The asylum seeker “issue” is one that really perplexes me, whether it’s because of the gross exaggeration of its importance, the political points obtainable by pressing a hard line on it, the horribly inaccurate misconceptions surrounding it, or the sadistic way in which so many in this country take pleasure from being cruel to a handful of already suffering people.

Not so long ago, I was one of the crowd who had, due to a number of factors, also been led to believe that illegal immigrants were an issue for this country and needed to be dealt with strongly to maintain the integrity of Australia’s borders. What’s changed between then and now is that I’ve actually done some research on the “issue” and have some facts to back up my opinion. I’d argue that in the past my beliefs were largely based on uninformed rhetoric shared with me via the means of politicians and right-wing media making largely unsubstantiated claims.

I’ll attempt in this blog post to address some of the “concerns” people have about asylum seekers, and some of their generally uninformed beliefs (some of which I held myself), and see whether adding a bit of fact to the fearmongering can actually change a few minds on the issue.

1. The number of boat people arriving is a big issue in this country

Possibly the biggest misconception out there. In the last 20 years, a total of 22,483 asylum seekers arrived in Australia, which equates to on average just over 1,000 per year. Even in the biggest arrival years, only about 4,000 people arrived by boat. Compare that with the legal net migration rate which is currently at about 200,000 people per year (and has been up towards 300,000 in recent years), and the birth rate which saw another 296,600 babies born in 2008 alone, and it becomes evident that boat people are barely a drop in the ocean, with their numbers at most not even equalling about 1.5% of Australia’s legal migration intake.

2. Temporary Protection Visas discouraged illegal entrants

Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) were introduced by the Howard Government in October 1999 to stop what it believed was a problem of asylum seekers trying to rort the immigration system by sending a member of their family (usually a male relative like a father or brother) over to Australia by boat to then sponsor the whole family to come to Australia legally. TPVs granted only temporary asylum to these people, and stopped them from being allowed to sponsor family to join them. However, instead of stopping people arriving by boat, it actually increased boat arrivals, because the families of people on TPVs were forced to come by boat to join their relatives instead of being allowed to do so legally and safely.

The following is a table of boat people arrivals by financial year:

1998-99: 921

1999-00: 4175 (<- the year TPVs were introduced)

2000-01: 4137

2001-02: 3039

This shows that boat arrivals were actually lower before TPVs were introduced, and that more and more boat people continued to arrive despite the apparent deterrent of TPVs being introduced. All the TPVs can claim responsibility for is the reason there were so many women and children on Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, the boat that sank during a storm en route to Australia, causing the deaths of 146 children, 142 women, but only 65 men. Without the TPVs being introduced, it’s highly likely that none of the nearly 300 women and children would have even been on that boat. The women and children on that boat were en route to Australia to try and be reunited with their fathers, brothers and husbands that had already travelled to Australia, but were now stuck for three years without being able to bring their families over, or even return to visit their families, as the holder of a TPV forfeited their right to be in Australia if they left the country.

3. John Howard “stopped the boats”

As shown above, evidently Howard’s initial strategy of TPVs didn’t have an impact on arrivals, but people believe that his handling of the Tampa affair and the establishment of a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru entirely stopped the arrival of boats in Australia.

There is one bit of fact in that belief – the boats did in fact stop arriving for a period of time. In financial year 2002-03, not a single boat person arrived in Australia. The rest, however, is largely debatable. Howard’s handling of the Tampa affair did many things – it caused a diplomatic rift between Australia and Norway (the country of origin of the MV Tampa), it caused a diplomatic rift between Australia and Indonesia (the country that Australia first wanted to take the refugees picked up in Australian waters by the Tampa), and it did give some much needed cash to the bankrupt nation of Nauru (courtesy of the Australian taxpayer), who were all too glad to take these refugees and hold them while Australia them paid for the right to do so.

The biggest factor that actually stopped the boats coming had nothing to do with domestic politics at all. It came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, when the US, in coalition with the UK, Australia and many others, invaded Afghanistan. The vast majority of the people arriving in Australia by boat were Afghani, and after the Taliban government was outed by the invasion, the Afghanis who had been forced out by the oppressive rule of the Taliban no longer needed to flee. So, from early 2002 onwards, Afghani refugees stopped coming. Not because the Australian Government’s regional detention camp and TPVs were scaring them away, but because the refugees weren’t being forced to flee in the first place.

If you need more proof, look at the ethnic origin of the people arriving by boat now. People fleeing civil war and ethnic persecution in Sri Lanka, people fleeing violent unrest in Afghanistan (the problem we were supposed to fixed) and Iran. These people had a lot more to worry about than TPVs or detention camps in their homelands, and were prepared to risk their lives to travel in unseaworthy vessels halfway across the world to seek asylum here. If we think our TPVs and regional detention centres will scare them, we are really overstating our importance, and really understating the suffering these people have gone through both before and during the journey to Australia. Which leads to the next commonly held belief…

4. We can turn back the boats

Turning back boats is a popular concept in this country as it simply does away with the problem of having to deal with asylum seekers at all. However, it works on the assumption that a boatload of hundreds of refugees, many of whom have parted with their life savings to get a spot on a boat, have fled all they knew and had, sneaked across borders, and travelled thousands of kilometres to search for what they believe will be a better life, will just voluntarily accept instructions from Australian Naval and Coastguard vessels to turn around and go back where they came from. The mere thought is as insane as it is impractical.

