Australians are unfortunately used to headlines that another ‘boatload of asylum seekers’ has called for help near Christmas Island. All too frequently the Australian Navy is called upon to rescue people from boats that were not seaworthy enough to make the journey from a port in Indonesia, Sri Lanka or another location to the north of Christmas Island.
Enough printer’s ink to fill Sydney Harbour, and hundreds of millions of electrons, have been used in the past twenty years to ‘explain’ (read justify) positions in relation to asylum seekers. If you want to discover the actual and legal position on ‘irregular arrivals into any country’, you could begin with the Refugee Council of Australia’s website
. The Refugee Council of Australia offers the following definition of a refugee – from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – to which Australia is a signatory:
Any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.
Like a lot of Australians I was saddened but not surprised at the loss of human life when the media reported during October this year that another boatload carrying asylum seekers had sunk – and it was estimated that 345 of the passengers on the ship had drowned. What I wasn’t expecting was the mention of the location of the incident – Lampedusa. I have a reasonable knowledge of Australian geography and my first question was ‘Where on earth is Lampedusa?’, given that the narrative widely promoted within Australia for a number of years described asylum seeker boats as a purely Australian/South-East Asian problem. I was curious when I found out that Lampedusa is, in fact, in Italy – and the asylum seekers were from northern Africa.
It was reported widely in Australia, as in Guardian Australia
on the 10th October, that those that drowned at Lampedusa were to be given a state funeral by the Italian Government. When the Italian Government later determined that those who lost their lives would receive a memorial service rather than the state funeral promised by the Italian Prime Minister, criticism came from a number of influential parties, including the Mayor of Lampedusa
. Guardian Australia
also reported that:
This year more than 30,000 migrants have sailed to Italy, of whom 7,500 were Syrians fleeing their civil war, 7,500 Eritreans escaping a brutal regime and 3,000 avoiding violence in Somalia.
By contrast, Operation Sovereign Borders Acting Commander, Air Marshal Mark Binskin announced the same week
For the October 4-11 reporting period, a total of 111 people were transferred to the offshore processing centres on Nauru.
Since the new government's Operation Sovereign Borders began three weeks ago, a total of 215 arrivals have been transferred to the centres, including Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
As of Friday, there were 1059 detainees on Manus, 800 on Nauru and 2176 on Christmas Island.
Let’s compare those numbers. Up to 345 people died at Lampedusa while 111 people in total
arrived in Australia in the same week. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)
gives a detailed listing of asylum seeker numbers, globally, in an Excel spreadsheet.
Australians have often been described as living in a land where ‘everyone is equal’ and ‘where Jack is as good as his master’ and in a society ‘where anyone will help out a mate’. There is some evidence to support this mantra; for example:
- In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 flooding throughout Queensland, a number of cities and towns were overwhelmed with volunteers willing to help those less well-off get back on their feet. Brisbane City Council provided a fleet of buses to transport the ‘mud army’, consisting of thousands of people, across the city to areas of need.
- Every SES person on the ground from Byron Bay to Port Headland is a volunteer, as are those members of service clubs such as Apex or Lions. They all make a magnificent effort to help out a mate who needs it, in some form or other, every year.
Australia is supposed to be a Christian country. Our current Prime Minister is a self-confessed practising Roman Catholic – and commenced training to be a Jesuit priest. His immediate predecessor was frequently shown on the Sunday news bulletins leaving an Anglican church. There is a paragraph in the bible that can be paraphrased as ‘do unto others as they do to you’. There are similar sentiments in the holy book of Islam, The Koran, and in Buddhism.
Despite this tenet of faith, and the claims of being a ‘Christian’ country, Australians frequently make the following statements:
1. People who arrive here and claim refugee status are taking our jobs.
The evidence would suggest not, as the unemployment rate in Australia has been sitting at under 10% since the days when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. In fact, the entire argument for the resettlement of refugees from Europe, post World War II, was to expand the country and its economy.
In Italy, for example, towns are welcoming the chance to be revitalised by the settlement of asylum seekers seeking refugee status
2. People who arrive here and claim refugee status can claim more benefits than ‘ordinary Aussies’.
The Refugee Council of Australia states:
A refugee who has permanent residency in Australia receives exactly the same social security benefits as any Australian resident in the same circumstances. Refugees apply for social security through Centrelink like everyone else and are assessed for the different payment options in the same way as everyone else. There are no separate Centrelink allowances that one can receive simply by virtue of being a refugee.
3. Asylum seekers are queue jumpers or ‘illegal immigrants’.
Under the UN Convention, you cannot apply for refugee status from your own country. Refugee camps also work on a needs basis – rather than a formal queue.
Illegal immigrants are those that enter legally and overstay their Visa – there were in excess of 60,000 people in this group in the end of 2011, according to the Herald Sun
, and the report suggests the number is climbing. By contrast, at the beginning of October 2013, slightly over 4,000 people are in asylum seeker camps established by the Australian Government.
Australians raise these kinds of questions regarding refugees. Italians criticise their government for not providing state funerals, although attempting to provide assistance and support to those that survive. Why is there such a difference in attitude between the Italians and the Australians?
According to UNHCR, Italy had 17,352 people request asylum in 2012; Australia had 15,996. Remembering that you do not have to claim asylum in the first country you come to, the EU had 358,285 people claim asylum in 2012; our region (Australia and New Zealand) had 16,320. Italy offers state funerals to a large number of victims of a ship sinking – Australia makes pregnant asylum seekers give birth in sub-standard conditions
, something criticised by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians
Various Australian politicians have suggested ‘tough’ asylum seeker policies will stop people getting on unsafe boats and subsequently dying at sea. In Europe, they are asking why people get onto unsafe boats.
You may be surprised to know that even the ultra-conservative Fox News in the US reports
European asylum seeker boats that sink sympathetically and apparently has done so for some time; until recently, our media hasn’t.
While the Europeans are discussing ways to ensure people don’t have to get onto unseaworthy boats, we are not. Australian politicians, and sadly a significant proportion of the Australian public, seem to believe that being ‘tough’ on asylum seekers who arrive here will help people accept what may be draconian living conditions in their home country – which is clearly a fallacy. This is treating the symptom rather than the root cause. It could be compared with attempting to turn off a dripping tap with greater force (symptom) rather than replacing the washer (root cause).
The previous and current Australian Governments both claim to take the high moral ground on a number of issues with self-confessed practising Christians as the last two respective Prime Ministers. When the Italians who receive a higher number of asylum seekers per annum than we do are so upset about the unnecessary death of over 300 people – as they should be – what is this country’s excuse for using asylum seekers as a ‘tough on crime’ issue in a similar way to how various state governments are using ‘outlaw’ motor bike groups? What happened to ‘do unto others’?
How does our treatment of asylum seekers in the 21st century demonstrate the fabled ‘help a mate’ attitude of Australians?
Why are immigrants to Australia victimised when we are all descended from immigrants?
Why are asylum seekers a domestic political issue?
Probably the saddest thing about this issue is that so-called Christian politicians, who claim to value human life, are so blinded by the domestic political opportunity they forget a fundamental belief they claim to live their lives by – ‘do unto others as you wish them to do to you’ – and have convinced a significant proportion of the population of the merits of the case. What do you think?