Myths and Misperceptions in the Asylum Seeker Debate

The unfortunate effect of the asylum seeker debate has been that many people not only feel entitled to an opinion based on nothing more than an implicit hunch, but they feel entitled to their own facts to justify their position. Appeals for compassion, (although warranted!) seem to discredit the validity of oppositional discourse. Regardless of what we attribute this kind of reasoning to, prejudice marrs the debate.

We are consistently voting with our apathy or what I would argue is actually wilful blindness. The idea that harsher punitive measures will work is baseless political manoeuvring and in any case, a country that punishes the most vulnerable for the accident of their birth is not the kind of Australia we should be striving for.

Advocates were perhaps naive to think mere dissemination of fact would temper the debate. Against a virulent media and opinion leaders who continue to refer falsely to asylum seekers as ‘illegal’, it seems an insurmountable task to implore empathy. Justice stands against a tide of indifference, a rejection of our collective agency, a diffusion of responsibility and a violent cynicism of the suffering of others and those working to alleviate it.

Scott Morrison’s media blackout seems to have been met with silence. Much is wrong with a society that turns away from truth with a grimace preferring the privilege of ignorance, but as the rights of non-citizens are usurped by our sense of entitlement, we are prouder than ever to wield the lucky geographical accident of our birth as a weapon.

What about our rights? What about our right to hold a government to account? Our right to the truth? If we’re not ready to get angry about the denigration of the rights of others, let’s get angry about the erosion of our rights! We are being lied to and I’m fucking miffed about it and you should be too.


Myths and Misperceptions:

They’re not our responsibility! – Guess what, they are.

Why don’t they just stay in their transition countries then! Would living illegally with no access to public services, constantly under threat from authorities seeking to detain you and exploit you sound like a reasonable life for you and your family? Indonesia and Malaysia are not signatories to the 1951 convention and asylum seekers are illegal immigrants in these nations. Beyond the constant threat of incarceration and extortion, asylum seekers are prevented from working, accessing social security, studying, engaging in civic life and are denied medical care.

They are all terrorists. In spite of their spurious false name, ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ have never been confirmed to be engaging in terrorist activity and many cases that ASIO has deemed ‘adverse security assessments’ have since been overturned after coming under independent international scrutiny.

You can say whatever you want but Howard stopped the boats. Nobody has truly ‘stopped the boats’ and nobody can, (though Scott Morrison has kindly informed us that he will refuse to release details of boat arrivals without the approval of a three star general. So I guess not hearing about the boats is just as good as stopping them, we can let the government play a giant politicised game of peek-a-boat with us and we’ll just pretend they’re not there).

As much as we like to think the sun shines out of our arse and everybody wants to come here, the reality is most refugees would love the opportunity to stay in their home countries, but little disagreeable things like war, famine, persecution and genocide kinda take that option off the table. They’re not picking Australia out of a glossy catalogue, traipsing through transition countries with their beach towels and travel itineraries, regionally we are the best hope of offering asylum seekers a chance at freedom and a happy life for their families. We should be proud of that.

Some governments may have managed to uphold the illusion of ‘stopping the boats’ but this is only because the Australian public have coalesced with those in power to allow them to have us think that while the boats aren’t arriving on our shores, that the problem has disappeared. What is seldom considered is how the global situation has differed markedly between successive governments. A government’s policy on asylum seekers can hardly be held solely accountable for increased arrivals in the context of increased global conflict (in 2012 we saw the greatest number of displaced persons seeking refuge in over a decade). These leaders praise themselves for preventing drownings at sea but how many asylum seekers died as a result of being returned to their homelands? How many died as a result of the decision to stay home? How many decided death was preferable over life in detention? How many women and children died needlessly after TPVs were introduced preventing family reunion?

If they come here illegally, then serves them right. Seeking asylum by any means necessary with or without appropriate documentation is not illegal, it is a human right. With great historic irony, Australia actually helped draft the very convention we violate by referring to them as ‘illegal’.

