Boat People – it’s not a one dimensional issue

The recent tragedy on Christmas Island is beyond words. My sympathies are with the families who are mourning those who did not survive. This post is written because of what has been said since they arrived and their boat disintegrated with some dying and others surviving heavily traumatised, and in a very small way I hope that some people read it and realise that kicking the boat people football is a very bad game.

Unsurprisingly, the recent tragedy has brought out the usual political pundits, kicking the ball all over the place, blaming the Government for the tragedy (both the executive and the legislative arms) and suggesting that as the Labour Government overturned the previous Liberal Government’s Pacific Solution, that they’re responsible for boats arriving to Australia, and that Customs, AFP, Immigration and/or Defence should have known that the boat was nearby (despite the weather and sea playing interference with radar, and the sheer size of territory they’re responsible for monitoring – press release via another website here).

Let’s start with the latter point because it’s fairly simple to address – and I’ve pretty much done so with the fact that a small wooden boat, in high (near monsoonal) seas is going to be hard to spot.  Let’s not also Public Service bash, which is nice and easy with a big conglomerate of faceless individuals, but as a former Immigration staffer, I can tell you that most Public Servants I worked with were left leaning, compassionate and dedicated human beings.  The type of people you’d actually want making the tough decisions that get made.

Ok… so Government/Prime Minister bashing.  Politicians are a whole different species to Public Servants, so feel free to bash them with inpunity, but make sure you actually have some fucking idea (yes, I’m looking at you Andrew Bolt) of what you are talking about.  Boat people arrival is not a one dimensional pull factor thing.  Just because the Pacific solution was overturned by the newly elected Labour Government (an election promise that they kept), doesn’t necessarily equate with the increased number of boat arrivals.  That’s like being in a 3D environment and describing a dot, and nothing else.

The Pacific Solution was introduced at the end of 2001 after the commercial vessel, The Tampa, rescued a boat load of asylum seekers (August 2001), and the Australian Government decided that being arsehats was WAY more fun than doing the right thing.  Also about the same time (October 2001), the Children Overboard Affair (as it has now been named) happened, and the Government were arsehats then too (which actually made my mother, a long time Liberal voter stop voting for them).  The Pacific solution was credited to dramatically dropping the number of boat arrivals in Australia – but let’s look at what else was happening on the world stage at that time.

September 2001 – On the 11th of September, the World Trade and the Pentagon were hit with hijacked planes, sparking the invasion of Afghanistan as the seat of the Taliban who were protecting Al-Qaeda.  Afghanistan was (and still is) where many asylum seekers come from (and Iran, Pakistan and many other nations).  DIAC (or DIMIA/DIMA – whatever it was called then) suspended processing of Afghan nationals while waiting to see what the invasion of Afghanistan would result in.  Many went home, some voluntarily, some with incentives, because they hoped that life would be better now that their main persecutors had gone – sadly this wasn’t the case – but at the time there was optimism that it would be – this had an effect on the number of Afghans attempting to enter Australia.

In March 2003, the US, along with the “Coalition of the Willing“, invaded Iraq (for completely spurious reasons), dramatically changing the political and social environment.  Many Iraqis returned home, hoping that the new political and social landscape would provide opportunities and again that their main persecutors (the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein’s regime) was no more.  This had an effect on the number of Iraqis attempting to enter Australia.

The third main group of boat arrivals are from Sri Lanka.  Mostly Tamil, but with some Sinhalese and Muslims (an identified separate ethnic group) amongst them, they fled persecution in Sri Lanka from the Government, political opponents, and/or the LTTE. The Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE agreed on a ceasefire between December 2001 and limited hostilities resumed in 2005.  Again, with a ceasefire in place, and the genuine (initially) hope for peace those who may have made their way to Australia were potentially less likely to do so because of hope.

Yes, the lack of guaranteed entry to Australia, and the potential for a long sojourn on an island with limited access to health facilities, education, anything, would make Australia far less attractive as an asylum nation, and although people smugglers don’t actually care one way or the other about their cargo, business would have dried up.

Why do people make the long and dangerous journey to Australia?  They may have family here, believe that it will be much much safer than their home country, want out to anywhere in the world and the first smuggler (there are networks) links them into a chain that has them end up in boats in Australian waters (if they’re lucky).  Those who make the journey to Australia are lied to about how they’ll get here (which shouldn’t come as a surprise).  They spend all their money, or borrow money from others to attempt to make the journey here – which means that whoever arrives has to both support their family at home until they can travel to Australia AND pay off the debt that their flight incurred.  They may fly from their home country to Malaysia or Indonesia, but after that they’re often confined to hotel rooms or villas for days at a time, before being put upon rickety and certainly not ocean worthy boats.

There is hope that the trials that travelling to Australia* will entail will be insignificant once they reach the land of the free, that Australia will provide them with opportunities that do not exist in their country, and that they will be safe from persecution on the basis of their race, religion, political opinion, particular social group or nationality.

It’s hard to imagine the fear and desperation that drives people to undertake such risk in fleeing their home country to seek asylum in another.  It’s also hard for most Australians to seem to be able to understand that countries of first asylum do not have the capacity to manage the refugees already residing there let alone any further burdens.  Australia, really, sees next to no asylum seekers compared to other countries.  Our public tantrums about this are really embarrassing, and I’d like them to stop now.  We are not being flooded with “queue jumpers”, and we’re not being flooded by terrorists (there really haven’t been very many adverse security referrals from ASIO – and no terrorist attacks or attempted attacks on Australian soil by former boat arrivals).  Offering asylum to our fellow humans and being compassionate and understanding is a much better action than reacting with fear, hate and racism to those you don’t understand.

* or any asylum country – I have spoken to asylum seekers and asked why Australia, to be told that they just asked the smuggler to take them somewhere safe, and it happened to be Australia

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