Sunday, November 01, 2009

Those pesky refugees

I got an email from Amnesty the other day asking me to send an email to K.Rudd about his decisions regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat. It had a few basic facts which bear repeating.

In 2008 only 3.4% of asylum seekers arriving in Australia got here by boat - the other 96.7% came by plane.

At the end of 2008 Australia was dealing with 0.26% of all asylum seeker cases globally.

Article 14 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that 'everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’.

So a few things spring instantly to mind. Why do 3.4% of all asylum seekers garner 100% of the MSM coverage and a huge percentage of Government attention and spending?

Why do we just process people who arrive by plane but literally change our borders to exclude people who arrive by boat? I understand that people smugglers are involved in getting people here by boat, but does anyone believe that there is no corruption, bribery or other illegal activity involved in getting people here by plane? It seems likely to me that those who come by boat are the most needy, and most desperate (because why else would you put your life and that of your children in the hands of people smugglers?) and we are putting them through extra hell, for no conceivable reason. 3.4% of 0.26% of all asylum seekers globally arrive in Australia by boat. That's 0.00884% of all asylum seekers in the world. All this media coverage, Wilson Tuckey's stupidity, the 2001 election and god only knows how much Government money has been directed against 0.009% of the world's most needy people. WTF?

By a back of the envelope calculation, I reckon Australia has about 2.5% of the developed world's population, but we take 1/10 of that proportion of the world's refugees. So we are protecting our borders against what exactly? Living up to our commitments to the UN treaty on refugees?

I have no problem with the need to do background checks on people arriving here. It is certainly possible that in amongst the persecuted there are some who are fleeing legitimate punishment. I have heard on the grapevine that it usually takes about 6 weeks to process legitimate asylum seekers. If this happened routinely, I would be much less concerned about where it happened, because 6 weeks for a new life is not an impossible sacrifice. So why is anyone held for a lot longer? And why does the means of arrival matter? I can understand that those who come by boat, almost certainly being in a more desperate situation, may not have as much supporting documentation with them, but really, is our Foreign Affairs department so inept as to need a piece of paper stamped "Legitimate Asylum Seeker" in order to work it out?

Besides, we know they are not that inept. Howard changed the definition of person's country of origin so that if the Government could show that someone had lived in a country other than their own for long enough before arriving in Australia, they were now deemed to have come from that country. If the department has sufficient resources to determine the whereabouts of asylum seekers for the last several years, I'm sure they can manage to work out the other factors required to verify refugee status.

The way to stop people smugglers is to make them unnecessary. As a rich nation, we need to do more to reduce the poverty and inequity that contribute to so much of the world's violence and persecution. In the meantime, we need to be serious about getting people out of UN run refugee camps quickly and efficiently. We need to go to them. A humanitarian version of "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come".

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