There’s a flood of concern about asylum seekers lately, and ‘oceans of cant and hypocrisy’ to run alongside it. The attention isn’t unexpected, because such unease tends to come in waves, but this one feels – potentially – tidal.

When the majority of Australians want refugees processed onshore (62% of Labor voters and 44% of Coalition voters), and it costs significantly less to do so ($40 000 annually for community detention vs $0.5 million annually for offshore), yet the government and the Coalition contemplate joining forces to amend Acts – thereby dismissing the overly sentimental concerns of the voting public and preventing intervention by a court of law – it feels like justice has taken a holiday and left us to fend for ourselves.

The debate itself has moved from onshore vs offshore, or whether Australians even want asylum seekers incarcerated, and has transmogrified into Nauru vs Malaysia. In the Coalition’s corner, we have Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison saying – repeatedly – that the Coalition is ‘not going to give the government a blank cheque’ on asylum seekers. Presumably they mean a different cheque to the $1billion+ one the Howard government used to process fewer than 1700 asylum seekers (pdf).

In reality, Nauru and Malaysia may as well be the same proposal.

This means not only Malaysia is back on the table, but so could be Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, and Indonesia – all countries with very chequered track records when it comes to protection for vulnerable citizens, let alone non-citizens. (Greg Barns, ABC Drum)

If you doubt this issue has devolved into anything other than hollow speechifying, take a look at this transcript from yesterday’s Insiders that gets to the heart of the government/Coalition policies on refugees and their welfare:

TONY ABBOTT (in Parliament): Malaysia is a proven failure. Nauru is a proven success.
JULIA GILLARD (in Parliament): Nauru won’t work. It won’t have the deterrence effect of the Malaysia arrangement.
TONY ABBOTT (to press): Malaysia is not offshore processing. Malaysia is offshore dumping.
JULIA GILLARD (in Parliament): It is a virtual turnaround of boats.

The faux objective that really maddens me – besides breaking the people smugglers’ business model – is the one the opposition is now reciting: preventing the deaths of 4 per cent of asylum seekers on leaky boats as they make their way to Australia. Cory Bernardi described the figure as ‘unspoken, hideous, grotesque’ and the Coalition is using it to emphasise their humanity.

But why isn’t anyone – from the media to the Greens – drawing a direct correlation between Australia’s foreign policies and the situations people are fleeing? Because here’s the kicker: the Australian government has helped aid in the displacement and persecution of many who have gone on to seek passage on those boats.

Those who have sought asylum in Australia in the past decade hail from places like Iraq, a country we invaded in what most politicians have come to refer to – almost fondly – as the ‘wrong war’. According to The Costs of War, there are at least 1.8 million Iraqi refugees and 1.7 million internally displaced.

They’ve come from Afghanistan, a country we have helped to occupy for the past decade; where the Australian government insists we are staying until at least 2014, despite the quagmire. The UNHRC records 4,404,457 Afghan refugees and displaced people. This is nearing the 2001 figure, when millions fled the Taliban; now they flee the Taliban, the warlords and our occupation.

And from Sri Lanka, a country the Australian government not only stopped considering applications of asylum from, despite the threat of genocide, but also provided the Sri Lankan government with intelligence and technology to prevent asylum seekers leaving at all.

Those taxpayer-funded politicians, they ought to hang their heads. (Or, you know, the other way ‘round.) If they genuinely cared about the welfare of asylum seekers, there’s a number of motions they could pass. They could massively increase our refugee intake and help people find safe passage; they could withdraw Australian troops; they could consider including some facts and evidence in their debates.

With such wretched options for government, you start to wonder: where’s our attempt at revolution? Why isn’t the utter denial of asylum to those in need the rupture that sees us spilling out onto the streets?

In case it is time, I have some recommendations for possible anthems.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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  1. I know by and large they aren’t ‘boat people’ but let us not forget the deliberate and systematic underdevelopment of Africa by the Commonwealth, and the fact that that that ‘common wealth’ is not common at all, but the wealth of 400 years of slavery. Once upon a time the West wanted Africans so badly it kidnapped several billion of them.

    1. Yeah, there was a whole lotta history left out of this post. For instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about stolen wealth and stolen land and the Intervention, but decided not to muddy everything by tying it all in to the one post.

  2. Well said (exploded) Jack. ‘Why isn’t anyone … drawing a direct correlation between Australia’s foreign policies and the situations people are fleeing?’ EXACTLY!

  3. Well said JW. The whole thing is deteriorating into a power struggle that’s about political parties and leadership and very little about genuine concern for those whose lives and livelihoods are affected by war.

  4. As a Christmas Islander, we see the heart breaking effects of government decisions that inflict more suffering and uncertainty on people who are already coping with unimaginable suffering and uncertainty. When government policy contributes the the weekly suicide and self harm attempts here on the island, you have to ask if our government already has blood on its hands. No wonder they don’t even blink an eyelid at Malaysia.

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