The Asylum Seeker Problem

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.

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2 Responses to The Asylum Seeker Problem

  1. Quiet says:

    Well, no. The cruel approach of not providing any assistance (cf. John Howard) would work. The boats would stop if they were not allowed to land. A few more deaths would occur in that process, however.

    I think that Australia has enough room for more refugees. Australia is up there with the US and Canada in the number of refugees we actually do accept. we are in the top three in the world, I think. Last I heard Australia takes 12000 refugees a year through legitimate channels. The US takes more than 60,000 per year.

    We actually have greater numbers of people who overstay visas or successfully try other shonky forms of entry than refugees. These are the poepl we should be annoyed about.

    That is why I was not all that concerned when the Government made it harder for overseas students to study at those fake colleges which were just first stage stop offs for people who wanted to gain permanent residency. Most of those were Indian students incidentally. They were not refugees.

    I don’t think that the Government has been all that good at presenting the whole story of how refugees and immigrants can come to Australia. The boat stories are hugely emotive and result in a lot of Government spin and media hyperbole.

    I don’t think that your suggestion that people don’t know or care that they are coming to Australia is all that accurate, however. Maybe the desire to leave a threatening or extremely disadvantaged country is universal but I do think that most people know they are coming to Australia when they wait to set out on the boats. Unfortunately the governments of problematic countries are unlikely to be replaced any time soon.

    Earlier this year I met a Somalian woman who had spent 14 years in refugee camps in Africa before she was able to come to Australia. By that time she had six children. The bravery and endurance of that woman moved me deeply. Her two oldest sons are now doing engineering at a Melbourne university. She has learned English a little and hopes to study at TAFE and then University. I think that most refugees and immigrants are hugely aspirational and end up doing really well here.

    My own maternal ancestors were very poor and came here from the UK for a better life in the 19th century. As Geoffrey Blamey said, we are a nation of immigrants and most times we do have open arms for newcomers.

  2. nisaba000 says:

    And yes, as the child of an immigrant I have seen in my own family immigrants trying really hard to be successful and gratefully pay back a country that received them. Which makes our current stance in some respects more than a little churlish.

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