In all the kerfuffle and mud-slinging about exactly which tiny developing nation should host a detention centre for processing asylum seekers who come by boat, quite a few issues are being effectively obscured. Now, I’m not going to suggest that this is deliberate. Despite the vicious rhetoric that flies back and forth between the major parties, I don’t really believe that there is an active, evil conspiracy at work here. As the saying goes, ‘never ascribe to conspiracy what can be effectively explained by incompetence’ – or in this case, simple blindness. It may be wilful blindness, but nonetheless, it really seems as though there is an actual inability to consider some things.
Think about the assumptions that are at work here.
1. Asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat must be prevented from reaching our migration zone.
2. Any who do manage to survive the dangerous trip from Indonesia need to be detained in an offshore facility until their claims are processed.
These assumptions go largely unchallenged (although, to their credit, the Greens have consistently attempted to bring them into question). Even as Prime Minister Gillard acknowledges how few people attempt to seek asylum in Australia via boat, she reaffirms that detention is necessary, and offshore detention is actually desirable. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott goes even further, seeking to effectively remove any hope of asylum and resettlement with the new Coalition policy announced last week. There are few questions coming from the media, either. Most reports never even raise the issue. The argument is not about whether these things should be implemented, but about the details of how they will happen.
What’s worse is that no good reasons are ever given to justify these stances. Most commonly, the ‘queue-jumper’ argument is used as a catch-all rationalisation. Those who come by boat are taking the places that should go to ‘genuine’ refugees, and so they need to be punished. That will deter others from trying the same approach. Asylum seekers are effectively branded as cheats, selfishly spending huge amounts of money rather than wait their turn. Going even further, some argue that this shows that they are not ‘real’ refugees at all, but so-called ‘economic’ refugees who are just trying to migrate to a country with more opportunities to make money. And look at how much money it takes to get here – if they’ve got so much money, why can’t they just do the ‘right’ thing?
In reality, the majority of people who attempt to come by boat are fleeing countries without an embassy or consulate. In some cases, these countries have strict penalties for those who attempt to leave – including capital punishment. People are forced to undertake dangerous journeys to get to a country that has such facilities. The argument has been made that perhaps they should just seek to enter Pakistan or another nearby country, and join the ‘queue’ there. Such statements betray a lack of knowledge about geographical and political issues. Paradoxically, it can actually be safer to reach Indonesia and strike out for Australia, than to attempt to get to a closer country.
The idea that asylum seekers are wealthy completely ignores an appalling fact. People fleeing for their lives will do anything to keep themselves and their families safe. They will sell every possession they have. They will borrow money from anyone who will lend it to them – and given their situation, this often means placing themselves in debt to organised crime groups. Finally, some people smugglers will offer to take people for a lesser fee – provided they enter into an agreement to pay their debt once resettled. Again, this usually has criminal ties, and people may effectively find themselves bound into indentured servitude.
Occasionally one or both sides will play the ‘humanitarian’ card, arguing that everything possible should be done to deter people from making the risky voyage. This usually goes hand-in-hand with the idea of taking a ‘strong stance’ against people smuggling. By making it harder to reach Australia by boat, people will be less attracted to the ‘product’ that people smugglers are selling, driving them out of business.
Apart from the hideously comic idea of attempting to solve an ongoing human crisis by appeal to market forces, this argument is frankly ridiculous. Asylum seekers are desperate people who need to escape, and they will take whatever means are available to them to do so. They will sell themselves into hock, risk their lives on unseaworthy boats, and suffer through detention and processing. There is no deterrence factor at work here – and even if there is, all that these punitive measures actually achieve is to place asylum seekers in an untenable position; stay, and risk imprisonment, persecution or death, or go and risk debt, imprisonment or death. There is nothing humanitarian about turning back boats, detention or Temporary Protection Visas. The only people being punished are the very ones who are seeking help.
Neither of these arguments answer the basic question: why must asylum seekers be prevented from reaching Australia? The Opposition’s rhetoric has been almost hysterical – there is an ‘armada’ of boats, a ‘tsunami’ of asylum seekers, or a ‘peaceful invasion’. All their language is designed to portray an imminent threat to Australia. Their most recent television ads showed huge red arrows barrelling towards the country, evoking those animations beloved of old war movies that show the inexorable march of the dreaded enemy forces. Recently, these ads have disappeared, but they left their mark on the Australian psyche.
But what might actually happen if asylum seekers did get here? To answer that question all we really have to do is look at our own history. Have we unwittingly let terrorists into the country, who have wreaked havoc? No. Have we seen Australians robbed of their jobs? No. Have asylum seekers become a huge drain on the welfare system, plunging the country into debt. No. What we see, over and over, are asylum seekers being granted refugee status, taking their place in Australian society, working hard and building strong ties with their local communities.
If they are not dangerous, why are both major parties so keen to have them processed offshore? The short ugly answer is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Geographical isolation is very effective in removing the issue from public scrutiny. Media would need to make international trips to report on the situation, or liaise with local organisations – and we saw during the Pacific Solution how difficult this proved to be, once the government agreed to restrict access. Most of us learn about asylum seekers through the media – once that channel is narrowed, or even closed, we will have only politicians to tell us what is actually going on.
But maybe I’m seeing too much conscious thought at work here. Maybe it’s even simpler than that. Maybe what is at work here is simple xenophobia. Circle the wagons, protect the women and children, the boat people are coming! They might be terrorists! They can’t be trusted! They’re not like us! Up and down the country, the language of fear and hatred is pervasive.
What are we all so afraid of?
The Greens have been arguing for years for a compassionate view of the asylum seeker issue. Over and over again they have said there is nothing to fear from people who come by boats. We take very few refugees compared with other countries – we rank 47th in the world based on numbers, 68th per capita and 77th based on wealth – yet we are implementing ever more punitive policies against them. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has said that Australia, as a nation committed to the idea of ‘a fair go and justice’, should be doing more, not less, to help. We have the resources to do so, she said.
It’s a strong, consistent position, argued with solid figures and a great deal of passion. But is it reaching anyone but their own supporters? Looking around, you’d have to say it’s not. And until people – and politicians – can be forced to declare just why they are so afraid of desperate people in boats, I’m afraid it will stay that way. As long as the xenophobia is buried under vagueness, and allowed to escape rigorous examination, there is little possibility that it can be effectively refuted.
We Australians don’t want to think of ourselves as racist, or unfair, or anything but decent people. We should confront our own fears unflinchingly, drag them out into the light of rational argument and start looking at the real situation. Most importantly, and most urgently, we should start seeing asylum seekers as fellow human beings who need our help.