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Asylum Seekers – Why We Must Get Political

Sunday, 6 October 2013  | Paul Tyson

Here are the facts about asylum seekers. With our natural population rate presently in decline, the Australian government made 190,000 places available to migrants last year. 170,000 of these places are not for refugees, but 20,000 places are set aside to re-settle those who are displaced from their homes and are fleeing extreme forms of persecution. To clarify, we now re-settle up to 20,000 verified refugees a year where the UNHCR tells us that the current global population of forcibly displaced people is over 45 million. We have, by global standards, very few people seeking refuge here, and over 80% of globally displaced people—nearly half of whom are children—are being fed and sheltered (to some degree) by developing nations. Pakistan, for example, is trying to shelter and feed over 1.7 million displaced people.

Of the 20,000 refugees we take, the majority are selected either from off-shore applicants or from on-shore applicants who have arrived by plane with a valid visa. Always a minority of refugee applicants are from unauthorized boat arrivals, and until recently this was a very small minority. (See the Parliament of Australia publication “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?” 11 February 2013.) For example, in 2003 there were 60 boat arrival asylum seekers for the year. In 2009, there was a big increase to 690 people. But in 2010, 2011 and 2012 the numbers increased to four, five and then seven thousand arrivals. Numbers fluctuate depending on how bad international conditions are. Yet one thing we do know is that 90% of all boat arrival asylum seekers are verified as genuine refugees by our scrupulously thorough and unbribable immigration officials (who in no manner “tick and flick” boat people through as the incoming Minister for Immigration inexcusably and falsely claimed).

Obviously, things are bad for the powerless and violated people of the world right now—think, for example, about what is happening in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq—so the number of people coming here by boat is correspondingly high. Yet even in 2012, a heavy year of boat arrival asylum seekers, less than 4% of the 190,000 places allocated for new Australians were filled by people who arrived here via unauthorized boats.

People who arrive by boat do so because they have very little money, there are no other means available to them, and because they are desperately fleeing for their lives. Once they get here—if they do not perish on the way—they go straight to high security detention centres for up to 7 years whilst their applications are assessed. They are the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth. And it is these people whom successive Australian governments have vilified and demonized as if they are a threat to us, as if they are lawbreakers, as if they are opportunistic ‘queue jumpers’.

Contrary to the known facts, the political spin we hear about boat arrival asylum seekers is that they are probably not real refugees; after all, they arrive by unauthorized means and will not ‘wait in a queue’ in a UN refugee camp and apply for asylum in Australia by the proper channels. But these insinuations are all entirely spurious. First, less than 1% of people who apply to another country for asylum from refugee camps are accepted by any country—most languish or die in these horrifyingly ill-equipped camps after decades of stateless limbo. The main purpose of refugee camps is as emergency holding yards for displaced people in the hope that they will be able to go home in safety sooner or later (though this is usually a vain hope). Second, it is entirely legitimate under the Geneva Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) for asylum seekers to come to Australia, by whatever means they can find, without any papers, and apply for refugee status once they are on our soil. It is because Indonesia is not a signatory that they have no humanitarian avenue of applying for citizenship there. Third, only the most desperate and disadvantaged asylum seekers get on crowded boats without papers and risk the trip; those with money and papers travel to Australia by plane.

But vilification goes to new depths when our former Prime Ministers, no less, have conjured the horrifying demon of the “people smuggler” for us to fearfully behold. But are all people smugglers really as totally depraved as we are lead to believe? Are they such an unspeakably degenerate species that we are morally obliged to hunt them down in Indonesia then severely punish them so as to deter their filthy trade and uphold our high standards of human decency as a nation? Really???

Robin de Crespigny’s book The People Smuggler tells the remarkable story of Ali Al Jenabi who was brought to trial for people smuggling under Supreme Court judge Justice Mildren. If our politicians wanted to use Jenabi in a show trial to trumpet how tough we are on the lowest form of life possible, they were badly disappointed. In this trial, it became evident that Jenabi was a man of astonishing humanity and self-sacrifice who facilitated the flight to safety of 500 fellow Iraqis from horrifying persecution. His efforts resulted in them all being safely transported from Indonesia into Australian territory. Jon Tippett QC described Jenabi as the Oskar Schindler of Asia. And indeed, Jenabi is one of the great humanitarians of our day. Further, he was not acting illegally by Indonesian law which is why a covert Australian operation to catch him had to lure him to Thailand before they could deport him to Australia. Further, he was obviously not smuggling people as his intention was for his people to be found by Australian authorities. But Australian laws were enacted early this century imposing very heavy penalties on anyone found transporting refugees by boat to Australia. So Justice Mildren had no choice but to find Jenabi guilty. Even so, Jenabi was given the lightest sentence possible and his courage and humanity was recognized by Justice Mildren.

