An asylum seeker boat sinks.  The country that produced Silvio Berlusconi as their head of state, is still run in parts by the Mafia and is mired in deep economic chaos, reacts by declaring a national day of mourning and state funerals for the more than 300 dead.Our country, one of the richest in the world, one of the most generous (as we keep reminding ourselves), with many of the world’s most liveable cities and economically smashing it in comparison to the rest of the world, reacts to smaller in number, yet similar tragedies with hollow phrases like regrettable incident and hardened resolve and border protection.

As Immigration Minister Scott Morrison prepares his latest PR attack on asylum seekers, by notifying local residents of their arrival into the community – a move which is only ever reserved for child sex offenders, and a nod to you Eric Abetz – the confusion will only grow over who these people are and what they are doing here.  So here it is for those who don’t understand it…

To begin with, an asylum seeker boat arrives in Australian waters.

Now, if you were to believe our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, or our Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, you would consider this arrival illegal.  Technically speaking, arriving in Australia without a valid visa is illegal, however, and this is important, and is why all those Lefty / Greenies are up in arms about describing asylum seekers as ‘illegals’ – Australia has voluntarily (that part is important too) signed the 1951 UN Convention, which essentially says that if someone arrives illegally (by boat, plane or any other method) in Australia and claims asylum, we as a nation overlook that illegal arrival, because we regard seeking asylum as an overriding right.  Essentially, their plight, their hardship, their fear of persecution, overrides our sovereignty.

Asylum seekers arriving by boat
Asylum seekers arriving by boat

It is important to note that this is an agreement we have entered into voluntarily.  Nobody forced Australia to sign the UN convention and nobody is forcing us to continue to be a signatory.  If, as a nation, we wish to withdraw, well then that is a separate discussion, but as it stands, we are obliged, by our own values, to assist those who claim asylum in Australia.  By extension, our national leaders are obliged to not refer to these people as illegal and in the process deliberately mislead the public and misrepresent those people claiming asylum, for their own political gain.

But, I hear you say, what about our border security?  We need to maintain the ‘integrity’ of our borders!  The answer is yes, we do need some element of ‘border security’ and integrity.  And as far as borders go, Australia has some of the most secure in the world.  However, once again, Australia, as a nation, has voluntarily relinquished some of our ‘border security,’ because we believe, as a nation, that people who are fleeing from persecution, have the right to seek safety within our borders.  Australia has voluntarily ‘given up,’ if you like, a part of our ‘border security’ because we believe that asylum seekers are doing nothing wrong by fleeing persecution and arriving here asking for our protection.

Angus Campbell and Scott Morrison 'talking tough'
Angus Campbell and Scott Morrison ‘talking tough’

Aah, but, they are not asylum seekers or genuine refugees, they are economic migrants and they are ‘country shopping’!  Let’s examine that claim.  It is a well established fact that over 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are eventually found to be refugees.  That is not in dispute.  Furthermore, the idea that asylum seekers ‘country shop’ has no basis.  First of all, there is no requirement in the 1951 convention stating that asylum seekers need to settle in the first country they reach.  Secondly, an asylum seeker needs to find a country that has signed the convention, so as to receive said protection.  Apart from Australia, other countries in the region who have signed include PNG (they also produce refugees), Nauru (one of the poorest countries in the world), Fiji (military government), Solomon Islands (recovering from civil war) and New Zealand.  Of all these, Australia is the easiest to reach.  Asylum seekers are searching for safety, something which they do not get in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Iran or Bangladesh.  Furthermore, often the first country asylum seekers reach when fleeing is not safe, consider Rohingyas in Bangladesh or Thailand, Afghans in Pakistan (most of who are in Quetta), Afghans in Iran, Iraqis in Iran, Iranians in Iraq and so on.  Ok, so what of the other 10%?  Let’s say a portion of them are so called ‘economic migrants?’  What should we do?

First of all, we need to assess their claims.  If our politicians, including former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, former Immigration Minister Tony Burke, his predecessors and the government are so confident that these people are not ‘genuine refugees,’ then let’s test their claims for asylum.  That’s only fair isn’t it?  We are after all, the country of the fair go.