They are all queue jumpers and they should wait their turn. The problem is, as a country free of persecution, we liken this queue to a queue at the post office.

Imagine standing in a queue that was indefinite, you had no idea how long you could be standing there. You could be standing there, like many asylum seekers, for 20 or 30 years, perhaps even until you die – who knows. While you are standing there you are not allowed to work, your children are not allowed to go to school, you are illegal in the country you reside in and face the constant threat of incarceration, you are subject to sexual and physical abuses at the hands of your captors, you are being extorted and bribed for your safety, you do not have access to clean facilities, you are impoverished, you are in hiding, there is nowhere for your children to play, there is nowhere for you to practice your religion, you do not speak the language, you have fled your besieged homeland leaving behind friends and family for a chance at freedom and while you wait for that chance you are systematically disenfranchised and considered a second-rate citizen leaving you hopeless and helpless until you are able to risk your life on a leaky boat for a chance at freedom. It takes courage and desperation to board a boat to Australia, yet once you arrive you will be treated as a cheat and a criminal.

The notion of a queue is very nice when you are standing at the bank, and you would be well within your rights to be a bit miffed if some bastard pushed in, but when you are running for your life there is no such thing as an orderly queue and those who ‘jump’ this supposed queue do not deserve to be subjects of our vitriol and condemnation. In fact, only 0.5% of the world’s total refugee population even had a chance to access this ‘queue’ in 2011! The UN conducts interviews that last for an estimated 6 minutes. How can you possibly determine the ‘level of desperation’ of an individual in 6 minutes? How can we judge and rank suffering? The processing arrangement merely has the superficial appearance of due process and Howard and Ruddock managed to exploit this veneer by alluding to those arriving by boat as ‘queue jumpers’. Unfortunately the rhetoric stuck.

They bring their problems with them. As over 93% of the asylum seekers arriving by boat are determined to be genuine refugees, there is no doubt they have experienced horrors beyond the frame of reference of Australians lucky enough to have been born into this free, democratic country. This doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on them and it certainly doesn’t mean we should incarcerate them under circumstances that contribute further to their trauma. If we can provide compassionate care and assistance to new Australians in coping with the trauma of fleeing their homeland we will welcome vibrant, skilled and grateful Australians who will contribute wholeheartedly to our society. If we vilify and segregate we can only expect to perpetuate resentment in our communities. What is often neglected in this line of argument is the number of asylum seekers being integrated into Australia each year. Arguments aimed at asylum seekers based on notions of preserving social cohesion are misdirected, asylum seekers make up just 3% of our annual immigration intake and guess what, most of them arrive by plane. We’re being inundated by plane people with 457 visas and Irish accents.

– We have to dismantle the people smugglers’ business model – What exactly do we mean by this? The people smuggler’s business model is much the same ‘business model’ you or I might use if we were to start our own business. For as long as we have refugees, we will have people smugglers.

If what we mean is that we need to take away the demand for people smugglers in order to render their ‘business model’ ineffective, we can do this by either fixing the world’s problems to stem the international flow of refugees, or we can improve the channels through which refugees can travel safely without soliciting the service of third parties. Banning refugees from entering Australia may have a limited push down pop up effect in that some boats may go elsewhere, but if this strategy appeases the public, we are hypocrites who don’t really care about the lives lost at sea.

The victims of the people smuggling business go beyond asylum seekers and, in our region, include the captains and crew members who are often underage Indonesian fisherman lured or forced into the trade. These operators will continue to provide services that exploit the desperation of refugees and the chaos of the current system. If we really want to ‘dismantle’ the model, the way to do it is through streamlining and expanding existing channels to remove the demand for their services.

