Boats a last resort — let them stay

The government and most of the mainstream media want Australia to believe we are facing a "surge" of asylum seekers, threatening Australian borders as they arrive in dangerous and non-seaworthy boats.

The April 29 Australian declared the "surge continues", as two more boats carrying 79 people were intercepted last week, bringing the total number of vessels trying to reach Australian waters to 10 this year.

There is, in fact, a genuine surge around the world of people fleeing their homes and seeking refugee status in safe countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says across 51 countries, there was a 12% rise in application for asylum in 2008. That is about 383,000 new individuals seeking refugee status — 42,000 more than the year before.

And these are only numbers recorded officially. The situation is far more dire for the more than 1.8 million Afghans who live in temporary camps in Pakistan. War-torn Iraq has 2 million internally displaced people and close to 2 million Iraqi refugees living outside the country, said the UNHCR in November.

The Australian government cannot ignore this. Neither can it deny the reasons. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has repeatedly said "global insecurity" is the main culprit. Afghanistan's ambassador to Australia also agreed with what Rudd has dubbed "global push factors". That is, "continuing insecurity — and little or no economic opportunity at home", said the April 29 Australian.

However, of the more than 300,000 individuals who sought refugee status around the world in 2008, only 4700 applied to Australia. One hundred and seventy-nine of them came in boats.

It is hardly a surge compared with Rudd's announcement on April 29 that 450 extra soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan, contributing to the US forces' boosted numbers.

Khatol Ahmadzay, an Afghan worker with multicultural services in Western Sydney, told Green Left Weekly that her father's recent visit back to Afghanistan showed the US-driven war had indeed led to "continuing insecurity", war and poverty.

"He said, as soon as he stepped off the plane [in Afghanistan] he felt his life was in danger", she said. "He was in fear the whole time. The fear is uncontrollable there … Suicide bombs happen more now, this has only been since the US came. It can happen anytime — people are killed daily, the occupying attacks are daily."

The 70 Afghan asylum seekers who were arrested in Indonesia as they planned to board a boat to Australia said the Taliban "will kill us" if they were sent back and they "would rather die than be sent back to Afghanistan or back to the refugee camps in Pakistan", according to ABC Online on April 21.

Despite this, immigration officials have said they will be deported.

"That's why so many try to run away — they go to Iran or to Pakistan and that's where the tragedy starts", said Ahmadzay.

The reality is that those who take the huge risk of coming by boat are the most desperate and have reached their final option.

Ahmadzay told GLW that people sold everything they had and endured horrific ordeals to make it far enough to apply for refugee status. It is only when they got to places such as Indonesia that the UNHCR told them they could expect waiting periods of "up to three to four years".

Iraqis and Afghans who left their homes as long as nine years ago remain in Indonesia waiting to be "resettled" by the UNHCR.

Iraqi refugees told the ABC on April 23 that "the lengthy waiting period is the reason why most of them will still risk their lives on boats to Australia".

One man, who tried to come to Australia in 2001 but whose boat was "intercepted and turned back to Indonesia", told reporters: "I cannot live 10 years the same life — no hope. So when they have any opportunity to go to Australia, they will use it."

The xenophobic rhetoric would have us believe that people cross the ocean in rotten leaky boats to "jump the queue".

However, Mary Crock, a senior law lecturer at the University of Sydney, told GLW that people making their way to Australian waters by boat hardly win preferential treatment for their risks.

"The UN has said that one of the most important things to do with refugees when they come, is give them guidance when they first arrive", she said. "But in Australia … they are removed from any legal advice or guidance.

"Refugees get interviewed three times, but with no idea who is there to help them or there to 'assess' them, they don't know who are lawyers, government officials or staff. It is so unfair."

Poverty, war and danger are increasing, and the impacts of climate change are causing millions more to seek safety in wealthy and secure countries around the world. However, Australia maintains a cruel and inhumane refugee policy based on "border security", nationalism and protectionism.

Rudd also continues to lay a heavy hand on "people smugglers", pegging them as scapegoats against global instability and conflict.

"Other countries don't do this", Crock said. "New Zealand doesn't, England doesn't. Even the US takes more.

"If you want to be bonafide about assessing refugees, you have to do it irrespective of how they get here. Clearly we discriminate against people and it's illegal."