance, on the other hand, is a good number of steps backwards. It is not only illegal, but impractical, inhumane, and un-Christian, a point to which Abbott is otherwise particularly receptive. 

Both the Federal Government and Opposition would do well to take a good, hard look at their stances on asylum seekers. Australia should have long ago moved on from this sort of behaviour; we should have chucked these policies along with White Australia and Pauline Hanson. Being tough on asylum seekers is, to use an oft-favoured word of old, un-Australian. For who are we, if not the children of immigrants, convicts, and refugees?

Kate Walton is a 22-year-old former student who has just begun working in her first 'real' job at the Australian National University. She spent most of last year writing her Honours thesis on the reproductive rights of young women in post-Suharto Indonesia. Kate is an aspiring documentary photographer, writer and journalist, among other things. She blogs here and Twitters here.

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