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Asylum seekers or economic refugees?

By Mike Pope - posted Friday, 23 October 2009

In May 1940 I lived on Alderney one of the Channel Islands, separated from the French mainland by 14km of swiftly flowing sea known as le Raz. In that month, islanders were taken aback though not surprised by the boatloads of refugees who landed on Alderney and the nearby island of Guernsey in search of refuge from the rapidly advancing German army.

In those days, the islanders were bi-lingual, speaking mostly French and Norman Patois as well as English. Culturally they were little different from the villagers on the Norman mainland and it was only natural that these boat-people should flee an active warzone and seek refuge on what the French call les Isles Anglo-Normandes - the islands of English Normandy.

Less understandable is the arrival of boatloads of Tamils on Australian shores from Sri Lanka, claiming to be asylum seekers in fear for their lives from the majority Singhalese population. The question that needs to be asked is: If these people are in such fear, why did they not seek refuge by making their way 30km across the Palik Straits to India and, in particular to the state of Tamil-Nadu, where the population is culturally and linguistically much the same?


Instead they give due consideration to where they wish to spend the rest of their lives, then decide to seek “refuge” in Australia, a distant 5,600km away, a country with totally different language, culture and climate. However, Australia is a nation offering free education, medical and other social support to its residents and the prospect of employment paying so much more than they could ever earn in Sri Lanka.

Are these “refugees” the genuine asylum seekers they claim to be, fleeing their country in the face of persecution, even death, from a vengeful Singhalese majority? Or are they economic migrants, aspiring to gain access to socio-economic conditions they could never hope to enjoy in India or Sri Lanka?

They claim a desperation borne of persecution, claiming that no Tamil is safe in Sri Lanka. Sympathetic academics and lawyers support this and their plea to be given entry to and permanent residence in Australia. Does Australia have an obligation to agree with their views and if so, should that agreement extend to all Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka and illegally crossing our borders?

Listening to the anguished cries of a Tamil child on an overcrowded boat in an Indonesian port, asking to be accepted by Australia as an asylum seeker, one might be tempted to show compassion. Should we? By doing so, do we create a new definition of who is an asylum seeker rather than an economic migrant?

We need to be very careful in making that decision - a decision of particular interest to the 3.7 million Tamils who make up 18 per cent of the Sri Lankan population. Many of them, particularly those displaced by the civil war waged between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, might decide that Australia offers attractions they will not find in their own country.

The Rudd Government is less able than its predecessor to adequately control our borders which are illegally crossed on an almost daily basis by sea and air by those with dubious claims to asylum. Those arriving by sea usually use Indonesia as a staging post from which they make the last leg of their journey.


Without Indonesian assistance, the numbers arriving in Australia would be far greater and, on present definitions used by the Australian Government, the vast majority would, apparently, qualify for our protection and permanent residence. Should temporary protection and temporary residence be provided, in the expectation that most of those seeking refuge in Australia may eventually be able to return safely to their own country?

In previous years, a growing flow of people entering Australia illegally, claiming asylum and seeking our protection was effectively slowed by introduction of temporary protection and residence. Permanent status was only accorded to those able to convince the Department of Immigration and the Courts that their fears were genuine and likely to be long lasting.

Should we revert to a mixture of temporary and permanent protection and residency? Would such a regime enable Australia to provide a reasonable level of protection to those seeking it?

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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