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Seeking asylum from the facts

By Henry Lebovic - posted Monday, 25 March 2013


As we rush head-first towards the September 14th federal election, we can look forward to an avalanche of slogans, fear-mongering, hyperbole and poorly-conceived populist policies. And I predict that this painful parade will be at its worst in the area of asylum-seeker policy. The only certainty out of all this will be the vilification and harm of vulnerable people.

It has already started. On one side, we have the opposition wanting to track asylum seekers and notify the community in which they're placed in a manner reminiscent to the way we handle convicted pedophiles. And on the other side, we have a "Claytons" Pacific Solution, and Howard-style Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) in everything but name. And to cap it all, the government plans to return Hazaras to Kabul, despite a letter from 30 parliamentarians in Afghanistan pleading with us not to do so because they fear for the safety of returnees if they were to be dumped in that dangerous city.

While a lot of the blame for all this is deservedly heaped on the politicians, the uncomfortable truth is that just as much blame should be heaped on us, the voters. The real culprit here is our ignorance, fear and apathy. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but there's no way around it. Most of us know close to nothing that could be mistaken for a fact on this topic. Not that this prevents us from spouting opinions. Far from it. For those of you who wonder about this curious behaviour, look up the Dunning-Kruger effect in Wikipedia. It's quite fascinating.

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Sure, the asylum seeker issue is a complex one. And it's emotionally charged. But it's not rocket science. The truth, as the old TV show used to say, is out there.

But where do you start if you wanted to turn this lumbering boat of ignorance around?

You could learn, for example, the difference between migrants and asylum seekers, or the difference between asylum seekers and refugees. An understanding of the difference between resettlement programs and onshore asylum claims is also crucial. As is learning about the basic principles of the international treaty we are signatories to, and what obligations that imposes on our law and behaviour. Learn, too, that it is not illegal to seek asylum, no matter how you travel to a place to seek it. All this is easy to hunt down with your favourite search engine and a quiet afternoon.

Being informed also means appreciating the scale of things. For example, it's important to realise that in recent years, Australia took about 15 times more migrants than refugees. In 2012-13, the plan was to take 190,000 migrants, but only around 14,000 refugees. After the announcement late in 2012 that this figure would rise to 20,000, the proportion of migrants to refugees was reduced to around 10 to one. This is also one refugee for every 1,000 Australians each year.

Important also are the figures that are, in large part, driving the desperation that is making dangerous boat voyages from Indonesia the best option for those who have initiative. The most important figure would be 532. That is the exact number of people resettled from Indonesia in the nine years from 2001-2009. The highest annual figure in that period was 103. Seemingly understanding the way such a small resettlement quota was driving the demand for places on boats, in August 2010 the government announced an increase in the number of resettlement places from Indonesia to 500 each year from 2011. True to its word, in 2010-11 we did indeed resettle 480 people residing in Indonesia. But then something changed. In the first six months of 2012, as the number of boat arrivals started to soar, we resettled just 61 people in total, despite the fact there were 1,200 recognised refugees ready to leave. On top of that, in the first three months of 2012, the figure was just 17.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to learn is our own history. In this case, there is a great lesson you really need to know about. It turns out that a generation ago, we had another asylum seeker crisis in our region. Yet we managed to demonstrate genuine human compassion towards refugees while participating in an orderly process which helped resolved the crisis fairly quickly. Between 1978 and 1985, there was bi-lateral political support for a significant resettlement of Vietnamese refugees from a conflict we were intimately involved in. In those seven years, we granted over 109,000 visas. The increase in visa numbers started just as the number of boat arrivals increased. Arrivals peaked at 868 people in 1977, and thereafter it dropped dramatically, just as resettlement figures were increased. By 1982, there were no boat arrivals whatsoever. It stayed that way for seven years. This pro-active approach helped end the boats. A point Malcolm Fraser (the man responsible for the solution) made to the expert panel in July 2012.

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Yes, the current situation is not exactly the same as the one during Fraser's time. There are notable differences, for sure. But I suggest that the bulk of Australians are ignorant to most of the concepts and facts presented above. Some of this is excusable. But armed with this knowledge, a possible, if partial, strategy suggests itself.

Why does this matter? Well, because of numbers like 213. That is the number that Angus Houston gave to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on 17 December 2012. It is the number of known deaths at sea on leaky boats since the expert panel delivered its report in August 2012.

In some cases, ignorance is understandable and forgivable. But if you choose to express an opinion on an issue such as this one or else it materially affects the way you intend to vote, then you have a responsibility to do the work. Failing to do so is what many call "wilful blindness".

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About the Author

Henry Lebovic recently completed a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, where he won the Gordon Rodley prize for 2011 for the greatest proficiency amongst Masters students in that year. He is a freelance writer on social issues.

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