In the last month the Australian government’s policy on asylum-seekers arriving by boat has hit international news. First they had to apologise when the Australian navy entered Indonesian waters. Then Prime Minister Abbott made the news by calling the Australian national broadcaster (ABC) ‘unpatriotic’ for its investigation into treatment of refugees. On Monday it came out that the Australian Human Rights Commission would conduct an inquiry into the mandatory detention of children of asylum-seekers when they arrive in Australia. This is obviously a big issue in Australia. So what exactly is this ‘issue’? What has changed in the last few months? And why is it of such importance to Australia?
These people arriving on boats are refugees, mainly from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Sri Lanka. This article describes some of the reasons they had for leaving; a civil-rights activist in Kabul who faces death threats, a man who illegally converted to Christianity in Iran, another who received threats after standing for election in Sri Lanka.
These people, often with their families, head in any way they can towards Indonesia. Why Indonesia? It’s the closest country to Australia these people are able to fly to. Since Australia is an island, they can’t show up at the border and request asylum, as in most other countries. A visa is required to board a plane heading to Australia. This leaves the only option of heading to Australia on a boat, often one that is falling apart. The plan would then be to request asylum when they arrive or get intercepted by the navy and taken to Australian. Throughout this process they are not alone, but are dealt with by people smugglers, who make plenty of money off these refugees.
The way that the government responds to this has been controversial for a long time. Australia is the only country in the world that has a policy of mandatory detention for asylum-seekers and their families. This means that the people arriving by boat are locked in detention camps while their request for asylum is considered. In every other country these people are issued a temporary visa. To make matters worse, they are often left to sit for months and even years in these camps while bureaucracy fails to get anywhere on their asylum request. At the moment my family has spent 4 months waiting for the government to renew our residency in the Netherlands, leaving us in legal limbo. It’s been extremely stressful, but at least we didn’t have to live in a prison camp while waiting.
Numerous Australian governments have tried to deal with the asylum-seekers by increasingly harsh methods. Under the Liberal (the more conservative party) government in the early 2000s asylum-seekers were sent to camps on the remote Pacific island of Nauru while their requests were considered. In 2007 the Labor (the less conservative party) closed the camps, but then reopened them in 2012 after the numbers of asylum-seekers increased. In 2013 the Labor Prime Minister announced plans to give the refugees asylum – in the third-world country of Papua New Guinea. Finally, after elections in 2013 the new Liberal Prime Minster Abbott announced that dealing with asylum-seekers was a military matter. The navy began towing boats back to Indonesia, and the government stopped releasing information on the subject. Since this new policy, no boats have arrived in Australia.
So why is this such an important issue in Australia? When you look at the numbers, Australia doesn’t actually receive a big proportion of asylum-seekers, only 3% of the world total. The problem is that the issue has become a political one. Both political parties use the issue to attack the other, and appeal to voters, turning into a bigger ‘problem’ than it is. This can be seen by the way the (Liberal) Immigration Minister responded to questions about children in detention:
“But the reason there are children in detention is because over 50,000 turned up on illegal boats on Labor’s watch so we’re dealing with Labor’s chaotic mess here,”
This shows that the real issue for the politicians is being able to show that the other party is ineffective. The refugees themselves aren’t so important.
Unfortunately, this sort of fear mongering by governments has happened again and again in Australia. It is a small (in population), mainly white nation in Asia, meaning it has always been easy for politicians to gain votes by appealing to people’s fear of being ‘swamped’. Talking about these people as ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘boat people’ is both incorrect, and dehumanising. However the actual numbers and nature of the asylum-seekers are made unimportant. Fear will win the votes every time. The country needs people, and especially politicians in government brave enough to stand up against the lies and fear. Given the state of Australian politics, that could take a long time.