Turning down the heat?


GORDON PAYNE of Jenkin Street, South Fremantle, says it’s time to take the politics out of asylum seeker policy.

WITH the federal election behind us, it may be possible to have a less political, and more honest debate about the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

It is a difficult issue, and boat people have been demonised by the media and by the Liberals for political gain.

The Malaysian formula, for example, which would have returned 800 arrivals and deterred these desperate people, was rejected by Liberals in the Senate for opportunistic reasons (and the Greens for misguided reasons). While refugee advocates (and Greens) claim the moral high ground on this issue, is their policy of offering on-shore processing really more compassionate and humane than the alternatives? Is there any limit to the number of arrivals this policy would allow?


Most refugees are people who have fled war-torn areas and become displaced people in UN administered refugee camps. They don’t have wonderful living conditions, but they do have food and shelter. They are relatively safe.

Australia has contributed to this UN activity. Many want to go back to their countries when conditions allow, but many cannot. Some people, for example, in refugee camps in Jordan have been there for generations, unable to return to Israel.

The UNHCR processes claims for asylum and requests member countries take a quota of refugees for resettlement. Australia currently has an intake of 20,000, but this will drop to 13,000 under the Abbott government. We are number three in the world (behind the US and Canada) in per capita resettlement of refugees, and we should strive to maintain this humane record.

Some displaced people (and others still inside dangerous countries) seek to travel directly to Australia. Encouraged by previous successful attempts, they find some money, fly to Indonesia or Malaysia, where they are not persecuted, and can find a boat to get to Australia. Mostly this is all arranged by people smugglers. Many drown in the process, a rather inhumane finale for these desperate people.

But if they get to Australian territory, they can be processed immediately.

Those who remain in refugee camps and wait quietly for resettlement are ignored by refugee advocates in Australia. Young women, locked in gaols in Islamic countries to protect them from “honour” killings, are ignored by refugee advocates. Gay people in Iraq, Russia, Uganda and elsewhere, living in fear of their lives are also ignored. There is little compassion expended for people in these situations.

Processing asylum claims in Australia is necessarily slow and unreliable. Some boat arrivals may be criminals fleeing the law, others will have been fighters on the losing side. Most will be simply seeking a better life and willing to risk their life and the lives of their children to get to Australia. It is not humane to encourage these people.

It is also worth considering why we have refugees in the world.

Australia has followed the US into Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq with devastating consequences and huge flows of refugees have followed. More than one million Christians have fled Iraq. In other conflicts, ethnic and religious differences turn violent. The overthrow of a dictator such as Gaddafi can mean his supporters must flee or face persecution. There are now more than 40 million displaced people in the world. A new category of refugee may soon be among us: Those fleeing rising sea levels and devastating storms, as climate change intensifies.

Many conflicts arise from a shortage of resources such as arable land and water as the over-populated world grows even bigger. All these problems are human-made, and therefore can be solved by us, given the right policies, a greater effort and some time.


Some account must also be taken of the opinions of ordinary Australians. Though they may be somewhat misled by the political process, many feel that boat people have developed a “backdoor” migration route, and that they are mostly economic migrants. They believe there is a limit to our compassion. They also believe the criteria for accepting asylum seekers are too generous. All nations have the right to control their borders and very few Australians would advocate open borders.

Refugee camps exist all around the world, a humane response to persecution and war elsewhere in the world. They should be set up near conflict areas, to allow people safe passage. Not all displaced people want resettlement, and those who do must be assessed as genuine. Australia has a role to play in this process. Those who encourage displaced people to attempt a dangerous voyage to Australia have no monopoly on generosity or compassion.

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