Busting the asylum seeker myths

August 15, 2012

Some of the most shameful debate in the history of Australian politics is taking place right now. Over 40 Coalition speakers rise, one after the other, to gloat about the Gillard government’s decision to cave in and re-open Nauru and Manus Island as asylum seeker detention centres. Oh, wait, sorry, they’re ‘processing centres’ now. That makes all the difference.

These dreadful speeches are replete with smugness, scorn and electioneering – but the worst, and most dangerous aspects are the lies. Every single speaker is lying, without shame and without consequences. Parliamentary privilege protects them. They can say whatever they like, and get away with it.

You know what? I don’t think they should get away with it. I think they should be called to account – and since the mainstream media seems unwilling to do it (witness the complete failure to call Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his lies to the media yesterday), I guess it’s up to the rest of us.

So here goes. Let’s bust some myths.

Myth No. 1: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act.

It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in the country. The proper designation for those who come by boat is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’. The Coalition knows this. The media know this – the Press Council is very careful to urge its members not to criminalise asylum seekers.

In contrast, those who overstay their visas do commit an illegal act, and can be deported.

CONCLUSION: BUSTED.

Myth No. 2: Without offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas and turning boats around, we will be flooded with asylum seekers coming on boats.

This is a favourite argument of scaremongers and xenophobes. What it boils down to is:

Yet almost all asylum seekers who arrive by boat immediately declare their intentions and enter into the processing system. Visa overstayers, by contrast, often take great pains to hide their unlawful status and keep working. And just to drive the point home, boat-borne asylum seekers add up to around one-tenth of visa overstayers.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 3: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are simply wealthy ‘queue-jumpers’ who use their money to force ‘real’ refugees to wait even longer for resettlement.

The idea of an orderly ‘queue’, where saintly refugees wait patiently to be re-settled while selfish, cashed-up ‘illegals’ bully their way to the front is both pervasive and pernicious. For many asylum seekers, it is not a matter of simply turning up at a refugee camp halfway around the world and talking to the UNHCR. Often, there are no camps, or diplomatic representation, in or near their countries of origin – and thus, there is no queue.

If they do make it to a camp, the strain on the system is so great that they may wait up to a decade to be resettled – and all the while, they are displaced persons, often living in tents and dependent on foreign aid. And these camps are not always secure, either; it’s not unknown for armies or paramilitary groups to raid, looking for ‘dissidents’. Is it any wonder people fleeing for their lives would look to any means possible?

Oh, and one more thing – it was the former Howard government that decided to include boat-borne asylum seekers in our total refugee quota. They created the fiction of a queue.

As for the idea that only the rich (read: and therefore the undeserving) can afford to pay a people smuggler, the UNHCR has found that generally, asylum seekers only pay up to $A5000 – and often, whole families will pool their resources to find that sum.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 4: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat deliberately get rid of their passports so that they cannot be sent back to their country of origin.

There is simply no evidence to support this. Certainly, many asylum seekers arrive without identification papers, but this can be for many reasons. Firstly, someone fleeing persecution may have had their papers confiscated or destroyed to prevent them leaving by normal means. They may have lost papers if they needed rescue from a sinking ship. They may indeed have destroyed their own papers, because they fear being identified by those who seek to imprison or execute them. And there may be a small minority who want to ensure they can’t ever be sent back to risk a resurgence of the state of affairs that prompted them to leave in the first place.

Conclusion: PARTIALLY TRUE, BUT NOT NECESSARILY FOR THE REASONS THE COALITION SAY.

Myth No. 5: Denying family reunion under the special humanitarian programs will deter husbands and fathers from making the boat voyage.

This is one of the recommendations of the Houston panel – and for the life of me, I can’t see how they could come to this conclusion. Neither can Amnesty International and a dozen other refugee organisations. Special humanitarian family reunions were instituted precisely to prevent women and children risking the boat voyage. It resulted in the journey being undertaken primarily by men, although there are still significant numbers of women and children travelling.

Axing the family reunion program will have no deterrent effect whatsoever. It is far more likely to increase the numbers of whole families on boats, wanting to secure a safe haven for re-settlement together. It will not remove the impetus for people to seek asylum through whatever means possible, merely ensure that it endangers more people. Given the possibility of waiting a decade in a refugee camp, living in utter poverty, raising children in an unsafe location, and risking a single boat voyage to possible safety and a new life – families are likely to opt for the latter. It’s a terrible choice either way.

Conclusion: BUSTED FROM SHEER STUPIDITY.

