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The most significant individuals lost in last week’s furious parliamentary debate were asylum seekers.
As members of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers’ Project, we talk to many asylum seekers, both in immigration detention centres and in the community.
They tell us the reasons why they have left their countries and their families to find a safe place to live. These reasons always include fear of being tortured, imprisoned and killed, and lack of basic human rights for themselves and their children.
When they flee from their own country, they face new dangers in countries where they are considered illegal and where it is still impossible for them to live safely. As we listen to individuals’ stories and try in some ways to assist them, we constantly marvel at how any human beings can suffer so much and still survive.
It is essential to begin with the premise that people who suffer persecution have a right to seek protection. It is a tragedy that many have died in the perilous journey from Indonesia to Australia in search of that protection.
We believe that it is impossible to save people from drowning on these trips unless we address the issues that made them get on boats in the first place.
To imagine that asylum seekers get on boats without weighing up safer options beggars belief.
A few facts put this into perspective.
Less than 10% of those found to be refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia are resettled anywhere in the world. The rest are forced to survive illegally in countries where human rights abuses are rampant and where safety is impossible. Families are separated (for years) as husbands and fathers seek a place where they can ensure a reasonable life for their loved ones.
The number of asylum seekers accepted by Australia is a small and arbitrary number. It could be doubled or tripled and still not be large by global standards.
We recommend an immediate increase in the current annual number from 13750 to 25000. We also recommend immediately offering places to 5000 asylum seekers registered with UNHCR who are waiting indefinitely in Indonesia and Malaysia.
If, as an Australian community, we really want to contribute to the safety of asylum seekers at sea, we should immediately put more resources into maritime rescue operations.
We recommend negotiation with Indonesia about how both countries can cooperate to save lives. We recommend that the bulk of the resources needed come from Australia because we are the more affluent country.
There is a lot of confusion in the community and in the parliament about why the boat tragedies are happening. We reject the idea that we can effectively deter desperate people from getting on boats by punishing those who do. The passion to find a safe place for those in desperate need should be our top priority.