Last month Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new approach to dealing with asylum seekers who arrive by boat. His plan is simple: bribe Papua New Guinea to take responsibility for the regions refugees.
Rudd’s announcement, while shocking in its flagrant dismissal of the right to seek asylum by any form of transport, is a natural progression of Labor policy.
This new policy of outright refusal to accept genuine refugees who arrive by boat is the product of decades of dehumanising, punishing and scapegoating those fleeing persecution.
Cynically Rudd has claimed the new policy will stop deaths at sea by deterring asylum seekers in the region from attempting the perilous sea journey to Australia. The fact that more than 1300 people reached Christmas Island by boat in the ten days following Rudd’s announced demonstrates that ‘deterring’ people from seeking asylum is no solution.
Asylum seekers risk their lives at sea for a very simple reason: it is a better option than continuing to face persecution where they are (in most cases refugees face a threat to their life or the threat of unjust imprisonment), and a better option than spending years or decades in legal limbo with no rights in countries like Malaysia or Indonesia.
The solution to asylum seekers risking their lives at sea is to give them a genuine alternative route to safety. This requires a regional approach, but not the sort of regional approach that amounts to dumping refugees on tiny pacific nations. What is immediately required is a regional solution whereby asylum seekers can have their claims processed quickly in regional centres in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, with those found to be genuine refugees resettled in developed countries with resources to put towards resettlement, like Australia and New Zealand.
A common misunderstanding, created and perpetuated by politicians and the media, is that Australia is being ‘swamped’ by ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In fact, the most recent statistics show Australia is hosting only about 0.23% of the world’s refugees. This ranks Australia 71st in number of refugees taken per capita. As a percentage of overall immigration, refugees make up only about 7% of new arrivals.
The statistics demonstrate that Australia takes very few refugees by international standards. Australia should be increasing its intake, not turning people away.
The myth of the so-called ‘queue’ is pervasive, but totally inaccurate. In most countries there is no queue because there is no access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is true in many places around the globe and as a result only about 11% of asylum seekers in the world are registered with the UNHCR. Most are forced to make the journey to safety unassisted.
In fact, most refugees come to Australia by plane. It is only upon arrival that they make their claim for asylum. These asylum seekers are rarely spoken about by politicians and in the media, and are treated very differently to those who arrive by boat.
One argument used to justify anti-refugee policies is that refugees are too costly. However, this argument is used to target those who arrive by boat specifically, not those who arrive by plane.
This is because those who arrive by plane cost far, far less money to process. This is because their claims are processed while they live in the community. They are not locked up in detention centres. At approximately 10% of the cost of what the government currently spends, all asylum seekers who arrive by boat can be processed and supported in the community, just as the majority of plane arrivals currently are.
This would mean that the estimated $7 billion it will cost to run the detention centres over the next five years could instead be spent on improving and expanding public healthcare, education and housing for everyone, including refugees.
It is in the interests of all ordinary people in Australia to oppose the inhumane and costly treatment of asylum seekers promoted by both Labor and Liberal. We need to fight for a political alternative that prioritises jobs, homes and services for all.
By Mel Gregson