Myth No. 6: Anyone who opposes offshore processing does not believe in the security of the nation-state and has no interest in keeping Australia ‘safe’.

This particular assertion was made by Bronwyn Bishop in Parliament today. According to her, those ‘on the Left’ have a vested interest in tearing down the concept of the nation-state, and opening the borders to anyone who wants to come here, regardless of their origins or intentions.

Apart from the patent absurdity of referring to anyone who opposes offshore processing as necessarily ‘Leftist’, this is cherry-picking to an amazing degree. Bishop quoted former Senator Bob Brown’s declaration that he would like to see a global consciousness of all people as ‘Earthlings’ as evidence that Leftists seek the destruction of sovereign states, when in fact that statement was made in context of urging global action on climate change. She also conveniently ignored the fact that many of Labor’s declared Left, including the outspoken Senator Doug Cameron, have accepted the recommendations made by the expert panel for offshore processing.

Then there’s the idea that offshore processing will somehow keep Australia safe. Bishop here is dog-whistling. That’s all. There’s no evidence to suggest that boat-borne asylum seekers are in any way

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 7: Offshore processing (preferably combined with TPVs and turning back boats) is the only way to stop the boats and break the people smugglers’ ‘business model’.

This is a particularly cunning idea. It sets up the proposition that the boats must be stopped, and challenges anyone to prove that there is a better way of doing this than via Coalition policy.

But take a step back. Why must the boats be stopped? The usual answer is that the voyage is dangerous – people smugglers tend to run a cut-rate operation, and little niggling details like seaworthiness are often overlooked. This much is true – but it begs the question. People only get on boats – and risk their lives – when they feel they have no other alternative.

So what are the alternatives? Increasing our humanitarian intake is one, and this was recommended by the Houston panel. Contributing more money to improving the efficiency and speed of asylum seeker processing is another – and if the government has funds to renovate Nauru and Manus Island, it has funds to contribute to this. Finally, there is the option of bringing asylum seekers directly to Australia via safe means, and processing them here. All of these would be far more likely to reduce the number of dangerous boat voyages and take profits from people smugglers.

As for the claim that these measures stop boats, it’s worth noting that the Pacific Solution did nothing of the kind. There were years when no boats arrived, but in the lead-up to the 2007 election, numbers jumped sharply and were on the rise again. This coincided with a resurgence of unrest in Afghanistan and Africa.

Conclusion: MISLEADING AND BUSTED.

I could go on – the claim that discarding the Pacific Solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border, that our naval vessels are suffering from metal fatigue because they’re being used to rescue asylum seekers – but really, these are the major points. These are the most vicious of the lies. This is what the Coalition says, and keeps saying, apparently operating under the theory that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth in people’s minds. This is the strategy of the parties that violated international maritime law with the Tampa, violated our obligations under UN treaties, subjected countless innocent people to shameful and damaging treatment, and continue to tell the world that they are ‘compassionate’ and ‘sensible’.

They are nothing of the kind – and they’ve successfully dragged the government down to their level. Not that it took much persuasion, in the end. Perhaps under Rudd it would have been different. We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this whole issue is surrounded by self-serving, disgusting lies. Those lies should be exposed for what they are, every time they’re uttered.

And apparently it’s up to us to do it, since (with few exceptions) our representatives won’t.

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Hard-headed AND hard-hearted

August 13, 2012

The expert panel appointed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to ‘fix’ Australia’s asylum seeker policy handed down its report today. There were 22 recommendations, which can be found here. They amount to a more draconian version of the Pacific Solution, with the worst of the current government’s policies thrown in.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the language. It’s all about ensuring there is ‘no advantage’ for asylum seekers, that they can gain ‘no benefit’. Houston took that one step further, implying that those who ‘choose’ to seek asylum via a boat voyage did so because it allowed them to ‘circumvent’ regular migrations arrangements.

So first up, we have the ‘queue-jumper’ argument. Those who arrive by boat and claim asylum are doing something ‘wrong’, which is unfair to those who sit in camps halfway around the world. That’s the foundation for the panel’s recommendations; that asylum seekers are selfish criminals. It doesn’t matter how much they dress it up with rhetoric about deaths at sea and protecting people from making dangerous voyages; once the queue-jumper argument is in play, real agendas become exposed.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the panel went on to recommend that the detention centre on Nauru be re-opened as soon as possible, and that another be established in Papua New Guinea (most likely, the refurbishment of the Manus Island facility). That’s what you do with criminals, right? You put them in detention, out of sight and (hopefully) out of mind.

