I had thought with the election of the Rudd government in 2007, and the abandonment of the frankly shameful Pacific Solution, Australia had moved on from its most disgusting phase of xenophobia. Unfortunately, the last three years, and more specifically the last six months, have proven me wrong. And with Julia Gillard, a prime minister whom I really want to like, introducing what is now being called the East Timor Solution, it may be time to correct a few misconceptions.
All of the rhetoric about asylum seekers seems to come back to the phrase ‘boat people’. They’re ‘queue jumpers’, they’re ‘illegal immigrants’, they pay people smugglers; they’re doing something somehow wrong. Ignoring for a moment seeking asylum is completely legal, the majority of asylum seekers don’t even arrive by boat. Over eighty percent of asylum seekers arrive on planes, on existing visas, and then either apply for refugee status or overstay illegally. Even the government’s own immigration website states that ‘[t]he majority of asylum seekers are people who have arrived in Australia legally and subsequently apply for protection’. So, just for starters, the majority of asylum seekers aren’t boat people at all.
The next consensus I read in the papers is that too many asylum seekers arrive and therefore threaten our way of life. This is, to be frank, total bullshit. In the last twenty years, Australia has typically taken a total of around 200 000 immigrants per year. And in a typical year, twelve thousand of those immigrants were refugees. It’s not a hard and fast rule; quotas for refugees can be carried over, or borrowed from the next year if more people arrive. But typically around six percent of the immigrants we take are refugees, most of who came to us as asylum seekers. It’s not exactly bursting the bank, and it’s a pathetically small number if we compare it to the number of refugees who enter any other first world nation. It’s even more pathetically small if we look at the number of refugees who enter countries far poorer than ours.
Even if refugees made up a hundred percent of the immigrants who came to Australia, it wouldn’t matter – all the talk is against a big Australia. (See those charming ‘fuck off, we’re full’ bumper stickers.)
Well, I’m an environmental scientist and I tell you flatly that there is a limit to the number of people we can take; we may already have exceeded it. But taking in asylum seekers is not going to push us over some imagined limit: total migrants might, but refugees never will. The fact of the matter is that Australia’s existing population is shrinking; our birth rate, like that of most other first world nations, no longer exceeds our death rate. If we didn’t take in migrants every year, our population would be shrinking, and so would our economy. If only for purely economic reasons, we need immigrants. They take the low-paid jobs, like seasonal work; they keep our cities and systems running. We need the brain influx, and we need the sheer bodies, the people. Without them, Australia is a dying nation, and so are most First World nations, from England to Russia to Canada, whether they admit it or not. We need migrants to keep our countries alive.
And even if all of that weren’t the case, the bottom line is that we have a legal responsibility. It’s all outlined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights: individuals fearing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, have the right to seek refuge in other countries. We have a legal responsibility to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who land in Australia, regardless of how they arrive. They’re not illegal immigrants; there is no such thing – the correct term is an ‘irregular immigrant’, but I’ll give twenty bucks to the first person who spots an Australian politician outside the Greens calling them that. Political rhetoric calls them asylum seekers, as though it makes a difference, but the reality is that the majority are genuine refugees who are in fear of their lives. Statistics from the department of immigration indicate that over seventy-five percent of asylum seekers from 1989–2004 were granted some form of protection visa. The majority of asylum seekers are who they claim to be: traumatised people who need our help; instead, we lock them up in detention centres offshore and refuse to process the claims for months, sometimes years.
But find me that in a newspaper. It seems the Australian people would rather play political football with people’s lives and rights, and pretend it isn’t our problem. It is our problem. It isn’t going away, and right now we’re acting, at best, on the fringes of legality. We’re well into the boundaries of shame, and I for one wish Australia as a whole would get a grip.