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Hype over asylum seekers doesn’t match the reality

August 3, 2011

in Asylum Seekers

By Suzie Stollznow

According to the Federal Government, we have an asylum seeker ‘problem’. Malaysia is part of the proposed solution. The proposal means that, over four years, Australia will accept 4000 refugees who are currently living in Malaysia and who have been assessed by the United Nation’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. In exchange, Malaysia will take in 800 people who have arrived by boat in Australia, seeking our protection (asylum seekers).

In Malaysia, they will be sent to the back of the ‘queue’ and will need to be assessed by the UNHCR. This, we are told, will send a clear message to people smugglers and would-be asylum seekers not to come to Australia. On paper, this arrangement may sound suitable; however, the success of this initiative relies heavily on the public misconception in Australia that we have an asylum seeker ‘problem’.

When I read the barrage of press releases and media reports on this issue, I am struck immediately by two things: the language used, and how a government can overcomplicate a simple issue.

First, the language: we are told we need to ‘stop the boats’; we are told that we have an increase in ‘irregular maritime arrivals’; we have a ‘problem’; there are ‘people smugglers’. The Federal Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said, “The problem with this deal is that for every one they take, we take five of theirs and we pay for the whole lot.”

It is easy to speak of stopping the boats because a boat is just that, a boat. As Vincentians, we can’t help but ask, “Who is on the boats? Who are we stopping when we stop the boats? Who are we trading with Malaysia??”.

It is shocking to remember that we are talking about people. Worse, we are talking about people who, in the main, desperately need our help. So desperately, that they risk their lives on a dangerous boat journey because they believe that, if they stay where they are, their lives will be at an even greater risk.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), Australia has an obligation to accept people who arrive on our shore and ask for our protection. But even the word, ‘obligation’, belies the true significance of the issue. People in danger are asking for assistance, often with children, or unaccompanied children, and we focus on obligation. We are a prosperous country with a high standard of living. We instruct our children to value the importance of sharing and to respect other children in the playground but when people come to us in need, we speak of obligation. Perhaps as individuals, we could swap the word ‘obligation’ with the word ‘desire’. We desire to assist people who come to our shore in need of assistance.

Secondly, successive Federal Governments have overcomplicated a relatively simple issue. Opponents of this view will explain that we must have limits and this is certainly the case. However, not everyone wants to come. Australia has only a small number of asylum claims annually, approximately two per cent of the industrialised world’s asylum claims.

Countries in the developing world host the majority of refugees and asylum seekers. Pakistan, Congo, Zimbabwe, Syrian Arab Republic and Kenya all have numbers of asylum seekers in the hundreds of thousands. Countries such as the UK, US, Canada, France and Sweden all have much higher numbers of asylum applications. Even if you look at per capita applications of asylum, in 2010 Belgium had approximately half the population of Australia (10 million people), but approximately double the number of asylum applications (19,900). Australia last year received 8,150 asylum applications, 5,315 of which were boat arrivals. In the 2011-12 Budget, the overall migration program in Australia increased to 185,000. If we take last year’s boat arrivals as a measure, which is a generous estimate given that this year’s boat arrivals are significantly lower than last year’s, then boat arrivals constitute only .02 per cent of our overall migration program. Any which way you look at it, we have very small numbers of asylum seekers, boat people, irregular maritime arrivals, boats.

It is difficult to see why, as a country that has signed on to the refugee convention and has an annual rate of asylum applications that is less than one per cent of its total migration program, we are then considering expensive solutions that involve swapping vulnerable people with a country with a seriously questionable human rights record, particularly in regard to asylum seekers.

In June 2010, Amnesty International released a report, Abused and Abandoned: Refugees Denied Rights in Malaysia, which describes abuse, exploitation and arrest. Asylum seekers in detention lack sufficient food and drinking water, and children are held with adults in filthy and overcrowded conditions.

The report also highlights that asylum seekers in Malaysia are recognised as illegal because Malaysia has not signed the Convention. Illegal entry to Malaysia is a crime punishable by caning. Can our government guarantee that the asylum seekers who are being sent to Malaysia will not be subjected to the same treatment as the other 92,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia who are randomly arrested and subject to caning by the People’s Volunteer Corps. Australian and Malaysian refugee advocates believe that it will not be possible to make such a guarantee. In summary, the Amnesty report (conducted six months before the government’s ‘Malaysia solution’ was first mentioned in public) states: “Malaysia’s resettlement needs far outweigh capacity.”

Despite the many reports and concerns highlighted by the UNHCR, the Australian Government is persisting with this agreement. Additionally, it has not ruled out sending children and unaccompanied minors to Malaysia. Whilst the final documentation is yet to be released, interviews with the minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, indicate that the intention is to send all people who arrive by boat, including unaccompanied minors and children, to Malaysia. The Amnesty report also highlights that children and unaccompanied minors are not exempt from detention and one woman reported only being able to raise the money to visit her 15-year-old son three times in a year.

The detail of the agreement is yet to be released, and some of these issues may be addressed; however, the question remains, has Australian compassion drifted so far from assisting a stranger in need that we now see individuals, women and children who come to us, asking for protection for their lives, as “irregular maritime arrivals”? Concerns regarding the evils of people smugglers and the dangerous boat journey to get to Australia merely detract from the core issue. Where there is a market for people to escape persecution, there will always be people smugglers (probably acting out of compassion and a desire for profit in equal measure) and dangerous journeys. The core issue remains that the people on the boats that we are deterring are just that: people.

The issue need not be as complicated as it has consistently been made in Australia. The low numbers of asylum seekers who apply for protection can be held in detention until security clearances and health checks are completed and then released to live in the community until their protection claims are assessed. Even if each individual and family received only a basic living allowance, the financial costs, the emotional toll and the potential risk of harm would be far less than under the current policy of indefinite detention and a complicated ‘Malaysia solution’ (or ‘Pacific solution’ for that matter). Recently, a university student asked me “if it’s that simple and the numbers of applications are so low, why is it all such a big deal?” The debate has become politicised and for that we can blame our politicians. But for the failure to stand up and say “as Australians we desire to assist those in need”, we can only blame ourselves.

We have an obligation under the Refugee Convention, yes; but more than that, shouldn’t we want to assist? Wouldn’t we do the same if we were in their shoes and feared for the lives of our kids? Don’t we remind our children to welcome the new person in school? With bipartisan support for deterrence mechanisms, our only hope is that Australians will rise above the hype and rally in support of those who seek our protection. As Vincentians, let’s lead the way in offering a hand up to this relatively tiny group of people in need.

Suzie Stollznow is the Migrant and refugees state coordinator of the NSW State Council.

This article is also published in the Winter 2011 Edition of the Record.

Article photo: www.sxc.hu/profile/hellosa

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