Why the myopic view?

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While the media and government induced furore on the ‘boat’ people continues, the public must be made aware of honest facts and practical solution writes MALLI IYER in our October (1) 2012 issue

Global perceptions suggest a gross over-reaction by major political parties and mass media due to people trafficking and asylum seekers coming into Australia by boats in recent years.  It is a festering wound on the Australian psyche and undeserving of the attention it receives, bearing in mind that Australia has a low density of population for its size and land mass.  It would appear that the millions of dollars sucked in from the Government coffers to process these unwarranted arrivals could easily be put to better use and the transition made more orderly, whether or not they are given asylum.

Over 90% of the asylum seekers processed by the John Howard government’s Pacific Solution in the last 15 years were granted residency, as they were found to be genuine refugees. It can also be argued that the hue and cry raised in Australia is providing fodder to people smugglers who prey on the vulnerability of their victims, giving them false hopes while demanding huge sums of money from people who can ill afford it. Using asylum hysteria as an excuse for their ‘border protection’ policies, the Government is creating fear and animosity in the minds of the public.

Seeking asylum does not constitute breaking any Australian laws, as Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.  Asylum seekers are neither ‘illegal’ nor are they ‘immigrants’, and they have a legal right to seek asylum whether they have valid travel documents or not. Myths and misconceptions prevalent among the public are that boat people are a threat to border security; Australia is being swamped by refugees; and boat people are queue-jumpers. It is easily forgotten that Australia as a country is built from immigration. More than 25% of its 22 million population are born overseas, and it is endowed with a natural barrier that will prevent it being swamped by millions arriving by boats. It was not all that long ago that Australia invited thousands of ‘ten pound Poms’ from Great Britain and Ireland during the era of ‘White Australia’.  Successive Australian Governments must work towards removing false impressions and make the public at large aware that Australia does not take more than its fair share of asylum seekers. The political football being played to curry favour of voters with misinformation must stop.

As demonstrated by the recent SBS television documentary titled ‘Go back to where you came from’, a large majority of the asylum seekers are fleeing repressive regimes, persecution, civil war or fear of becoming genocide victims. In an increasingly interconnected world, over 200 million people have migrated in the last 50 years and of these, over 800,000 are smuggled across borders each year.  Whilst Australia recorded less than 20,000 prospective migrants coming by boats in the last 10 years, these people collide with legal obstacles that have been put in place, such as offshore processing.  Australia is one of few countries that practice mandatory detention, despite the numbers arriving here being relatively small compared to many other countries in the region. It is well documented that the majority of boat people originate in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Sri Lanka – countries that have significant issues with terrorism, insecure minorities and civil war.

In an increasingly interconnected world, people are much more mobile.  Between 1965 and 2000 the volume of documented global migration is in excess of 175 million.  In the new millennium, developed societies are beset with problems of security, lack of control of labour markets, global economic meltdown and climate change.  Added to these are the demographic trends of aging population and negative population growth in several European and North American countries.  It does not take a messiah to realise that the pull and push factors will encourage increasing numbers to migrate. The migration policies in well developed economies of the world point towards attracting people from Asian countries with younger populations and those with skills in trades and professions who are deemed to ensure their smooth functioning. The top five countries with most immigrants are USA (42.8 million), Russia (12.3 million), Germany (10.8 million), Saudi Arabia (7.3 million) and Canada (7.2 million).  If the significant numbers of unauthorised workforce in these countries is not causing major strife, why should Australia take such a myopic view of the numbers with which they have to deal?

Australia and New Zealand are in the unique position of being in close proximity to Polynesia and several smaller nations in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.  Many of them are faced with problems of being submerged as ocean levels rise, melting of the polar ice caps, and climate change is expected to wreak havoc to their small land masses.  It would be no surprise if the migration to Australia and New Zealand becomes a flood in the not too distant future.  Crying wolf in such a scenario would be futile and the sooner the politicians and Governments appreciate this, the better prepared their people will be to accommodate and play good host to migrants.

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