Decriminalise People Smuggling and Increase Resettlement

 

People smugglers perform the job that the Australian government should be doing; rescuing asylum seekers from persecution to re-settle them safely. Australia does not offer re-settlement to people who are getting on the boats – people from such places as Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – therefore there is no ‘legal’ means to travel here apart from literally getting on a boat.

If the government was truly worried about people losing their lives by getting on boats they would firstly remove the need for them to get on the boats by offering re-settlement or by de-criminalising people smuggling so that the voyages can be planned safely. It is by criminalising people smuggling that we increase the danger of the journey.

The boats used by people smugglers upon arrival to Australia are impounded, therefore the fee they charge is because they will lose their livelihood after the journey.

Until the government removes the need for people smugglers it would be hypocritical to condemn them, because they are the ones saving the lives of people we partake in the abuse of.

 

Don’t stop the boats – stop the need for boats.

The alternative: Resettlement.

While today resettlement is offered to less than one percent of the world’s refugees, between 1912 and 1969, nearly 50 million Europeans sought refuge abroad and all of them were resettled. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Australia resettled over 100 000 Indo-Chinese refugees from Southeast Asia under the Fraser Government. In the past, the world has demonstrated that, where there is the political will, vast numbers of people in need can be accommodated.

A real solution to all of these problems would involve an increase in Australia’s resettlement intake from Indonesia. This would not only provide a durable solution for refugees seeking protection but also remove the backlog of asylum seekers waiting in inhumane conditions which drive them to attempt the perilous journey to Australia. While there were 2567 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia at the end of 2009, Australia resettled only 33 in 2005, 30 in 2006, 86 in 2007, 35 in 2008 and 29 in 2009.¹

If we brought people over from Indonesia or offered them efficient resettlement they would no longer need to get on a boat to come to Australia. If we increased or offered resettlement in the countries that people are fleeing from – which we don’t – then they would no longer need to flee to secondary countries in order to get here.

This correlates with the myth that asylum seekers are coming to Australia because we ‘are a soft touch’ or ‘soft’ on asylum seekers. That is simply not true and the facts completely contradict this notion.

The introduction of TPVs under the Howard government was one of the most brutal and inhumane policies to ever be inflicted on asylum seekers. During this time though there was a huge spike in the number of children (and their mothers) on boats as they precluded family reunions. Boatphobes often ask “why is it always single men on the boats” – it was because they didn’t want to risk the lives of their families, and TPVs meant they had to if they wanted to get them out. This is an example of a ‘harsh’ government policy that only resulted in exacerbating the influx of people.

If we are to assume asylum seekers and boat operators follow Australian politics closely and respond to policy changes, then we must assume they follow the debate as well. When Labor was elected, and the Coalition jumped up and down screaming ‘Australia is a soft touch! Australia is a soft touch!’ again and again that probably would have contributed to the mistaken impression that Australia… is a soft touch. Yet boat arrivals met a lull.

Between the end of the South Vietnamese refugee peak period subsequent to the end of the Vietnam War, and the introduction of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, there was never more than 300 people arriving by boat in any given year (1981-1992). So people weren’t coming even though Australia didn’t have desert prison camps, TPVs and Nauru. It was seven yearsafter the introduction of mandatory detention that numbers cracked 1000 for the first time since 1975 (and it was under the Coalition). Why? In 1996 the Taliban took Kabul. Three years later, relatively large numbers of Afghans were trying to make it to Australia. The fact that almost 100% of Afghan boat arrivals in that year (1999 – similar rates in 2000 and 2001) were granted asylum suggest that the PUSH factor was far greater than any pull.

2006-2009 fighting in Sri Lanka and the defeat of the LTTE saw a similar response in terms of Tamils trying to reach Oz. People fleeing Iran after the crackdown on the ‘Green Movement’, people fleeing Iraq has increased since the 2003 invasion. People fleeing Burma since the crackdown on the Saffron Revolution. It’s more painting by numbers than it is rocket science. But of course, it is politically convenient for the Opposition to ignore push factors.

On Australia Day 2006 I met three sisters from Afghanistan aged 20, 23 and 24. They were getting their citizenship. They had first applied for asylum in Australia seven years earlier – in 1999, and had waited FOUR YEARS to get out and to get here. Now if three orphaned girls aged 13, 16 and 17 had to wait four years to get out of Afghanistan when the Taliban controlled 90% of the country – you have to ask what is going on with the so-called “proper channels”.

Now in 2011 numbers were down by almost half from 2010. The media ignored this as did the Coalition. What is more interesting is that while our max cap is 13,750 a year – fewer than 9000 people applied for asylum in Aus in 2011 in total. So where’s the queue? If Australia is such a soft touch, where’s the flood? If there’s such a gap, why aren’t there more boats than there have been? If there’s usually a gap, why do people like those three sisters have to wait several years to get through the system?

If one really wants to get boat arrivals down to 1980s levels (when there was no mandatory detention, let alone TPVs or Pacific prison camps), then you’d do something about the fact people with glaringly obvious claims to asylum have to wait four years to get through the system. The answer is offer resettlement - facilitate peoples journey here.

 

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