After serving his sentence, Jenabi applied for refugee status as he had spent four years being tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Abu Ghraib and is to this day on the wrong side of power in what is in reality still a clandestine and violent Iraqi government. And yet, despite the assistance of high profile lawyers and widely respected public activists, despite his obviously valid claim to be given asylum, he is in Sydney today kept in an entirely uncertain situation having had his application for asylum rejected and waiting to be flown back to Iraq where his life will be, at best, in grave jeopardy.

For whilst Saddam has gone, Iraq today is the fourth largest country producing displaced people fleeing for their lives. In no sense is today’s Iraq stable, safe or governed by the impartial rule of law. In Iraq today the deep scars of atrocity and the deep history of violent ethnic and religious division within the state still infects its structures and modes of power. Further, whilst the US can bomb any regime to oblivion relatively quickly, it seems to have no idea how to win the peace in these foreign lands. To date the US shows no sign of being able to set up a stable democratic rule of law and order in the aftermath of a shock-and-awe heavy bombing liberation of a people who have lived under entrenched arbitrary brutality. The US seems to vastly underestimate what the impact on normal life is when people have to try and go to work and school under the continual risk of “collateral damage” from Hellfire missile-equipped Predator drones seeking out further resistance, and where Western businesses who now control their natural resources have mercenary armies to protect their assets. Iraq is no safe place for anyone. Would you want your family to live there?

Back to Australia. Now—after Howard, after Rudd, after Gillard—we have Abbott. All of these politicians have shamelessly played the race card and the fear of invasion card in order to manipulate marginal electorates. The sad and obvious truth is that our politicians have instrumentally used the most vulnerable people of the world in order to stir up the most ignorant, most heartless, most irrationally fearful aspects of the Australian psyche just to win our votes. And we fell for it; we voted for them.

This is immoral.

This is a disgrace to our nation.

The Geneva Convention was set up after World War 2 to protect displaced people fleeing persecution in their own country, yet it is these very people who we now cold-heartedly kick around as domestic political footballs. Our treatment of asylum seekers puts us more on the side of the persecutors than the persecuted. In our treatment of Ali Al Jenabi, we have become accessories to Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime. How can we countenance such heinous callousness, such indifference to human need, such manipulative abuse of the vulnerable merely for the electoral agendas of our cold hearted leaders? Shame! As Australian Christians we cannot stand back and turn a blind eye to this flag-waving, mean-spirited treatment of the vulnerable ‘other’ as most German Christians did during the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. We must become political now whilst political means can still be harnessed to reverse these deeply anti-Christian policy trends.

There are many avenues for involvement. Here are a few possible starting places:








Nigel Kendall
October 10, 2013, 12:38PM
A certain amount of your justification for letting any Tom,Dick or Harry into this country is glaringly incorrect. Firstly,they are by no means all poor. In fact many of them are far from poor. Secondly,a majority of them are Moslems who commonly have 4 or more children. Given the current Moslem population, we will have big trouble within !0 years.We will actually be outnumbered and that alone should ring alarm bells in our Christian nation. Please,dont be simpletons - not all people who believe in a God are good. We will be captives in our own country. I have seen what these people do to others who are not of their faith and I never want to see that here. So - please for your own and all of our sakes, dont be so easily hoodwinked.
Paul Tyson
October 11, 2013, 2:52PM
Looking over Nigel's comment, I wonder whether he has read the article or is only reacting to a cursory glance. His objections all seem to be fully answered by the article itself.

A fairly obvious response to the points raised:

1. Affluent asylum seekers arrive by plane. My piece is about our treatment of boat arrival asylum seekers. Boat arrival asylum seekers simply do not have the type of money and opportunity which applicants who arrive by plane have.

2. We have a heavily aging population in Australia which is why we have such a large immigration intake. We need children to be future tax payers to care for our aged.

3. Who is the simpleton here? Accepting a beat up about border sovereignty when we have a tiny refugee 'problem' by world standards and when our responsibilities by the Geneva convention are obviously being flaunted for the sake of a reflexive fear response in the electorate seems pretty naive and easily hookwinked to me.

4. I am not sure what Nigel means in claiming we are a 'Christian nation'. Does this mean we should not let Jews, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists become Australians? It seems to mean to Nigel that we should not let Muslims become Australians.
Ian Hore-Lacy
October 15, 2013, 6:25PM
A passionate article which does not greatly illuminate the situation .
Why does it take up to 7 years to process applications?
Why are the Aust Govt processes for considering asylum seeker claims in Indon refugee camps not beefed up?
What are the reasons we have a quota of only 20,000 refugees? Why isnt this figure debated publicly?
What was being done under the Howard government to provide alternatives to risky sea voyages in clapped-out boats?
Should there be conditional acceptance for Muslims - that they accept our laws?
Should there be preferential acceptance of Christians fleeing persecution on account of their faith?
I would need much more than this article to accept that all so-called people smugglers are altruistic.

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