Who are asylum seekers? They are people fleeing their homelands to seek asylum in other countries because their lives and the lives of their loved ones are in danger. Today there are many millions of such people fleeing because civil wars, unrest, lawlessness, roving bands of thugs and militia are endangering their lives. Amongst them are a minority that are fleeing poverty and the absence of opportunity to seek better lives in other countries. Escaping poverty is as genuine a reason as escaping persecution. Poverty denies people basic needs like food, water and shelter. It also denies them hope and opportunity. I am sure if you and I were in such a situation we would dearly wish to escape. Some who are desperate enough try. They should be applauded, not demonised as “economic asylum seekers”, to distinguish them from those fleeing persecution. Understandably, asylum seekers will be reluctant to seek asylum in countries where the prospects of a better life are zero or thereabouts. Why jump from the frying pan into the fire! If they are risking life and limb to flee their homelands they might as well make it worth their while by trying to reach an affluent country or at least one that offers them some prospects of a better life. These are all natural human inclinations. All of us, if we had enough courage and were desperate enough, would do the same.
What does Australia risk by welcoming asylum seekers who turn up on our shores? They pose no added threat to any aspect of life in Australia. The record of people granted asylum in Australia is a very good one. It should be an encouragement to accept much more of them. They are, to put it simply, making Australia a better place. They are law-abiding, creative, industrious, very hard working, and establish in this country a rich cultural diversity that is available to be enjoyed by us all. It is their children, the second generation, from whom this country gets the greatest benefit. Proficient in English but bi-lingual, often multi-lingual, and equally at home with both their parents’ cultures and the culture, such as it is, of their adopted country, they make up a rich, diverse human resource for just about every human endeavour in this country. They also provide opportunities for the existing population to break away from narrow, bland, timid mind sets and move towards the pleasures and excitement of cultural diversity, of friends from exotic places, of a rich variety of food and, above all, a recognition and deep understanding of the obvious humanity of all people despite physical, cultural and language differences.
We tend to forget that asylum seekers who are accepted into another country are eternally grateful for the opportunity to rebuild their lives free of persecution. In most cases the hostility they might encounter from their neighbours and other locals, the hate-mongering in the media that is directed towards them, even the financial hardship they might undergo while they are being educated or while they are looking for employment, are all a mere trifle compared to what they experienced back in their homelands, the very experiences that drove them out of there. Physical safety is something most of us take for granted. It is when your physical safety is threatened, especially over a long period of time, that you realise how important it is to your ability to function. When you are living in fear for your life and the lives of your loved ones, you can think of nothing else. It overwhelms you. Everything you do and say is encroached upon by this monstrous spectre that cannot be ignored, that you cannot rise above. Fear is the most debilitating, the most energy-sapping of all emotions. It paralyses, immobilises, renders you totally dysfunctional. At best you can only be perfunctory as you tend to necessary, mandatory things in your life. Fear dominates everything. You want it to stop, sometimes so desperately that you will take desperate measures. This is what asylum seekers do. And, we, who live affluent, safe, sheltered lives in Australia demonise them, and heartlessly imprison them if we cannot send them back. What sort of human beings are we? Why are we even arguing about it, why are we trying to justify our heartlessness by some insincere, trumped up concern for lives being lost at sea? If we were really, truly concerned about asylum seekers in rickety boats perishing on the high seas we would intercept them early in their voyages and bring them here in sturdier, safer craft. These days we are, in fact, intercepting them and transferring them to safer, sturdier craft, but sending them back to Indonesia. This action is cruel and heartless. We will pay a heavy price for treating desperate people so badly.