A couple of years ago, if you asked me about 'boat people' I would have told you that I thought it was unfair for them to get here illegally and take the place of those people waiting so long in camps who don't have the means to get here first. I'm not against refugees. In fact, I want Australia to do more. I thought 'boat people' were dodgy queue-jumpers who were possible security-risks.
Then I learnt a few things.
1. The 'boat people' are not illegal immigrants. The UN Convention on refugees, which Australia has signed up to, allows anyone who needs refuge to cross a border to seek asylum. Since the horrors of the second world war, we have agreed, at least on paper, that when people flee their homeland for reasons that would classify them as "refugees", they are free to come across our border by whatever means necessary to reach safety, even without paperwork of any kind. They are legal asylum seekers provided they meet the UN criteria.
2. There is no queue. Our intake of refugees does not run on a 'queue' system.
3. The UN definition of a refugee is not means tested. Having the means to pay to get yourself out of a country does not mean you are any safer in that country than someone without funds.
4. Offshore processing is ridiculously expensive. Currently budget forecasts indicated that our current policy will cost $2.3 billion (yes, that's billion not million) over the next four years and that figure is rising fast. The United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees' regional spokesman, Richard Towle, pointed out that UNHCR's budget for this year is $3.7 billion and with that money they will care for 25 million globally. In other words, after screening people for security reasons, it would be much cheaper (as well as much, much more humane) to bring refugees into the Australian community. In May this year, Martin Bowles, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, stated that processing asylum seekers in Australia costs 20% of the amount required to process someone offshore.
5. And finally I met a few refugees. Nothing kills a stereotype like sharing a meal together. Honestly, if I was in a situation where my whole family and their future was in danger, I would use every asset at my disposal to try to get them to safety. Wouldn't you?
And so I came to the conclusion, that I was wrong about 'boat people'. And in fact I've never met a 'boat person'. I have only met people who came by boat.
Of course, I don't want to see people forced to make a perilous crossing in a leaky boat to get here. I want to see an end to people drowning at sea. I want to see an end to the boats because the boats are not safe. But I think we have to find a better way to stop the boasts than by applying extraordinarily punitive measures to extremely vulnerable people. And we're Australians. We should be able to do better than this.
If you have time, watch this video 'Ishmael'. It looks at the situation that a certain group of asylum seekers - those who arrived in Australia by boat after August 2012 but before 1 July 2013 - now find themselves in due to the politics surrounding the previous government and the inflammatory rhetoric leading up the election. We've recently become friends with a family who fall into this special category and the stress of living with the restrictive conditions placed upon them is truly heartbreaking to watch. Have mercy!
HT for the clip St. Eutychus