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Why do asylum seekers panic Australians?

By Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R.

What a shock it has been to witness the revival of hysteria about people in boats trying to reach Australia to claim our protection and asylum.  Not only have some of the ‘shock jocks’ and media been working up their audiences, but various politicians have again played on racial or religious stereotypes to conjure up fear, all for blatantly political purposes.

The Rudd government has been caught off balance, and seemingly frightened by some opinion polls, adopted a ‘tough’ rhetoric. While this may attempt to avoid losing some votes, prominent church and Labor figures, along with advocates for asylum seekers, have been keenly disappointed that Prime Minister Rudd has not exorcised this phantom once and for all.

Why do asylum seekers panic Australians?What is it about Australia that so many of us keep being panicked by a tiny percentage of immigrants so desperate to escape threats in their homelands that they take the enormous risks of coming by boat? Many of us had hoped that such fear-mongering was behind us.

This panic is all the more puzzling when we consider that more than 43 per cent of Victorians are either migrants or refugees themselves, or their children, seeking a better life here. Seven million people migrated to Australia since early 1945, more than 700,000 under humanitarian programs as displaced persons or refugees.

Australia has serious moral and legal obligations to help shelter people whose lives or wellbeing are under grave threat. Of course people who claim asylum should have their claims tested, and if they fail, then they should be returned to their country of origin if this can be done safely.

Most people who claim asylum in Australia arrive by air on visas. Of the 4700 people applying for asylum in Australia in 2008, only 25 were boat arrivals. Yet there is no public alarm about the asylum seekers who arrived by air freely walking about in the community. By October 2009 the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat had increased to 1700, still a small number compared with total settler arrivals in Australia in 2008-2009 of just over 158,000. The total humanitarian component, including those arriving by boat, was 13,507.

The numbers of people fleeing by boat to Australia are small in relation to those claiming asylum in other developed countries. In 2008 the USA accepted nearly 50,000 and France about 35,000, closely followed by Canada and the United Kingdom and then Germany.

The countries from which the largest numbers of asylum seekers come are Afghanistan and Iraq, but as the UNHRC reported in October, overwhelmingly the driver forcing people to seek asylum is war. And 80 per cent of the 16 million refugees worldwide are sheltering in developing countries.

As of 16 October, there were 1,033 people in immigration detention centres in Australia, 857 being at Christmas Island, with some 300 others in other forms of accommodation or detention. Four out of five people in detention are boat people. Nearly 600 were from Sri Lanka, 378 from Afghanistan, and a further 115 from Iran and Iraq.

Of those arriving by boat and processed at Christmas Island, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority are granted asylum. Very few people would risk their lives and those of their family to travel to Australia by boat unless they had extreme reasons to do so. Yet they are at times condemned as suspect terrorists or as queue-jumpers (when there is often no queue for them to join). The Australian security services have so far reportedly not identified a single terrorist among these asylum seekers.

Church and community groups visiting people in detention in the recent past were shocked that many were locked up for years, including many children, resulting in extreme trauma and crippling many with mental illness. Attempted suicide and ‘self-harm’ became common-place. Even many of the guards were traumatised by conditions.

As Petro Georgiou wrote in The Age, 26 June, 2009, we demonised people fleeing persecution and seeking our protection. Our government policies were ‘cruel and contrary to Australia’s best values’. We might add that such policies also gravely damaged Australia’s international reputation and degraded our civic conversation.

The Rudd government has done much to humanise the reception of asylum seekers, speeding up processing times, abolishing debts imposed to pay for their own incarceration, and granting permanent protection visas to applicants released into the community.

Yet Australia could still handle asylum seekers and refugees better and more humanely. Other developed countries, including the United Kingdom, Sweden and Canada, offer better programs to help asylum seekers settle quickly.

It is in Australia’s own self-interest to help asylum seekers and refugees settle into work, housing and education by providing sufficient support services, hence ensuring a more productive and contented population. We can do this easily if we decide to.

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• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.