Well, fine then but we should take ‘real’ refugees from camps instead

She says it best:

Suggesting that we forego those who reach our shores in favour of those who languish in refugee camps across the globe is akin to suggesting that a hospital forego its heart disease patients in order to concentrate on its cancer patients. The ‘tit for tat’ interpretation of our humanitarian intake is a farce that survives on public opinion that judges onshore applicants as criminals and offshore applicants as victims – such a judgment can be in part attributed to the ‘tit for tat’ policy which Australia has adopted. We seem to have adopted a false assumption that a prerequisite for becoming a refugee is poverty and those with the material means to flee are less deserving of protection. The international refugee crisis requires a dual approach which deals with both the immigration issue on a state by state basis, and foreign aid to help alleviate the pressure in UNHCR camps. Reducing the overall humanitarian program to 13,750 as the Coalition has done is certainly no step towards achieving this balance. Australia is the only country in the world which numerically links its onshore and offshore humanitarian program. The debate so often centres around those who suffer in refugee camps being disadvantaged by those who are able to flee by boat and by making our offshore resettlement program contingent upon the status of our onshore program, the myth that those receiving onshore protection are not using the ‘proper channels’ is sustained. The fact so often neglected in this position is that the offshore component of our humanitarian program is voluntary and the onshore component is a legal obligation. The ‘queue’ we are so averse to is a product of our own policy and public ignorance. The fact is if you and your family had the choice between dying in a refugee camp or pooling all your savings and risking a new start, what would you do? We shouldn’t punish those with the means and courage to subvert our defunct system, we ought to change the system!

– You can go befriend them then if you like them so much! Tick. I’d take the company of a refugee over the company of ignorance any day of the week. It is this attitude which most unsettles me. The perception that refugees are people to be excluded and ridiculed is borne of our fear. Nobody ought to be punished for an opinion which is derived from the desire to protect themselves and their families from a percieved threat, but I implore anybody who is fearful of refugees to take the time to deconstruct their attitudes, meet with refugees and understand and recognise the bio-psycho-social drivers of their own prejudice. It is the perception of social evaluative threat which drives our prejudice and as recent research shows, with greater intergroup interaction this prejudice is disarmed. In the recent Scanlon report, the attribute which Australians most like to assign themselves, ‘kind, caring and friendly’ was ranked last by new immigrants. We’re not all a pack of assholes are we? I’d like to think not, so go forth and show our new arrivals what the Aussie spirit is really about and let’s destroy this international perception of us as narrowminded xeonophobic tools.

They get higher welfare payments than us! When asylum seekers arrive in Australia, they have no access to Centrelink benefits. A small number of asylum seekers are eligible for the Red Cross Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme for a limited period of time. This amounts to only 89% of the Newstart Allowance. A common argument I hear is that asylum seekers recieve immense sums of money from the Australian government while they are in detention; this is completely false as the government’s own website attests. I infer much of this confusion arises from the misunderstanding between the notions of ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ – however, even once granted refugee status, refugees are not entitled to higher social welfare than Australians. It is also argued that asylum seekers receive hundreds of dollars per day while in detention; given the similar cost of detaining asylum seekers I infer this is where this misunderstanding arises. Though it is difficult to estimate the costs of detention given the secretive agreements between governments and private enterprises such as Serco and G4S, it is estimated to cost approximately $339 per day. Detainees do not receive this money, this is merely a reflection of the cost to taxpayers of detaining asylum seekers, moreover, this cost is going straight into private corporations G4S and Serco, two companies with attrocious human rights records. Until 2009, with the sickening hypocrisy the Australian government is renowned for, asylum seekers were actually required to pay the government back for their illegal detention once their claims were finally processed! Wherever this idea came from that asylum seekers are better off than Australian citizens, it is embarrassingly false.

