I was listening to Julia Gillard being interviewed today, and in the facxe of the awful loss of life at Christmas Island yesterday, something struck me. Over the last fifteen or twenty years, no matter which Government has been in power at the time, every single Opposition has screeched the same thing at them, along the lines of “what are you going to do to stop the flood of asylum seekers, your policies are attracting them.”
In 1990 I befriended newly accepted immigrants who had been “illegal” detainees. And they told me they had only the vagueist idea what country they were coming to – there were passionately interested in getting out of a given country, not going to a given country. They handed over their family jewellery in lieu of money, and got on the boat. While at sea, they and the other passengers were told that they wouldn’t be going to Canada after all (their original destination), but they would be going to “England”. When they disembarked, they found themselves in Australia.
They didn’t much care – they weren’t in imminent danger of being murdered an any of those three countries, as they had been in their homeland.
I have spoken since, and seen documentaries since, on illegal immigration, and one thing is astonishingly clear.
Australia is not a shining destination that everyone is desperate to come to.
No, asylum-seekers are passionately interested in escaping intolerable situations and the likely prospect of torture and death, not looking for the best possible destination to go to. Any destination will do. Any destination at all.
And if any destination will do, all we are doing by toughening up laws against and penalties for illegal immigration is this: we are taking people who have already been significantly traumatised by whatever horrors impelled them to leave their beloved homes and families behind, and we are further punishing them for that trauma, when they probably didn’t know much about Australia at all, let alone had any idea of its immigration laws.
The people-smugglers are never going to stop – one country or another, they are just interested in making money and perhaps if they are slightly altruistic, helping people escape death and misery. The asylum-seekers are never going to stop, not while there are oppressive and violent regimes. Nor will they consciously choose Australia over other destinations or choose other destinations over Australia for political reasons or because of a change of a law. They will get on whichever boat they can, and go wherever they can to escape and remain alive a little longer.
Our policy changes will make no difference at all. They haven’t in the past and they won’t in the future.
The only thing that will make a difference, is the removal of cruel government in their original countries.