The fact is, most of these vessels depart from ports in Indonesia, with a minimal crew (in order to fit more paying customers on board), and are barely seaworthy enough to make the journey to Australia, let alone a return leg. The government tried in 2001 to use the navy to turn the boats around, and failed on all but one occasion. Most times the orders were just ignored, and even on the occasions where the navy actually boarded the vessels and turned them around manually, the boats either turned back towards Australia again, or were sabotaged in order to prevent the return journey being made. In extreme cases, fears were held for the crew of these boats, as well as the naval officers who tried to turn the boats around. I mean, look at the sheer weight of numbers: 2 or 3 crew, a handful of Australian naval officers, and 300 or more distressed asylum seekers. Who do you think is going to win that battle?

So, to put it simply, any suggestion that the boats can just be turned back at the edge of Australian waters is just so infeasible that it will simply never be able to happen.

5. Most boat people are just terrorists trying to find a back-door way into the country

In the aftermath of September 11, a rather vague but effective link was made between unlawful arrivals in Australia’s shores and the terrorists behind such evil attacks like those that happened on September 11. But let’s look at the process a would-be terrorist would have to go through to get into Australia by boat:

  • Have to pay up to US$10,000 for a spot on a crowded boat from Indonesia with hundreds of others, with little or no personal belongings
  • Would be intercepted by Australian authorities upon arrival and immediately be placed in mandatory detention, potentially not even on the Australian mainland
  • Would be investigated by the Australian Department of Immigration to determine a genuine refugee claim, and if none was found would be deported
  • Would have to spend 3 or more years in detention before even being considered for release
  • And even if they made it through this entire process, would be then in Australia with nothing

Compare this to the process of legally entering the country, through a tourist visa or work permit, where you’d fly in, immediately be let in to society, and be subject to far less stringent checks than any asylum seeker would. Now tell me, if you were going to enter a country for this purpose, which method would you choose?

6. Asylum seekers are bludgers who scab off our welfare system and give nothing to society

Another populist belief that has little or no truth to it, though that doesn’t stop it being portrayed as such by many in the mainstream media. This Media Watch story from late last year provides just one example of how figures can be twisted and assumptions made (but never publicly disclosed) in order to tell the story they want you to hear in regards to asylum seekers. For instance, the Nine News story made the claim in that report that an additional 13,500 asylum seekers had made claims for Centrelink payments at a cost of $628 million dollars to tax payers. The actual data provided by Centrelink shows that more than 11,000 of the 13,500 figure given weren’t actually asylum seekers, and in fact only 206 asylum seekers who had arrived by boat had applied for payments in the period specified. Additionally, the $628 million figure was completely made up, as Centrelink very strongly told Media Watch in that story.

So, while it’s easy to label these people with blatantly inaccurate stereotypes, the facts simply do not support such “beliefs”.

So, finally, I guess the question needs to be asked, if asylum seekers don’t actually do all these horrible things we think they do, then why are they such an issue? That is a question that few have been able to answer. There are those (such as myself) who believe that politicians and the media pandering to these inaccurate beliefs are largely to blame, and there are those who take a much more cynical view and blame a deep undercurrent of racism and xenophobia in Australian society. I’d very much like to think that the latter is not true – I like to believe that Australians are decent, humanitarian people who embrace those of different backgrounds. However, in the face of the prevalence of such inaccurate and downright xenophobic views such as the ones I attempted to clarify, it can become quite hard to defend that belief.

What I would like to see is a politician, a media outlet or someone of note actually come out and try to educate people on their blatant misconceptions. Instead, all we see from our leaders is them fighting a race to the bottom when it comes to how harshly we can treat these boat arrivals, and we see xenophobic rants from our media outlets such as those made by Nine News in that Media Watch report I linked to earlier, among many, many others. In a perfect world, we could all look at the facts, and formulate a response to asylum seekers that actually addresses the real issues of the problem, not just panders to the populist beliefs of the rather vocal racists in our community. But I fear that that perfect world is so far from the here and now that it may simply never, ever become reality.

As a footnote, I’d like to point out that I am staunchly opposed to people smuggling, and would in fact like to see the end of it, as well as the end of boats arriving on our shores. I say that not because I find the arrival of asylum seekers threatening, but because it is a largely dangerous exercise that has seen innocent people unnecessarily die while lining the pockets of a few heartless profiteers. Sadly, while there are places that are in peril, refugees will simply be a fact of life, and those desperate enough will do anything, including risking their lives to come to Australia by boat, in order to survive. I simply don’t think we should just turn our backs on this, but I do believe that attempting to address the issues takes more than just sending the few arrivals we do get to some small, under-resourced neighbour country. To do that ignores everything that is causing the problem, and achieves nothing.