On April 26, 1976, a leaky fishing boat chugged into Darwin Harbour carrying five asylum seekers from South Vietnam. Their original destination had been Guam, but they changed course after a chance encounter with an Aussie seafarer in Borneo who told them Australia was a “big country” with “friendly people.” After presenting themselves to authorities in Darwin, the crew was granted asylum and resettled in accordance with Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention.
Over the next quarter of a century, public opinion toward “boat people” ebbed and flowed as hundreds of half-starved Indo-Chinese annually turned up on Australia’s sunburned shores. But when a new and much larger wave of asylum seekers, predominantly from the Middle East, began arriving in 1999, attitudes hardened. Out of a fear the country would be “swamped,” draconian deterrents were put in place. These included indefinite detention in dusty outback camps and offshore processing in third-world backwaters that are breeding grounds for malaria and mental illness.
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Last week, newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the most hard-line measure of all: Australia would no longer accept any asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Instead, under a deal struck by Rudd, they will be sent to Papua New Guinea (PNG), an impoverished Pacific nation with a serious and much more unmanageable refugee problem of its own in the form of thousands of West Papuans who have fled conflict in the Indonesian-administered half of the island of New Guinea.
Having been landed in PNG, any Australia-bound asylum seekers will be processed and housed at Canberra’s cost. If they successfully obtain refugee status, they’ll be permanently settled in PNG, which, in return for its part of the deal, will get more aid and Australian expertise in areas like law and order, education and health. When viewed in the context of the countdown to the forthcoming federal election in which border security has proved to be a corrosive issue, Rudd’s deal is a masterful political stroke, because it decisively pre-empts opposition leader Tony Abbott’s populist promise to “stop the boats.”
It must be said that Australia recently upped its annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 — considered generous by world standards. Despite that, the voters of this rich, multicultural nation, itself founded upon exile and immigration, remain eager to reward whichever candidate outdoes the other in the harshness of their solutions for asylum seekers. Why should that be? After all, the 16,000 boat people who arrived in Australia this year are an insignificant figure compared with the 61,000 irregular boat arrivals Italy received in 2011, the 500,000 “illegal aliens” that cross into the U.S. every year or the million Syrians currently claiming — and receiving — asylum in Lebanon.
“There are a whole host of interlacing factors that have led us to believe this problem is unique to Australia,” says Professor Sharon Pickering of Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry. “Being a geographically isolated island nation and the idea we are being invaded certainly feeds it. As does the fact that we have no strong human-rights discourse. We fill that void with law-and-order politics that frames the debate around illegal refugees and a helpless sovereign state.”
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According to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Australian politicians are squarely to blame for pandering to the lowest common electoral denominator. “There has been a real lack of moral leadership over this issue for a considerable amount of time,” she says. “Both major parties have simply pandered to our fear of immigration and refugees to push increasingly harsher policies.”
Outback and offshore detention have also made it easier for governments to dehumanize refugees and remove their faces and voices from the debate. “The average Australian has close to no contact with people seeking asylum in the way they do with people at the center of other mainstream issues like disability,” says Paul Power, CEO at the Refugee Council of Australia. “It makes it easy to pull the wool over voters’ eyes about who boat people are, the cost of resettling them, overcrowding in cities, lack of infrastructure, etcetera.”
It’s easy to encounter misconceptions in conversation with ordinary Australians. “I can’t overestimate how far policy and opinion on asylum seekers has moved away from evidence in this country,” says Professor Pickering. A common theme is that taxpayers have already “spent billions trying to help refugees.” True, Canberra may have spent as much as $2.75 billion on immigration in the past year. But less than a quarter of that figure went to maritime surveillance and response. The vast majority has been spent on the detention and deportation of boat people. The Greens’ Hanson-Young argues that it costs over $500 a day to detain an asylum seeker in PNG compared with $35 a day it would cost if they were allowed to live in an Australian community while their claim is assessed: “Our tagline on this is that doing things in a humanitarian way onshore, through direct settlement, is 90% cheaper and 100% fairer.”
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Another common misconception is that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are queue jumpers — people who choose not to apply through “proper channels.” But of course such channels hardly exist. “The idea that there is some neat little queue in places like Afghanistan where people can line up and get a number to seek asylum is a myth,” says Dr. Deborah Zion of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at Monash University. “In Australia, we don’t seem to understand that in the rest of the world most people don’t live with the degree of safety and security we do.”
One group of Aussies who do understand that are the 2,000 Vietnamese who arrived by sea as part of the nation’s first wave of boat people. One of the dozens of unseaworthy vessels that brought the Vietnamese to the country is now berthed in front of the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Painstakingly restored, the little blue boat Tu Do (Freedom) is currently a monument to a perilous 6,000-km maritime journey and the role its passengers played in creating a new, more globalized Australia. It bobs at its moorings, plucky, brave and beautiful — and a world away from Rudd’s brutish new policy and the election it was created to steal.