Wednesday, February 16, 2011

politicisation of asylum-seekers

Australia is a relative rich and peaceful country. Elsewhere in Asia there are many countries which are either poor or not peaceful for some inhabitants (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, etc). Migration to Australia, sometimes by the hazardous route of long sea voyages in often unsuitable boats, provides an option for a better life for many people. But it also provides a political and ethical problem for Australians.

Under UN conventions we have an obligation to provide a home for genuine refugees, and common humanity demands that we help people in need. But it isn't that simple. The number of asylum-seekers reaching Australia by boat is not large by world standards, is not a large percentage of either our planned refugee quota, or of all migrants or people who overstay their visa, and is not a major socio-economic issue issue, but these arrivals are nevertheless seen as a threat by many Australians. Some sections of the media have inflamed the situation so much that it is a major political issue in Australia, and is credited with the winning and losing of at least one national election.

While I as a christian would prefer to welcome everyone in such need, I recognise that, realistically, it is not that simple:

  • Not all arrivals are genuine refugees, and their status needs to be assessed.
  • We should be trying to discourage travel by such dangerous means. Some people say we should also try to discourage "people-smuggling", but one could equally characterise the boat owners as helping people in distress, so I am ambivalent about this. I suspect a lot of the discouragement is more aimed at protecting our high standard of living, even though that is not under threat unless there are many, many more arrivals.
  • The government rightly wishes to exercise its right to control entry to Australia. However the long periods of detention while claims are assessed seems inhumane and has led to suicides, psychological harm and despair among detainees.
  • The majority of Australians do not appear to share my views. Any political solution must be acceptable to the majority.

But matters recently came to a head with the loss of about 30 lives when a boat carrying asylum-seekers crashed on rocks on Christmas Island. In the last few days, funerals were held in Sydney for many of these, and the government flew some of their surviving relatives from Christmas Island detention to attend the funerals.

The Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison criticised this humanitarian gesture by the government, and the debate has gone downhill from there. Others criticised the government for returning the mourners to Christmas Island soon after the funerals, preferring they be allowed to stay in Sydney with relatives until their claims are assessed.

Obviously it's a complex issue, and I don't see any easy solutions. Most Australians would want to help, but most have limits. But I find it nothing short of disgusting when I find the poor people's often desperate situation used in such political ways; when misinformation tends to lead the debate; and when newspapers and shock jocks gloat when new boats arrive because it will further embarrass a government they think is too 'soft', despite all the detention.

I think both major parties should develop a common policy on the matter and de-politicise it. And I think we should be more welcoming, even as we retain control over the process. I'm not sure what is the best political solution, but I believe I know what Jesus would do.

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