Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Why do asylum seekers pay people smugglers in order to immigrate to Australia by boat? Why don’t they come the ‘right’ and ‘legal’ way? These questions always force their way out when I converse with people about ‘boat people’. My initial reaction is; they are not illegal – a fact by international law (UN Refugee Convention and Australian Migration Act 1958). Then I ask, what is the right way?

If that is by plane – a large number simply cannot because they may be stateless or have passports which believe it or not Australia won’t stamp, even for short-term visas. Many people also answer this question with resettlement through the proper channels (UNHCR refugee camps). A real world reason and partial answer to these questions is that Labor/Julia Gillard, under heavy pressure from human rights groups and the Greens, recently increased the annual intake of refugees to 20,000. This is not a massive number in comparison to other countries intakes or even Australia’s own immigration numbers of lucky immigrants from wealthy countries (United Kingdom, China & New Zealand for example).

“the United Kingdom still tops the list of arrivals, with 123,600 arriving in the last 5 years, continuing to represent around 15% of Australia’s migration intake. The UK migration alone is almost twice the total humanitarian stream and about ten times the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The UK is closely followed by India (114,000) and China (111,000), then it’s a long way back to the next two countries, the Philippines (43,000) and South Africa (41,000)… as well as of course our trans-Tasman neighbours from New Zealand – who don’t need a visa to settle here and so aren’t included in the DIAC figures.”
Informed Decisions Blog

Nevertheless, 20k is an improvement – so what’s the problem you may ask? Well, the problem is that in the last six months, the Australian government has resettled a generous, wait for it… 51 refugees from Indonesia! Does that give an indication on why people are choosing a boat – and the repercussions ring loud. There were at least 242 deaths last year that we are aware of, and a disturbing 1731 since the year 2000. These numbers are only an approximation because there would be boats which have sunk without our noticing. With all the debate about stopping the boats, do the politicians really want to; because there seems to be ways of stemming them…

With only 51 given lately, that leaves a few (give or take 1000’s) places for the ones who chose to take a chance on the perilous journey by sea – risking their lives in search for safety and freedom. With so many more places to give, why then are we detaining innocent people indefinitely? Why are they living their lives in wet tents offshore, being exposed to malaria and numerous other infectious diseases? Even 2010 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry (mental health expert) is quoted saying “you could almost describe them as factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder“. Criminals who have actually broken the law get better conditions to live in, plus they aren’t mentally tortured by indefinite confinement – they get a sentence and approximate release date – something to look forward to.

That also brings up the issue where the government is on occasions playing god – being judge and jury – which not even the worst of criminals go without a fair trial. In recent months the government have taken it upon themselves to send back some Sri Lankans – which upon arrival have gone to jail or missing… The government is not helping the needy, they are using them to deter future arrivals, especially with offshore facilities like Nauru – taking advantage of vulnerable people for their own political gains.

I strongly believe that there needs to be a push to show Australian citizens the real human stories behind these faceless and nameless people we call ‘boat people’. In that vein I recently brought a independent documentary called ‘Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea‘. Similar to the SBS program ‘Go Back to Where You Came From‘, it helps bring some truth to the surface whilst revealing real, human faces and stories behind these unknown ‘others’ we are talking about. I mentioned earlier that there are ways of stemming the boats, therefore attempting to stop people losing their lives at sea; one way is to increase the number of resettlement’s from Indonesia – our main source of ‘boat people’. This would work because a number of asylum seekers in this documentary, before choosing to board a boat, have registered as a refugee and are waiting in the ‘queue’ for resettlement – that is their first choice – but because Australia has only given so few people that chance, they risk their lives because they don’t want to wait a lifetime in limbo.

A lifetime isn’t an exaggeration either, as this happens – because with this type of ‘queue’, queue jumping happens all the time and is the way of life at refugee camps as the ‘more needy’ are placed first… So a family may have been waiting for resettlement in Indonesia for years, watching new refugees resettled right before their eyes – which is the case for some in ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’. They just couldn’t wait any longer – most because they didn’t want their children to grow up in such an environment. There are some Australians who harbor real hatred for these ‘queue jumping boat people’, but what makes them worse than the ‘queue jumpers’ at the refugee camps? Either way you look at it, they are all people in need. Do we hate ‘boat people’ because they have the guts to risk their lives to be an Australian themselves? Please, take a look in the mirror – but be very careful, you may end up hating yourself…