To facilitate this, the panel suggested that the government introduce legislation to allow this offshore processing to take place – in other words, to close the loophole successfully exploited by human rights lawyer David Manne that put an end to the Malaysia people swap. And speaking of Malaysia, the panel said it wasn’t necessary to throw that away altogether. The solution, while currently unviable, can be rehabilitated with a little work.

So at this point we have the worst of the two major parties’ policies in an unholy marriage – the ridiculous, pointless, horrifying Malaysian people swap, and the proven inhumanity of the Pacific Solution. This panel – which apparently included a refugee advocate – recommends sending people to countries that are not signatories to UN conventions, and in the case of Nauru, into situations known to cause serious mental and physical harm.

But it gets worse.

You see, the panel determined there was a significant ‘pull’ factor. Boat-borne asylum seekers were likely to come to Australia because they could apply to bring their families over through the special humanitarian family reunion scheme. The solution, therefore, was to remove access to that scheme for any asylum seeker who came by sea. They’d have to go through the Migration program. Oh, and that includes anyone whose claims are currently in progress – that should stop right now.

Yeah, you read that right.

Not only did the panel again attempt to criminalise asylum seekers, they actually recommended something which is likely to result in more deaths at sea, not less. It’s common for a father or oldest male relative to make the journey, be processed and then apply to bring his family to his country of asylum, in order to spare them the risk. Certainly, it’s far more dangerous for a child to undertake the voyage than an adult. But as far as the panel is concerned, what’s ‘really’ going on is just an attempt to do an end run around our migration procedures. Never mind that these families live in constant fear while they wait to hear from their fathers. Never mind that this may be the only way a man can safeguard his family. The panel would have you believe that they’re just being unfair.

But of course, the ‘best’ thing to do would be to stop the boats altogether, right? That’s what we really want, surely? Houston was forced to admit that this just simply wasn’t feasible at the moment – but added that it could be . A little diplomacy here, the odd handshake there, and we can do it.

And just in case those pesky boat people do sneak through the net and make it to the Australian shore? The panel have a solution for that, too.

Remember when former Prime Minister John Howard decided to excise certain island territories from Australia’s migration zone, thus removing a number of legal protections under Australian law from asylum seekers? Well, the panel thinks we should standardise legal status – not to give people in the excised zones more rights, but to give those who land inside Australia’s migration zone less.

There were a couple of lines tacked onto the end dealing with the idea of beefing up our Search and Rescue capacity, and perhaps doing a bit more research, but that’s the gist of the report. Demonise them, keep them out if possible, and if we can’t, lock them up offshore (oh, I’m sorry, Houston doesn’t like the word ‘offshore’; he prefers ‘regional’) and do everything we can to ensure that their escape from persecution is as traumatic and xenophobic as possible. Oh, and the panel suggests that all their recommendations should be adopted, because they’re so wonderfully integrated. In other words, no naughty amendments to legislation, you bleeding hearts. Apparently this report is something like a Jenga tower, and would collapse if one little bit was moved.

These recommendations are the worst sort of dog-whistling, and the fact that Houston repeatedly described these decisions as ‘strategic’ only betrays the thinking behind them. Not ‘humanitarian’, not ‘compassionate’, not even ‘safe’. Strategic. Houston would have us believe that asylum seekers on boats are the enemy.

Asylum seekers are not the enemy. This ‘expert’ panel’s report is the enemy. It gives us no solutions, merely panders to the worst qualities in us, and seeks to wrap prejudice and expedience up in mealy-mouthed appeals to ‘fairness’.

In presenting the report, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston remarked that its recommendations were ‘hard-headed, but not hard-hearted’, ‘realistic but not idealistic’, and ‘driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness’.

I beg to differ, sir.

UPDATE:

Ron Knight, MP for Manus Province in the Papua New Guinea national parliament, told the ABC today that he doubted the disused detention facility could be easily restored. Even if it were, he said, the people were already worried that there would be no benefit to local business, as last time nearly everything was sourced from offshore. He went on to intimate that local landowners might prove an insurmountable obstacle, no matter what the government recommended.

Then there’s the Nauru facility, which is in a state of incredible disrepair. It hasn’t been maintained, and over the years, parts of the structures have been co-opted to use as government offices or even cannibalised by the locals for other buildings.

Keep that in mind next time you hear Gillard or Abbott say that by the end of the week, there’ll be full assessments done, and that within a matter of weeks those facilities can be working at capacity.


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