The issue of asylum seekers has weighed on the conscience of Australians for a long time now. As another boat heads towards Australian waters this week, it is an issue that requires urgent resolution, not neglect.
There is a growing tendency to simply dismiss the problem by citing the relatively small contribution that the boat people make to Australia’s overall refugee intake. If one is to earnestly take this stance and grade the current numbers as insignificant, they must in turn have in their collective minds a figure where the contribution does indeed become significant and warrant action.
Australia’s intake of refugees based on its Humanitarian Program Grants for 2009-10 will be 13,750. This number is subject to very little deviation, regardless of the number of applicants. In 2009, approximately 2,750 refugees tried to reach Australia by boat, without applying for refugee status via due process.
While the yearly number of boat people is subject to a great degree of fluctuation, in 2009 it represented 14 per cent of our refugee intake. As I have mentioned, for some this current figure is deemed too insignificant to require intervention. Yet when does it become significant? When it reaches 20 per cent? Perhaps even 35 per cent? Could boat people ever contribute 50 per cent of our intake?
Two realities must be kept in mind at this point. First, if one were to analyse the numbers of boat people arriving to Australia in the same fashion that we analyse shares on the Australian Stock Exchange, they could mount a very convincing argument that we are set for slow but steady long term growth.
The need for asylum is an ever-present reality considering the tragic state of affairs in the more turbulent regions of the planet. In 2008, Italy alone received 36,000 boat arrivals, with comparable numbers arriving in the US, as well as Canada, France and the UK to a lesser degree. The tyranny of distance has isolated Australia from boat people to some extent in the past, but as more people successfully make the trip, it logically follows that it will continue to become a more viable option for people smugglers in the future.
There is no doubt that the need for asylum is there. Our population worldwide continues to spiral. The decline in life sustaining natural resources is matched only by mankind’s willingness to kill for them. World peace has been unobtainable throughout human history, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
The second reality involves consideration of the capped number of 13,750 refugees Australia will accept in 2010. Accepting 2,000 boat people last year meant that 2,000 other people elsewhere, who applied for refugee status by legitimate means, missed out. Two thousand people, many of whom still sit amid the poverty, rape and disease of refugee camps around the world, with neither access to a boat nor the financial means to procure a position on one. In an effort to imbue fairness into an unjust world, these suffering peoples should not have their fate determined by the industriousness of people smugglers.
Again I ask you, at what point does the contribution of boat people become an issue? Whether we agree on 4,000 or 10,000, be it within years or decades, it is simply a matter of time before our threshold will be breached. What then?
The humanity of the overcrowded offshore processing facilities has already been questioned, and it is impossible to contemplate subjecting even more people to such a fate. On ABC’s Q&A recently, an audience member made the statement that more than 90 per cent of boat people are found to be genuine refugees (immigration department figures show the actual percentage to be 85-90 per cent) and that this was sufficient justification for a policy of routine entry into the country. It is a view shared by many, yet it is fundamentally flawed. Until we begin receiving statistics to show that an absolute 100 per cent of asylum seekers are indeed genuine refugees, all must be processed individually and apart from the community. It is a sad truth that there are evil people in this world, and it only takes one person with malevolent intentions to irreversibly violate the lives of innocent Australians.
The notion of seeking asylum in Australia by boat must be rendered an impossible one. Australia does not have the resources or the international co-operation to process large numbers of refugees offshore. There is an escalating backlog of people and the conditions are already so overcrowded and inhumane that they have been shown to cause profound psychological sequelae in the vulnerable. This is simply unacceptable. The status quo and this culture of neglect are unsustainable; a stance must be taken. The boats must be escorted back, not because of the current situation, but because of the likely scenario in the years to come.
It saddens me to use such logic, but it is more humane to turn back 2,000 boat people now whilst stymieing the prosperity of people smugglers, than to hypothetically turn back or attempt to place 10,000 people in detention annually in 20 years time. Should this situation ever materialise and we are made to subject people to such a burden of suffering, I am certain we would look back to 2010 with regret and lament our refusal to make a tough but very necessary decision.
Yet for those brave souls who already sit in detention dreaming of access to Australia, every effort must be made to expedite their entry. Any man or woman possessing nothing but goodwill, who wanted to come to this country so badly that they risked their lives by climbing into some leaky death trap deserves to be an Australian in my eyes. We cannot continue to allow more human beings to risk their lives only to be placed in such a predicament. We must remove Australia completely as a destination for people smugglers. We must stop these parasites from profiting from the desperation of others.