This is a provocative question, one to which most Australians will respond with: We don’t hate asylum seekers. Australia is the land of opportunity. We welcome anyone who will come to us with their hands outstretched for help.
For most Australians, this is where it stops: this declaration of help to an unknown face in a boat off the shore. Then it is off to the next game, to work, to tend to the backyard, to take the kids out shopping for Christmas. What most of us don’t realise is that as a country, Australia is shutting her doors to all asylum seekers. So far, at least our official stand on refugees has been sympathetic, but with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announcing his ‘PNG’ solution recently, even that boat has left the shore.
According to this ‘solution’, no asylum seeker arriving by boat will be allowed to settle in Australia. No exceptions. No arguments.
Writing in The Monthly, Christos Tsiolkas mentions the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Once set up as a Melbourne shopfront, now it has grown into an organisation that employs 45 staff and 872 volunteers, with a thousand more people wishing to help in whatever way they can. The Centre offers help and resources to asylum seekers so that they can assimilate themselves into Australian life as smoothly as possible.
The Centre is devastated by this news, writes Tsiolkas. He mentions that 85% of people who arrive on Australia’s shores are genuine refugees, and as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, Australia is obligated to offer these people refuge.
And yet, we went from One Nation to ‘Stop the Boats’.
The last 15 years of political history in Australia have shown that the electorate is not convinced of globalisation’s benefits. It is why asylum seeker policy has been at the centre of the Coalition’s attempts to undermine both the Rudd and Gillard governments. It is also why Rudd’s PNG solution initially blindsided the Coalition, reducing its members to searching for evidence that it won’t work, trying to top it until they finally came up with an even more desperate and ungenerous policy.
Yet all of us, no matter which side of the asylum seeker debate we fall on, know that even if all the bloody boats were stopped, if they were all sent back into Indonesian waters, if we put all those on board into camps in a deprived satellite nation, if we exterminated them all – every blighted man, woman and child – none of this would speed up the two-hour drive on choked roads that we take to and from work, boost the numbers of nurses and doctors in our public hospitals, make our education system any better, or increase wages, the dole or our pension payments.
We all know this.
The problem with the argument of nationhood is that there is no one nation that makes up Australia. Our country is made up of the cosmopolitan Australians in the inner cities, and the parochial, anxious communities of the urban fringes and the bush. While cosmopolitan Australians are not naturally suspicious of asylums because they’re more widely travelled and don’t flinch at multiculturalism, the suburbans are terrified.
In focus group testing, asylum seekers don’t figure in the top 20 issues of the average Australian. This has to change. Australia must stand up for what she believes she is: a free, generous land where the needy are never turned away at the shore.