Kevin Rudd’s solution to ‘stop the boats’ seems like a political ploy on the eve of the federal elections
Before we say anything about asylum seekers, let’s first get rid of the stigma associated with the term. No, the term ‘asylum seeker’ does not mean illegal immigrant. No, it does not mean impoverished opportunist. And no, it most certainly does not mean terrorist threat. An asylum seeker is one who seeks refuge in a foreign country for fear of unwarranted persecution, or due to the threat of war or violence. It is not illegal to seek asylum.
Kevin Rudd recently announced his grand plans for keeping asylum seekers away from Australia – by sending them to Papua New Guinea for ‘processing’. Under the agreement, Australia will spend hundreds of millions of dollars sending asylum seekers to Manus Island or elsewhere in PNG, and in return, will spend heavily on PNG’s schools, universities, hospitals and law enforcement. It is the first big decision Rudd has made since his reinstatement, and will help quell Tony Abbott, the Federal Opposition Leader, who has over the last few months constantly crooned, ‘Stop the boats’.
Our anthem might insist that ‘for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share’, but Rudd’s new policy appears to be more geared towards negating his opponent’s favourite one-liner than upholding the fabric of the nation. It is embarrassing that at the forefront of our nation’s politics lies a battle to keep those who have been exposed to horrific violence, away from our shores.
Rudd gave three reasons for his decision, focusing on controlling the people smugglers that traffic asylum seekers over to Australia, rather than the asylum seekers themselves.
Firstly, Rudd argued, Australian intelligence agencies advised him that the numbers of asylum seekers will continue to arise (as they will around the world) in the years ahead. Secondly, each vessel that arrives presents a continued risk of drowning. Finally, claims Rudd, people smugglers take advantage of human tragedy, as they are currently doing with Syrian asylum seekers, and that must be stopped.
Let’s deal with the first point, rising asylum seeker numbers in Australia.
An asylum seeker becomes a refugee when they are accepted as having sought asylum for an appropriate reason. In 2012, Australia had the 49th highest number of refugees in the world. “Okay,” might an everyday Mr Abbott or Mr Carr respond indignantly, “but we have a small population.” Except that if you rank us by number of refugees per capita, we come in 62nd. “But we’re not rich enough,” would a fiscally-stretched Rudd lament. Unfortunately for Mr Rudd, compared to our national wealth, we rank 87th in the total number of refugees we house. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre also quietly adds that 23,000 persons leave their homes each day to seek protection elsewhere, almost as many as Australia receives in an entire year.
So even if numbers are on the increase, surely as a relatively wealthy nation with such a low population density, we can afford to offer a little bit of help to war-stricken single parents, families with young children, and other individuals who have left everything behind in the hope of an improved quality of life.
Rudd’s last two points are not entirely uninformed. The risk of drowning is definitely a prevalent one, with thousands having perished while attempting to reach our shores, due to overcrowded, poorly manufactured ships or perhaps an inability to swim. Similarly, people smugglers definitely do exploit the plight of unfortunate families. But there is an Australia-sized flaw in Rudd’s master plan here.
Let’s take a step back and put ourselves in the shoes of the asylum seekers. You live in a war-ravaged country. You have been de-sensitised to seeing mangled bodies in the streets, you’ve dealt with family members being killed in front of your eyes and you have been exposed to women and children being raped and beaten. You live every day in fear, hoping that you or your children are not one of the thousands of others who have perished during the atrocities in your country. There is no end in sight to the violence, to the bloodshed and to the corruption. You are then offered the chance of a new life, of a new beginning for you and your family in Australia. It will cost you your life savings, and you know there is a chance none of you will make it there alive. You are even aware of the fact that asylum seekers are being sent to Papua New Guinea after landing on Australian shores. Would you make the tough call for your family?
Chances are, like those 23,000 other people around the world, you still would choose to flee. And there’s the problem: Rudd’s plan will not stop people smugglers nor drownings. It is a sad thought indeed that there are people who will exploit tragedy for personal gain, often with no regard for the safety of their ‘cargo’. But it will not stop because one, two, or ten governments decide to send asylum seekers elsewhere. Seeking a safe, happy life has always been an ‘at all costs’ adventure.
Before we turn a blind eye to asylum seekers, we should remember that we could have just as easily been one of them. We were not entitled to a privileged life. We were born, by pure luck, into various states of wealth, happiness and good fortune. If you are reading this paper, you’re almost certainly one of the luckiest people in the world, if you’d just acknowledge it. We’ve never had to worry about a court that only rules in favour of the government. We’ve never had to fret over whether our sons or daughters will be safe at school. We don’t even have to worry about mouthing off the Prime Minster in public.
Aside from everything else, most of us would not be able to fathom the sheer terror of leaving our beloved countries behind in exchange for weeks on an overcrowded boat to an unknown land, watching fellow passengers drown, assuring our children that everything will be alright and then being treated like a prisoner and thrown into a detention centre on arrival.
Rudd can hardly be held completely accountable for this decision. Future generations will judge us, the public; because most leading politicians only ever act on what they think might get them that extra vote. For too long, protectionist politicians and one-eyed media stations have clouded our view of asylum seekers with inadvertent and misleading claims of illegality, of security threats and of overpopulation. Of course, the border should be protected: national security is extremely important and we’d be silly to ignore it. But, as the Australian public we owe it to ourselves to work out whether we deserve a better life than other people around the world.
It might be too idyllic a hope that one day, we’ll show just a touch of empathy towards asylum seekers and that one day, the winning election slogan will not be something as insensitive as ‘stop the boats’. But it would be a good start if we began hoping.