“Tough on asylum seekers”

It appears that both sides of Australian politics want to appear “tough on asylum seekers”. I’m astonished that such abhorrent rhetoric is seen as a positive way to garner support. Is it really worth pandering to people who want to draw a hard line against victims of persecution?

What’s next? Are we going to expect our politicians to be tough on victims of crime or systematic abuse?

There is a lot of misinformation regarding asylum seekers in Australia. I’ll cover some of that later, but for now I’ll just note that (by definition) asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants. Australia is a signatory to the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, meaning that all people have the right to seek asylum in Australia.

The Refugee Convention

The Refugee Convention reflects a time when the world was responding to the horrors of war with collective humanity. Here are some key articles of the convention that I feel Australia is failing to adequately satisfy:

Article 3
The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.

Enforcement of Australian immigration policy focuses on mandatory detention of boat people, which tend to come from Asia. Moreover, the Australian government is refusing to process the refugee claims from Sri Lankan and Afghan nationals.

Article 21
As regards housing, the Contracting States, in so far as the matter is regulated by laws or regulations or is subject to the control of public authorities, shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances.

Living conditions in detention centres are generally regarded as poor. Moreover, I doubt that refugees are treated as favourably as tourists who have overstayed their working holiday visas (whom I assume are not immediately sent to detention centres on remote islands).

Article 26
Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances.

They aren’t going anywhere while in detention centres, and my understanding is that they may be relocated to regional areas when they are granted residency (although this point is conjecture).

Article 31

1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

Mandatory detention seems like a pretty serious penalty. Having to pay back the government for some of the costs for your detention represents a further penalty.

Myths and misinformation

Stateline WA recently ran a report entitled “Dispelling myths about asylum seekers” which drew upon Murdoch University research by Sue Hoffman and Dr Anne Pedersen. I’ve collected a few facts here (also drawing from the asylum seeker factsheet from Australia political action group GetUp!).

Facts on asylum seekers:

  • Australia is not being swamped by “boat people”; Over 90% of illegal immigrants arrive via plane.
  • Australia does not take more than its “fair share” of refugees; Australia has a relatively low intake (around 15x less than the UK and 30x less than Germany).
  • Most boat people are not illegal immigrants; Over 90% of unauthorised boat arrivals are genuine refugees.
  • Boat people are not simply “queue jumpers”; They are usually refugees who have had to employ the help of smugglers in order to escape persecution.
  • Refugees can’t stay in Indonesia or Malaysia because they are not recognised there; In our region, Australia and New Zealand are the only signatories to the Refugee Convention.
  • Most refugees are not “aiming” for Australia. They are mostly just trying to escape from their country of origin.

The Stateline report noted that myths about asylum seekers are particularly concerning because there is a strong link between false beliefs and negative attitudes.

I would hope that political leaders would seek to inform the public through a process of: research, dissemination of information, debate, and rational decision-making. Rather than that, the two major parties in Australia simply want to win elections by capitalising on misconceptions and fears.

It’s a shame that both major parties in Australia appear to have decided that real leadership is either too difficult or simply not worthwhile.

One thought on ““Tough on asylum seekers””

  1. All very true. They’re a soft target though, and sadly paranoia always wins votes. Australia officially still had the White Australia Policy in my lifetime http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Australia_policy . It really saddens me that after making real progress on the issue with Keating (who constantly pointed out that Australia is geographically part of Asia, so why not focus on Asia for trade), since then we’ve just gone backwards.

    Can we really just blame politicians though? They need to get elected, so they have to follow public opinion. They have far less opportunity to actually lead public opinion than the media do, or large companies for that matter.

    I’ve said it before – we get the government we deserve. People voted for Howard AFTER he knowingly lied about boat people throwing their kids overboard. In that case, I blame the voters even more than I blame him.

    Big ups to you for doing your bit to get the facts out there, along with Stateline. I keep hoping that economic forces will gradually evolve Australia to become less isolationist, but I’m not hugely optimistic.

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