The three wise men will make their pronouncements about ‘asylum policy’ some time today, but I thought I would get this off my chest before they do. I am not alone in not having an answer to the question I posed in the heading. On the whole, my preference is for what the Greens have suggested (which is a tad unusual for me) — that is, that we should bring boat people here and deal with them here. Yes, they will have access to Australian law, but I have no great objections to that. I am embarrassed by the way our governments have played with the law in defining parts of our territory as not being in Australia. I am embarrassed also by the way our governments have set up what can only be described as concentration camps in our country to confine those whom we have decided are unwelcome visitors.
I call them ‘concentration camps’ because that is what they are, and such camps were not invented by the Nazis in Germany but by the British in South Africa during the Boer War. I know that there are people who are deeply offended by anyone calling them concentration camps, and I have received some short-tempered exchanges about my language. I agree that the boat people have to go somewhere while their claims and status are being considered. But their stay there should be brief, and children should not be there for more than a few days.
Having said all that, I also want to say that I see no real solution to the arrival of boat people. They will come, and we need to decide how to deal with them in a civilised way. First, we need to set the issue in context.
There are about 44 million displaced people in the world, of whom about one third are officially described as ‘refugees’. You are a refugee if you are a person displaced from your home through war, famine or external circumstance of some kind, you have crossed an international border, and you have a well-founded fear of persecution. Less than a million are officially described as ‘asylum seekers’. Australia takes in about 14,000 refugees a year. In comparison, the USA, which has had a humanitarian program for much longer than Australia, takes in about 90,000 a year. Australia’s population is about 7 per cent of that of the US (23m : 314m), but our humanitarian intake is proportionately more than twice as large as the American. To offset that, any American will tell you that they have a lot of illegal immigration over the Mexican border; we have nothing comparable.
What upsets many about the boat people is that they are, almost by definition, a wealthier set of refugees than those sitting despairingly in refugee camps around the world (in Africa especially). If we let them in, then our doing so is really unfair to those who can’t afford to pay to get on a boat. The same is true for those who come in by plane with false passports and visas. Letting them in is unfair, too. But no one knows how many there are of such illegals. I certainly don’t.
My chief interest in all of this is that because it seems that most of those who are held in detention camps are finally admitted into our country, and can become citizens. I would want them to have a positive view about our country, and to feel that they have been given a great chance for a new life. Those who come in through the humanitarian program seem to have this view. But the number of suicides in the detention camps, the number of demonstrations, the sheer horror of being there in a kind of endless limbo while the wait drags on, tell me that this is not the way we should be going. If you have spent several years of your life in such a place, and are then admitted as a potential citizen, you are going to have very strong views about what is wrong with your new country.
I don’t know what the three wise men will say. But I hope that one of the things they do say is that there should be a great speeding-up of the process. If we don’t have enough Swahili speakers, then let us hire more of them. Let us put money into getting these desperate people into a civilised society as quickly as possible.
And we should remember that the current hoo-ha about boat people began because of the unseaworthy condition of so many of their craft. Jack Waterford of the Canberra Times has suggested that the simplest way of dealing with the sinking of these rickety boats at sea would be the sending of a fast ocean liner to Djakarta, and doing away with the people smugglers altogether.
I’m not sure that the wise men will take that one up, but I hope they do look at the long run, not just at which off-shore system is better.