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Asylum seekers: turning back the ocean tides

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The asylum seeker debate is an expedient way for politicians, and probably corporate interests, to distract the citizenry from difficult domestic issues and circumvent pressure for progressive social change. Focusing interest and energy on winning the war against "people smugglers" helps to maintain the status quo. It also gives government an opportunity to flex its muscle, to remind the public of the need for and efficacy of government at a time when government continues to be completely ineffectual in many other areas.

Operation Sovereign Borders' weekly media briefings are the consolation prize for shutting down information flows. No details about self-harm incidents in detention centres are published and taxpayers are spared the discomfort of hearing about the enormous costs of the entire production.

At its present level the ongoing "debate" about asylum seekers is an expression of the decay in both our thinking and in our society more generally. It's difficult to imagine how far the consequences of our infatuation with "border patrol" will stretch.


Sadly, Australia isn't alone on that score.

One subject in a disturbing recent short film documenting the everyday life of migrants in Athens points out:

When they say the election time is coming the Ministers and the Party Members all use to come out and rage about immigrants. They keep manipulating the Greek people to hide their faults. When they find out that some of the Greeks started to wake up they give us to them, the foreigner, to eat.

WikiLeaks Cables help to explain why "foreigners" have climbed high on the political agenda. In recent years Greece has faced a significant increase in migrants attempting to cross into Greece 'as a destination point or a stop-over en route to other parts of Europe and beyond.' Many come from conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Under Dublin II [recast this year as Dublin Regulation III], Greece is responsible for their asylum applications as the European Union country of first entry.

Greek officials level much of the blame on Turkey for failing to prevent immigrants embarking and being unwilling to accept practically any of them back, despite Turkey having signed a bilateral agreement on return. This has 'exacerbated tensions between the two Aegean nations.' They allege Turkey's complicity in transporting the migrants and police corruption. This is all meshed with a deficient asylum process, European Union regulations, various states' laws, an overwhelmed and poorly-trained police force which has "never really been cleaned up" following the fall of the Greek military junta in 1974", an undersized and ill-equipped Greek Coast Guard, overcrowded detention centres and resource-strapped local authorities. Greek officials are unable to find a solution.

Many within the Greek community felt 'the burden of such a large number of aliens on the small island communities was creating social tensions.' Add to that the weight of the European debt crisis and 'immigrants' facing a lack of legal status and opportunities for economic and social integration in Greece and the stage is set for far-right political parties, their popularity surging on pro-nationalist anti-immigration platforms, to enter the fray with hard-line and heard-hearted 'solutions'.


Footage allegedly from inside the Pagani Detention Centre, Lesvos, Greece in 2009 helps to explain the despair, disempowerment and tragedy of those who flee persecution or who are seeking a better life. Does it also help to explain why a person may engage in riots or self-harm?

WikiLeaks cables reveal a similar story in Italy. A 2004 cable from the Italian embassy reports that 'Faced with a political imperative to stop waves of illegal immigrants, the Italian government has stepped up cooperation with Libya and adopted a policy of quickly returning to Libya immigrants who land illegally in Sicily…Given the lack of a unified EU policy on immigration, Italian officials believe they have no choice but to act to protect their borders..the long-term answer to the immigration problem would require broad cooperation among EU countries and beyond, perhaps between the EU and the Organisation for African Union. Poverty rates in Africa were growing and, ultimately, stopping the refugee flow would require increased developmental aid to poorer nations…'

In the following year the Italian Government remained 'defensive about its immigration procedures, a situation exacerbated by the lack of a specific Italian law governing asylum procedures and political pressure to control illegal immigration. The Northern League Party, a key Berlusconi ally following the centre-right's dismal performance in regional elections, strongly favours reduced immigration, so we do not expect the Government will support efforts to make asylum processing easier…'

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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