Australia is far from alone in having public issues with border control, 'illegal' immigration, refugees and so on. We are however, perhaps amongst the most extreme when it comes to refusal to engage with the issue from a factual or relevant perspective. And I mean this to apply to both sides of the political argument. It seems currently impossible for anyone from the major parties to turn this subject away from fearmongering and poll-driven electioneering policy and towards a wider discussion of moral and ethical, yet practical behaviour - the real stuff of nation building. Why should this be so?
I think largely it is because each party recognises that they have a split voter base, reflecting the deep divide in our society on this issue (if it can even be said to be one, given the facts) and with an election looming they are trying to be all things to all people.
Once again, we need to solve this ourselves, and the solution might be simpler than we think, as long as we take a long and wide view of this place and time in history.
This is the image we get a few times a week now on our TV screens. These people are being escorted from their small boat to the processing (detention) centre on the charmingly named Christmas Island. Do those folks in the life jackets look to you like brave but scared souls desperately hoping they've made it to the end of their perilous flight from all manner of danger and torment, or like prisoners under guard? Looks count in the creation of ideas in the public sphere; whether intentionally manipulated or not.
Let's just quickly scan the facts.
- 14 million homeless refugees worldwide, to date, and not counting those yet to be assessed as such, like the 42 million forcibly 'displaced persons' estimated at the end of 2008.
- Last year Australia received 6,170 asylum applications (In the US it was 49,020, France 41,980, Canada 33,250 and UK 29,840). Between 96 and 99 percent of asylum applications in Australia come from people arriving via plane, at an airport, with a ticket. At our current rate of refugee intake, from all sources, it will take something like 20 years to fill the MCG (a large sports stadium, for those who don't know).
- Most boat arrivals who seek asylum are found to be refugees. Past figures show that between 70 per cent to 97 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been found to be refugees. This is far higher than for asylum seekers who come by air.
- Less than 2% of Australia's migration intake comes from asylum seekers. Yet Essential Research reports that 10% of Australians believe that half or more of our migrant intake were asylum seekers; 15% said about 25% and 13% said about 10%. Only about 18% of Australians were close to the mark in saying only 1-2%. (Is the misinformation is working?)
- There are about 50,000 illegal over-stayers in Australia. They are actually and technically illegals, unlike asylum seekers who are legally entitled to seek our protection whilst their claims are assessed.
OK then. None of this explains the rabid and foaming cant streaming forth from all manner of sources about an invasion of boat people, of a threat to Australian sustainability, of a burden on our society and economy. A phrase I've heard used a lot is that of 'queue jumpers', referring to the fact that we have a set quota of refugess we will accept in any year, and that those asylum seekers granted refugee status displace numbers taken from international, offshore processing centres. But there is no queue, no waiting list.
What is the real fear here? And why do some have it, decidedly, yet others seem to have none of it?
I think a lot of it might stem from in difference in the way people see themselves, and what 'being Australian' means to them. I don't just mean their sets of morals or ethics, but how their identity-creation mechanisms are structured - in short, whether their self-identities are framed in the positive, or in the negative.
Even light has troubles with this stuff sometimes. Or am I projecting? :-)
Perhaps it can be boiled down to a fundamental; do you seek to protect a perceived advantage, or do you seek to extend it to others?
Fear of loss of that illusory control again, eh? But I really don't believe most folks want to see themselves as fearful, closed-minded, grasping, xenophobic, hyper-nationalist, racist, ungenerous, uncompassionate or even just unfair people. Not that I'm saying those with a knee-jerk anti-refugee minset are necessarily any or all of those things, mind. But it's worth remembering something about ourselves as a general rule, and how that drives our feedback loop - the media. It's that as animals who have been prey as much as predator, we are wired to pay more immediate and focussed attention to potential threats, to 'negatives' than to more peaceful and non-urgent seeming opportunities. So this is what we require our media feed us for our sense of security (being 'in the know'), for our entertainment, and our distraction from more mundane things.
How full or empty is that glass for you? And what, exactly, would you like to fill the other half with?
Check out those facts again if you want, this 'boat people' thing is currently a non-issue. What is at issue is the plight of our people, our species, those tens of millions of displaced people and refugess. As it's a global issue, not confined to any one country, our elected leaders tend to do their best to ignore it. A bit like the whole climate change thing.
I recently read a great line to do with Julia Gillard (Australia's current Prime Minister) and her statement regards the asylum seekr issue thst she'd "seek a consensus from the Australian people," which I feel in some situations is entirely laudable, but not in this one. Too many are too confused, afraid, misinformed, feel stridently correct and are otherwise unbalanced. Not the sort of populace you'd trust to do what's best for themselves, in other words. The line was
"Great leaders can generate consensus, they do not require it."
Indeed. The most poweful thing a leader can do for the people they serve is to show them a positive way out of their feelings of fear. To give them hope, and to guide them to see things as they are, but in a positive light.
I strongly believe we are far better served by defining ourselves by what we are, what we can do, what we have to offer, and how we want to feel than by what we are not, what we doubt we can achieve, what we will not relinquish, and how we fear we will feel.
As I write, an election has been announced in this country, in about 5 weeks time. I shall not be casting my (compulsory) vote merely to alleviate the damage I think the worst of the two major party choices available will do, but shall instead bring it right back down to basics. Who shows me the best vision for the future? M future, which is the future of my planet and my country. A future not based on fear.