The explosion on a boat of asylum seekers off the north-west of Australia, killing five and injuring more, has rekindled some familiar issues and debates. From the right of the fence, we’re given the impression (yawn) that Australia is in danger of being over-run by economic refugees arriving by sea to take advantage of Australia’s social welfare system. Take your binoculars to Bondi and play spot the Boat People, kids.
The whole idea is a beat up – over 95% of asylum seekers who come to Australia arrive by air. The few who do choose to come to Australia by sea do so because it’s the only option that they have. En route they are packed together like sardines in a tin can, on arrival they often have to work illeagally for years to pay off the debts they incur getting where they want to go, and sometimes to get a bit of attention they sink their own boats.
And these asylum seekers don’t sit in their crumbling houses in shelled out cities looking through brochures from the travel agent saying ‘Australia looks good honey, they’ve got a nice social welfare system.’ ‘Oh I don’t know, dear, have you heard about the drop-bears?’
Australia is not the number one choice for asylum seekers, not even close. A paltry 4750 arrived in Austrlia last year, out of a total of 37.4 million refugees world-wide. We might have seen a 19% increase in asylum seekers from 2007-08, higher than the global increase of 12%, but the increase for Finland was 181%. I don’t think they’re going there for the weather.
It is nice that the left side of the fence is affirming how horrible people smuggling is. Well done, pat yourselves on the back. People smuggling is a modern form of slavery and a gross violation of human rights. But giving the Indonesian government more money to deal with the problem is, to me at least, little different from paying another country, Nauru for example, to imprison and process our asylum seekers for us. Out of sight, out of mind.
And if the Indonesians don’t have much success curbing the problem (please, don’t tell us what methods you use to use to get the job done – we’d rather not know) there’ll now be the convenient scapegoat of well, we gave them the resources to do it, is it our fault they didn’t do the job right?
If you actually sit on the fence, you might notice that the people at the centre of this issue are from Afghanistan. You know, where Australian troops have been fighting since 2001? Where a million were killed and 5 million displaced between 1979 and 1989? At that time the Soviets were supporting the Afghan government against Western sponsored Islamic fundamentalists; this time the Russians are staying clear, probably confused why the West is trying to hunt down organisations they helped create.
Modern Afghanistan is a nightmare. Infrastructure is non-existent, food-shortages are common-place, between five and seven million mines are littered throughout the country. Since the beginning of the current war, almost eight years, between 10,000 and 30,000 Afghan civilians have been killed – women, children, elderly, farmers, teachers, construction workers. In just one year, 2008, the Coalition, including Australia, killed 828 civilians. 1,122 members of the Coalition have been killed, including 10 Australians. And things won’t get better anytime soon – they’re currently talking about sending more troops.
We shouldn’t be surprised to be seeing an influx of Afghan asylum seekers. It’s just so unfortunate that both sides of the fence are acting as predictable as Mel Gibson at a vodka bar: the right play the fear and blame card, the left feign compassion while palming off responsibility. As a developed nation, and given our contribution to their suffering, we have a duty of care to give Afghan asylum seekers all the support they require.