21 April, 2009

Asylum Seekers: The kryptonite of Australian international politics

The asylum seeker debate is about to take off once more, and my only hope is that the Labor Government can hold some semblance of humanity through the inevitable public and media bombardment to come.

This week, a boat load of Afghan asylum seekers were intercepted in Australian waters off the coast of Western Australia. Whilst waiting to be towed to Christmas Island for mandatory detention and processing, an incident occurred that led to the flimsy boat exploding.

Forty-one boat blast survivors remain in three hospitals. 23 in Royal Perth Hospital; all have been operated on and are in a stable condition. Seven in Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital. Four remain in critical condition and are in induced comas. Five have developed blood infections. 11 in Royal Darwin Hospital; all are in a stable condition. Three released into the custody of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Three killed, two missing and presumed dead.

It is an incident that stirs passion for justice within me, but also a fear of the possibility of racist and isolationist policy that we have experienced in our not so distant past. The Rudd government has brought some dignity and common sense back into immigration policy, and has removed horrific practices of mandatory, long term detention of asylum seekers, including children. Many detainees were left 'incarcerated' for over three years while waiting for the Australian government to process their application. These conditions led most asylum seekers to major depression (up to 90%), the development of post traumatic stress, suicide attempts, self harm, hunger strikes, escape attempts and more. Children emaciated, developed a catatonic state, and one eleven year old girl attempted suicide. Oh, and let me remind you, these are asylum seekers and not criminals! These instances are not rumours...they are documented by medical experts and advocates. This period in our history, along with so many others it seems, is a disgrace.

Have you seen the movie Hotel Rwanda? Can you imagine at the end of the movie, after so much sadness and chaos and violence and injustice, the asylum seekers are then rounded up and detained for three years? Or how about The Sound of Music? Should we have locked Gretel up after she came down from the mountain and waited for her to go so insane and sew her lips together in a hunger strike? These are people FLEEING for their lives!

It seems we are happy to join the US in the war against terror to fight for democracy...as long as that means 'these people' stay in their country, and don't try to come to ours. It all seems too strange to comprehend. So much of our murky history is tainted by entrenched racism, and we must work as a nation to repent of such sin.

So as the media whips up a scare campaign claiming more boats will come because of 'Rudd's weak policy' lets remember, that are coming because they are fleeing from major persecution and violence. This is no plane trip to the Gold Coast. This is desperate attempt at the life all humans deserve. I am not saying we should throw open the flood gates. I am however saying that in 2002 there were over 15 million refugees worldwide, and these victims are being cared for, mostly in camps within impoverished nations. Australia's acceptance of refugees is minuscule compared with that of most of the world. And the chance of making it to Australia 'legitimately' is almost negligible. So I am just suggesting, rather than letting the whole country snap into our default racist and selfish stance, let's just keep it in perspective and start to do our share. Maybe it will be a burden, but I am thinking it well be less of a burden than it is on Tanzania, who would kick our humanitarian butt.

Sorry this degenerated into an uneducated rant. Please do some research and advocacy and be prepared for the avalanche.


Note: 'An asylum seeker is an individual who is seeking international protection. In countries with individualized procedures, an asylum seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she submitted it. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.'
(United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Master Glossary of Terms, June 2006)

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