But how long will that take?  How much will it cost?

That I do not know exactly.  It will take time and it will cost money.  But Australia is a rich nation, we can afford these processes.  Furthermore, we also have a duty to do this.  Remember, we voluntarily signed up to the convention – and processing claims is a part of it.  We cannot pick and choose which parts of the convention we want to follow and which we do not.  If, as a nation, we have declared that seeking asylum is such an important human rights issue, then we have a duty to fairly assess the cases of those who come here claiming it.  To do otherwise would be to expose asylum seekers to the dangers of which they claim to be fleeing.

So, we test their claims – fairly, including an appeals process.  If, at the conclusion of the process, someone is found not to be a refugee, then they are returned home.  That is only fair.  Once again, if we regard the asylum process as an important human rights issue, then there must also be integrity of the protection visa system.  We cannot just hand them out to anyone.

Zaatari, Syrian refugee camp in Jordan
Zaatari, Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

But what about all those people in camps, waiting in the queue?

First of all, there is no queue.  Asylum seekers who have the good fortune of being wealthy (indecently, being wealthy does not shield someone from being a refugee), or have sold their entire livelihood to pay a people smuggler, are not jumping a queue.  The UN convention says nothing about the method of arrival when someone is seeking asylum.  A boat, a plane, walking across a border – they are all considered legitimate means in the eyes of the convention.

It is unfortunate that those in refugee camps continue to live there and wait for a host country, however there is something the Australian government can do about it.  Australia is the only country that includes boat arrivals in our official refugee intake.  To explain, Australia’s refugee intake is 13,750 (A Labour government would have increased in to 20,000, but now Abbott and co have put it back again to 13,750).  However, if for example 5,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat, then 5,000 people in camps miss out on a spot.  That is unfair, however, that is not the fault of those who arrived on a boat, nor is it a requirement of the convention.  That is a choice that the government has made.  Successive governments decided, for whatever reason, to design Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policy in that way.  So, if you are looking for somebody to blame, because refugees in camps continue to wait for a host country, look no further than your current and former national leaders.

Ok, so we’ve established that boat people are not ‘illegal,’ some might be so called economic migrants, but we can send them home if they are, and our national leaders are the only roadblock to refugees in camps coming here.  Even still, ‘I am concerned about the deaths at sea.  If we put asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, will that not deter others from coming and in the process save lives?’

Tent housing for asylum seekers in Nauru RPC
Tent housing for asylum seekers in Nauru RPC

We are all concerned about people dying at sea.  None of us enjoyed seeing that boat crash into Christmas Island.  None of us like hearing stories about children drowning in the ocean.  It is something we cannot relate to.  Getting on a leaky boat is a choice none of us can imagine having to make and hopefully will never have to.

But, if we are concerned about people dying at sea, then I assume we are concerned because we value the lives of these people?  So if we do value their lives, how does deliberately mistreating the survivors, to save future lives, add up?  It is inconsistent with a basic understanding of humanity.

To deter someone from an action, one must show that that action will incur some sort of punishment or negative repercussion.  To stop a child misbehaving, we smack them, or in modern times, give them ‘time out.’  We attempt to change the child’s behaviour through physical punishment or depriving them of their freedom (if only for 10 minutes).  Now, we have already established that those who arrive by boat are not doing anything illegal, they also have the right to have their claims heard fairly and they have the right to be treated with compassion and respect.  So what then, does using them as an example, say about their humanity?  Indeed, what does it say about our own?

There are many components to the asylum seeker debate, however, that does not necessarily follow to make it a complex issue.  It is a simple issue, with straightforward and logical solutions.  If you start from a base of respect, humanity and legality, aka a ‘fair go’ then it is not difficult to balance the competing interests.  It is only when the facts are misrepresented, shallow slogans are repeated and lies told, that the issue becomes muddied and complex.  So, the next time somebody tells you that the asylum seeker debate is a complex issue, one that requires a ‘regional solution’ and a ‘multifaceted approach’ and has ‘competing interests’ and is about our ‘border integrity’ and blah blah blah, you can explain to them it is not, and this is why…