2011 marks ten years since the events surrounding the Tampa, the Children Overboard affair, and the sinking of the SIEV X in Australia's border surveillance zone, with the loss of approximately 353 women, children and men.
In the ensuing ten years little seems to have changed in Australia's attitudes towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, indeed there are observers who think things have worsened.
The 2001 coalition government struck political gold in their framing of the above events. Following Pauline Hanson, and with the added impetus of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, they constructed a narrative that played on Australia's fears firstly about Muslims as terrorists, and then as agents of chaos.
What quickly became and remains paramount in the debate are their allegedly "illegal" actions. Requesting refugee status, as is their right, was reframed by the coalition as an illegal incursion into sovereign territory. Asylum seekers became criminals
In spite of knowing full well that the boat arrivals were legally entitled to request asylum in Australia, the Howard government continued to describe them as "illegals" and possibly terrorists, who were seeking to disrupt our borders and our sovereignty. They were described quite inaccurately as being "uninvited," and accused of jumping non-existent refugee queues of people who were more entitled than the boat arrivals to request refugee status in Australia.
Despite their patent falsity, theses stories took hold of the imaginations of a large number of voters, and they remain powerful lies politicians on all sides continue to tell.
So profound is public hatred and contempt for boat arrivals in some quarters, that on the day before the funerals of those lost in the Christmas Island shipwreck, Chris Smith, presenter on radio 2GB, ran a competition in which listeners were invited to ring in and guess the number of asylum seekers, including the babies, to be buried in Sydney. The winner, an ecstatic woman heard screaming against a soundtrack of applause, received a prize of a Rick Stein DVD, a book by Kim Scott, and movie passes to True Grit.
In reality, as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention Australia has agreed to accept asylum seekers no matter what their method of arrival in the country, regardless of their country of origin, and whether they are sans papiers, or not. The international Covenant is supported by our domestic law. The asylum seekers of 2001 were never in any way illegal, and the asylum seekers of 2011 are not illegal either.
They were and are legally permitted to enter Australia and request asylum until their refugee claims are processed, and they are found to be eligible for resettlement or otherwise.
For the asylum seekers to become "illegals," Australia will have to withdraw from or moderate our commitment to the UN Convention, and adjust domestic law accordingly. Both courses of action are possible. Domestic refugee law does not require any constitutional change, and can be addressed by parliament.
Until such time as these actions are taken, Australia remains a country that is open to all asylum seekers, and every asylum seeker who comes here by whatever means is doing nothing more than accepting Australia's invitation.
Politicians continue to lie to the Australian people about the "illegal" nature of boat arrivals, and many media outlets are entirely supportive of that lie. Some, such as Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald, deliberately conflate the illegality of the Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels that convey the asylum seekers to Australia, with the people themselves, and this spin is upheld by the Australian Press Council.
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