Asylum seekers revisited

I note, with despair, and, yes, great shame, the ironclad guarantee given in this election campaign by the two political parties capable of forming government that ‘boat people’ will be turned back, and that any who slip through the maritime cordon and land on our shores will never be granted visas to live in this wealthy, under-populated country. Yes, Australia. Calling them boat people is deliberate. Not calling them asylum seekers, desperate men, women and children fleeing extreme danger and deprivation, is a refusal to acknowledge the most fundamental truth about them. This refusal indicts Australia as cruel and hypocritical.

Who are these 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 those fleeing extreme poverty 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. Not that it makes a difference in this country, if they arrive by boat. 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 homelands it is natural to set their sights on countries that offer them prospects of a better, safer life. All of us, if we had enough courage or were desperate enough, would do the same.

What does Australia risk by welcoming those who seek asylum no matter how they arrive? They pose no 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 commonalities 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 mere trifles compared to what they experienced back in their homelands, the very experiences that drove them out of there.  Most of us in this great country take for granted our physical needs, including physical safety. We have no concept of living in fear or facing deprivation of our basic physical needs. Day by day. Many people in this situation accept their lot and hope that the inadequate systems established to give them relief and hopefully take them away from their misery will eventually reach them. Some take desperate measures. They are the ones who risk life and limb to turn up on other countries’ doorsteps to seek asylum. 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 or from wherever they embarked. This action is cruel and heartless. We will pay a heavy price for treating desperate people so badly.

I get that the system is chaotic. There are just too many people fleeing persecution to manage and control their flow to safe havens. The fact that there are so many is itself an appalling indictment on humanity. I get that boatloads of asylum seekers turning up on Australia’s shores have unsettled the locals. Just as the arrival of the first fleet did back in 1788. Then the locals had good reason for being unsettled, borne out by subsequent events lasting right up to the present.

Whatever, our treatment of asylum seekers is not justified. It is beyond cruel. Incarceration, left in limbo for years without hope or prospects is worse than the sentence accorded a murderer. We condemn innocents to such an appalling life just to broadcast what awaits those who come here by boat uninvited.

Which reminds me, what is the worst thing you could possibly do to somebody? How low could you go, how cruel could you be? it is this that defines you, not how good you are capable of being. Even humanity’s worst villains were good to some people.

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