Friday, April 16, 2010

Border Insecurity

While there is no doubt that there has been an upswing in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat, it is less clear just why this is happening. The opposition has maintained adamantly that it has been triggered by the changes to asylum seeker policy made by the Rudd government, including the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas, access to appeal processes, and relaxation of requirements to repay detention costs. The government insists that it is international conditions, the so called “push factors” that have propelled the surge, but the truth is that both push and pull factors are likely to be contributing. But while the opposition appears to be intent on promoting hysteria as much as possible so as to discredit the government, just what exactly is the problem?

The opposition seems to want us all to believe that asylum seekers represent some sort of threat to our border security, to our culture, and to our economy. The approach taken by the opposition promotes the idea that asylum seekers are placing an unacceptable strain on our population growth, our health system, our employment opportunities, our housing, and our natural resources such as water. It encourages Australians to think of asylum seekers as bad and undesirable people, without any consideration of who they are, where they are from, or what they may have been through. It depicts them as illegal immigrants, which they are not because they are legally entitled to seek asylum, while ignoring the 55000 people already hiding in our community with no valid visa or immigration status, who really are illegal.

The problem is not that people wish to exercise their right to ask for asylum. The problem is in how we respond to that wish. The problem is that the process is so difficult and dysfunctional that people become desperate enough to place their lives at risk in leaky boats, handing over whatever money they might have scraped together to shady people smugglers who operate outside of any law. People have a right to survive, and when the law does not provide them with the means or the opportunity to do so, it should not be surprising that they will turn to means outside the law. It’s not the asylum seekers’ fault that they are desperate. And even the people smugglers, who might well be parasites profiting from the misfortune of others, are only able to do so because the official channels provided by the United Nations are failing to adequately deal with the numbers of people who need help.

The problem is not that asylum seekers are arriving in Australian waters. Boats arrive, they are intercepted, and their occupants are detained. The system is working. Asylum seekers are not trying to sneak into the country, and they’re not slipping in through the back door. On the contrary, they are pounding on the front door, asking for help. There is no breach of border security, because the system is working. The only problem is that it is working too well. The detention centres are filling up, and resources are being diverted away from such things as tracking down the real illegal immigrants who live and work illegally in our country.

The opposition wants to reintroduce the old Temporary Protection Visas to stop the boats arriving. But there are two problems with that proposal. One is that it ignores the actual problem which is the increasing numbers of refugees in the region who genuinely need help. Secondly, it has been proven by past experience not to work. Because people with Temporary Protection Visas cannot access the family reunion program, whole families will cram themselves onto boats, instead of just one family member. That’s why more than 350 people died when the SIEV X sank almost ten years ago. By the opposition’s own logic, if Kevin Rudd’s policies are responsible for more boat people arriving now, then those Howard government policies could be blamed for creating the circumstances which led to those deaths. Effectively, bringing back TPVs would amount to trying to discourage people from risking their lives by making the risk even greater than it already is.

But that does nothing to actually address the injustice which has led them to face that risk in the first place.

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