Why the Coalition Needs Asylum Seekers

In recent months the issue of asylum seekers has resurfaced.  Although the issue is complex, there remains the simple question:  Why the focus on this topic at all? Considering the appalling stance of both the Coalition and Labor, and polls indicating that voters see the point-scoring discussion as ‘just playing politics’ in an area that neither side would take any awards for, why is this even a talking point?

The myth of the “boat person” is an age old one: terrifying alien beings that steal jobs and drain our economy. None of the popular arguments against them hold any water, but they remain nonetheless alive as a myth in the public discourse. These people – the majority of whom are families and individuals fleeing incredibly dangerous situations, seeking the refugee status they have every right to seek – have been turned into a hyperbolic, foreign enemy, something we must defend against. The reality is that they are human beings in need of our help, which international treaties oblige and the international community expect us to provide. Even the term itself, “boat people”, is a symptom of the myth, with its apposition of inanimate and human, thus dehumanising refugees. The term turns them into objects and adds quite a sinister aspect to them (they are like people, but not).

By accepting the myth, people can come to feel morally comfortable - not by being good and doing good, but simply by jumping on the bandwagon against a touted ‘evil’ and easily joining a chorus which has few words and the simplest tune. By joining an easy fight against the posited evil, our goodness is assumed and unquestioned, allowing us to do horrible things to people and being able to justify it as necessary to protect us from the enemy. In moving the focus from standing for something to standing against, the government on both sides has allowed their moral ideology to degenerate.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who got a letter from the Nationals candidate for New England Barnaby Joyce recently, stating his outrage that the Labor government had ‘lost control of our borders’. This is a very strange thing to say, considering asylum seekers arriving by boat (Irregular Maritime Arrivals) are doing so legally; the right to seek asylum, even by boat, is protected under the 1958 Migration act, and Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Australia has signed and is held to. Mr Joyce would also know that an individual cannot claim refugee status while in their own country, so people apply onshore when they arrive, which is the only possible route for many asylum seekers. The Labor government has in fact made it far harder for people to seek refugee status, by recently passing offshore processing legislation that has been called the “the harshest and cruellest policy in Australia’s history”. Labor’s ‘soft stance’ is just another myth.

The Coalition jingle “Turn the Boats Around” is no better: by turning the boats around we would be forcing back to Indonesia (a country that doesn’t recognise the Refugee Convention) those who have every right to seek asylum here and more often than not have no other way to get into the queue, let alone jump it. If it is the people smugglers themselves who are really the problem, as is sometimes stated when the underlying racism or “Please Explain” xenophobia is uncovered and brought out into daylight, then perhaps it’s worth finding an alternative approach that would prevent us throwing the baby out with the bathwater, along with our international reputation.

The real issue is that Australia accepts far fewer refugees per capita than most other civilised countries. Less than 50,000 refugees have arrived by boat in the last 36 years, and even fewer have been granted asylum and have been allowed to enter Australia. The Government and Opposition must know all of this, so could it be that they are simply assuming that Australians are xenophobic, backwards racists and are just taking this stance to appeal to our sensibilities? Giving the Coalition the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it is just a symptom of their approach as a party; instead of declaring real, moral, workable and compassionate policies, just accuse everything else of being worse than you, until you’re the only “Joyce” left to voters.

To guess at why both major parties, but especially the Coalition, are playing this card so close to the election is not difficult. Considering that we have one of the strongest economies in the (post?) GFC world, they have more chance of winning the election by standing against everything, instead of standing for principles let alone morals. They need the myth of ‘boat people’, to distract from the fact that they really have very little to offer. And it is up to us whether we want to engage with positions that are beneath us as people and as a nation, or demand something better.

- Stu Horsfield

From the Editors: July 2013

Living and Studying in Kenya