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Seeking asylum is no game

By Susan Metcalfe - posted Monday, 12 October 2009

The Opposition’s dialogue on asylum seekers is archaic, makes no sense and should have been left behind in the rubble of the Coalition’s election defeat in 2007.

On a recent visit to Christmas Island Detention Centre Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce told The Age that the detainees looked more like “economic migrants” than refugees because they were “very health conscious - many have arrived with their multi-vitamin tablets. They don’t fit the general picture of refugees under pressure.”

But most of us know that a sick person doesn’t always look sick even if they have cancer and refugee status is thankfully not decided on the basis of someone’s appearance or their vitamin tablets.


When in government the Coalition went to great lengths to explain that people coming on boats were “cashed up” and “middle class” and that anyone with enough money to pay a people smuggler wasn’t really needy. The needy were those who sat patiently for 20 years in African camps and the rest were supposedly here to exploit Australia. But if they were not really needy why did they bother to come? Adjusting to life in Australia is not easy, it can be a lonely country without family, and jobs are hard to find.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Sharman Stone is continuing the African line, telling the ABC that “we are not seeing a single African on these boats”. But to state the obvious, it is a long boat trip from Africa to Australia. Refugees from African countries may not be arriving on boats to Australia but they are fleeing in their thousands to the much closer European countries. The Coalition’s last Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews decided we were taking too many refugees from African countries. Does Stone now want to increase Australia’s intake from that region? What is her point?

Joyce claims that the asylum seekers on Christmas Island “seem very happy here - which is a concern”. If Joyce has not visited a detention centre before he may not be aware that people from most cultures are respectful and “happy” when greeting visitors or that refugees do initially feel happy to be safe from the dangers they have left behind. But refugees, like anyone else, don’t always wear their grief and pain on their sleeves and whether or not someone looks happy is again not the basis for deciding whether or not someone is a refugee.

Joyce has decided that most of the people on Christmas Island are “economic migrants”. But what does he mean by “economic migrant”? If people had been doing as well as Joyce implies then it seems unlikely they would choose to risk their lives to come to Australia by boat, they wouldn’t need to. There is no logic in Joyce’s claims.

A group of Indonesians who were recently returned from Christmas Island do seem likely to have come for economic reasons, if we are to trust the Department of Immigration. Many Indonesians are poor and lead difficult lives but unless they are facing persecution they will not be given a refugee visa. Is Joyce saying that he wants people to be assessed on the basis of their poverty instead of whether they are fleeing persecution? Would he rather give visas to the poor Indonesians who may not be facing persecution instead of to those who are facing persecution? It would be legitimate to draw attention to the problems of the world’s poor but this doesn’t seem to be what Joyce is trying to do.

The terms “economic migrants”, “illegals” or “queue jumpers” have long been used by politicians to create division within the Australian community. It doesn’t matter that the words don’t make sense, an image is conjured up, everyone “knows” what is meant. It is dog whistling, it is saying one thing but meaning something else for those who can hear. The terminology has become so embedded in our culture that we often don’t question the nonsense that is being spoken.


Joyce also claims, “If you play a reasonable game a visa will be granted”. This is a serious allegation against the assessment processes of the Department of Immigration and a trivialising of the conflict from which people have fled. This is no “game” for people arriving mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq. The turmoil in these countries, never mentioned by the Opposition, is lethal.

“Don’t mention the wars” seems to be the Coalition strategy while trying to create panic about the arrival of boats, and Sharman Stone’s tactics are starting to border on the bizarre. In a media release last month Stone refers in one sentence to the boat explosion that killed five people and in the next to the people on Christmas Island who represent an “exploding population of unauthorised arrivals.” Surely it is a bridge too far to try to score a sarcastic political point from a tragic event, even if it is clumsy and no-one is listening.

Stone has perhaps reached her low in recent media accusations of bribery and corruption against UNHCR. Stone told the ABC that it “costs you more to bribe UNHCR to look at your case and assess you for asylum seeking status than to pay a people smuggler.” Stone’s evidence is that, “This was stated on television. I have people in my electorate who have experienced this problem, who bring it to me as constituents, as Hazara constituents.” These are commonly made claims but if Stone has evidence she should engage with UNHCR to investigate the allegations. If not, why slur the reputation of UNHCR by making generalised claims in the media?

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About the Author

Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

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