Photographer: Joel Van Houdt
the stark reality asylum seekers face – do Australians care?
The left and the right of politics spend a fortune trying to convince us of their differences when seeking election. Trying to convince us they are the ones we can trust, the ones we should trust. On one issue however voters got no choice at all. Both the ALP and the Liberal Coalition outlined their tough new credentials, preventing those arriving by boat from ever reaching land in Australia. Presenting it to the electorate like a badge of honor when in reality, it had welded to it, the stench of death, from those who have already drowned at sea trying to get here.
“Shame on you, that your new rulers have reached the stage of killing people and making this part of their election campaign. ” Ali Khoder.
Asylum seekers who risk all they have to jump onto unseaworthy vessels, to take their courage in their hands. To hand over their life savings, to scoop up their children and elderly relatives. In the hope that Australia with its self-congratulatory ‘lucky country’ tag, will offer them a better life. That a democratic country like Australia will not turn them away when they have watched their children die at sea. But sadly they have been misinformed.
Instead, these desperate individuals will walk straight into a knock-out punch the moment they step onto the dock. A blow they could not have imagined, and most likey are unaware of. A setback designed to teach them a lesson and destroy any hope they can have a better life in Australia. Because they’ll never get anywhere near Australia.
Assylum seekers who arrive by boat are not processed on the mainland but instead outsourced to a third world country, which by all accounts are often worse than the countries they are fleeing. At least at home they may have lived in bricks and mortar accommodation. Papua New Guinea and Nauru is where they end up now, in tent cities from which they will be lucky to escape for many years. We have outsourced our responsibility to third world countries by paying them to take the problem away. We literally don’t want the problem on our own doorstep and we’ve made damn sure it never will be. Is this what Tony Abbott was talking about on election night when he said “Australia is once more open for business”. Open for the business of outsourcing misery.
And disappointingly, for all their rhetoric, Labor is no better. For they too have embraced offshore processing. On page 171 of their National Platform it states:
“Labor is united in its commitment to prevent further loss of life at sea of vulnerable children, women, and men”.
And yet they also won’t allow people to set foot on the Australian mainland if they arrive via boat. Even knowing of the hundreds who have drowned. I call that hypocrisy.
Offshore processing is the cancer at the heart of immigration policy. I predict it will cause more problems than it can ever hope to solve.
But this apparently, is who we are in Australia. On both sides of politics this approach has been megaphoned to the electorate and to the people we call our neighbours. Our neighbours and our friends when we are seeking agreements on trade and access to lucrative markets. But definitely not our neighbours or our friends when their poor and their downtrodden approach us for help and who happen to do so by boat.
Where in Australia can I find a political leader prepared to take a more responsible and ethical approach with regard to this policy? I find it staggering in our two-party system that both parties occupy the same same side of the fence. How can this be? Do we have to wait another forty years for a leader with insight, like Malcolm Frazer, whose political courage has not been repeated since. A leader with an open heart, not a closed mind. A leader who took a humane and compassion approach by allowing in Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arriving in large number in the 1970s to settle in Australia. A leader who had the courage of his convictions in the face of fierce resistance. A leader who was prepared to put himself at the eye of the storm.
The other side of the argument rarely features in the news. Ordinary Australians have little insight into how they are they are perceived overseas. Such is our propensity for navel gazing. The SBS Dateline program ‘Village of Tears‘ recently invited us to look in the mirror . In the program a village leader’s outrage, that the recent election campaign which promoted both parties hard-line position on asylum seekers, resulting in multiple deaths, was palpable. Similarly Australia has been citicised by the UNHCR for failing in our responsibilities with regard to asylum seekers but we simply switch off and don’t take it seriously. Australia take far fewer refugees than most of the rest of the western world.
Photographer: Joel Van Houdt, New York Times
they think they’ve made it
The recent story in the New York Times Magazine illustrates the uncertainty, fear and misery involved in making the journey. The journalist Luke Mogelson and photographer Joel van Houdt posed as asylum seekers to make the journey to Australia by boat. The extraordinary pictures alone graphically illustrate the awfulness of the journey and the rudimentary nature of the vessel in which bodies are jammed together, exposed to the elements for the entire journey. Cattle and sheep are transported in better conditions than asylum seekers coming by boat. Clearly the writer and photographer risked their lives to show us what it is really like. They were lucky to have made it.
What can’t be ignored as part of the larger picture however, is how our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to the outpouring of refugees from those countries. We’re told our involvement is making their lives better, making citizens feel safer, building a pathway and a platform to democracy. That is what politicians the world over have been saying for the last decade or so. Well how can that be working given the numbers who seek asylum from those countries? If democracy was the solution then no one would need to jump on a boat. I don’t think that is too simplistic – it’s just common sense. Those who flee often cite the disintegration of their lives and the ability to earn a living and provide for their families. The truth is, for many, it has gotten worse.
I would like to think that their stories, experiences and the stories of the people onboard would make a difference, would allow us to understand, would change the hardline approach on this issue. Would compel Australians to collectively say ‘no’ to offshore processing. To see that a big Australia with a healthy immigration program can help build this nation. People are grateful for opportunities afforded to them and return in it spades. The extraordinary story of Sam Eisho who tried to pay back the government the money he had received in welfare, when he arrived as a refugee from Iraq, is a case in point. Sam now has a thriving business and employs 40 people. We should be thanking him for choosing Australia as a place to call home.
Immigrant labor can enable large infrastructure projects such as the Snowy River Hydro Scheme - an extraordinary feat of engineering built on the back of post world war migration. Nothing big seems to have been built since then – we have endless discussions about what we might build, what we should build, but nothing ever gets done because of short-term thinking and a lack of agreement across the political divide. Immigrants were responsible for building the largest, most complex hydro scheme in the world – and the entire country received a benefit. Don’t slam the door to opportunity and innovation simply because people happen to arrive by boat.
Australia has been built on an inflow of people arriving by boat, starting with the convict colonies of the 1800s. And whatever the initial hardships, this country is an amazing place to live. We have more space than we know what to do with in this wide brown land. We don’t have the infrastructure we should have – refugees can help us build it. But to do so we have to allow more people to settle here, regardless of how they choose to arrive.
Think big, not small. This is the kind of Australia we are. This is the kind of Australia we should seek to promote. Let’s really open Australia to business and to the opportunities that asylum seekers bring and to actually mean it.
I’ll vote for anyone who has the courage to lead on this issue and to stop the cancer that will continue to eat away at the heart of this debate. I only hope that that does not take another forty years.