Some asylum seekers are released into the community while they await processing of their claims. Since November 2012, they have been released on bridging visas which do not allow them to earn an income due to the government’s ‘no advantage’ policy. Bridging visas even limit volunteering and training opportunities. This situation drives many families into poverty and a cycle of dependence. The homelessness rates of asylum seekers are substantially higher than the general population. These bridging visas prevent civic engagement, self-sufficiency and the ability to settle into a new community. The introduction of Temporary Protection Visas results in an even worse situation as asylum seekers are required to reapply for protection every three years. Family reunion is prevented which sees a marked increase in boat arrivals of women and children resulting in tragedies like that of the SIEV X. Beyond the unneccessary cruelty of this system, it places an enormous administrative burden on the already strained department. The reintroduction of TPV’s seems also redundant given that no asylum seekers arriving will be settled in Australia so this affects only those already granted asylum.

After an absurdly lengthy process, if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status they are granted residency and are thenceforth entitled to exactly the same welfare payments as the rest of us. “There is no truth to claims that refugees are entitled to higher benefits than other social security recipients. Refugees have the same entitlements as all other permanent residents—they do not receive special refugee payments or special rates of payment.” – Australian Parliament website.

We are being overrun by boat people! If we were to take the same amount of arrivals as the previous year, it would be approximately 0.14% of the world’s total refugee population. Though boat arrivals have increased in recent years due to increased global conflict, Australia still receives a very low number of maritime arrivals each year. Every day refugees arrive via less vilified modes of transport and slip peacefully (relatively!) into our communities! Even taking all refugee arrivals into consideration, Australia receives only 3% of the world’s total asylum claims made in industrial countries. We rank 12th in GDP. The UNHCR claims “by comparison, asylum levels in Australia continue to remain below those recorded by many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries”. The burden of accepting refugees in vast and overwhelming numbers rests with developing and underdeveloped nations who currently host around 80% of the world’s refugees.

It’s rather difficult to argue we are being ‘overrun’.

– They should be grateful, detention centres are better than where they came from! Life in detention is an oxymoron. Anybody who thinks it’s okay to lock up innocent people indefinitely to assuage their own unfounded prejudice, is just a moron. Whatever little hope asylum seekers arrive with is quashed by our mandatory detention program. There is no life, no hope, no vigour, in detention. These facilities are largely unaccountable to governments and the “programs” that run are frankly patronising, pathetic attempts to satisfy protocol. Women line up for tampons, one a time, in Darwin. Detainees are involved in ‘gardening’, involving weeding a two foot by one foot pot of aloe vera plants. This institution curtails creative freedom and dampens the dexterity of intellect with menial offerings of patronising ‘leisure’. This is not how a ‘fair and decent’ country treats innocent people, this is not even how a fair and decent country treats the convicted. An asylum seeker friend has experienced both thanks to a wrongful incarceration resulted in a stint in our penal system followed by his transfer to the mandatory detention system. Convicted criminals receive far better care than the innocent.

We are the only developed nation with a policy of indefinite mandatory detention. It’s immeasurably damaging to those we incarcerate. Perhaps mandatory detention upon arrival is necessary to facilitate access to the judicial system and conduct security screening, but let’s open channels of communication, take control of and improve these facilities and cap detention at a few weeks. Other developed nations can process asylum claims in just a few days, we haven’t processed a single claim since mid 2012.

But Scott Morrison said “We’re not obliged to give [asylum seekers] the same rights as we are our citizens.” We don’t have the same enshrined rights as countries like Canada and the USA but such is the unfortunate state of human rights that we seek to weasel our way out of recognising them on a technicality. Stateless individuals are somehow less human than those under the protection of a sovereign state. The convention has been interpreted and reinterpreted on the basis of semantics, defying its original intention. I imagine people of all political persuasions would agree human rights are important and valuable, but in the current system the provision of universal human rights is seen to be at odds with the provision of rights to sovereign citizens – and it doesn’t look like Scott Morrison is in any sort of hurry to try and better this sad denigration of humanity.

Such is this perceived inhumanity of stateless refugees that we were willing to spend an estimated $2.124 billion last financial year locking them up in privatised, foreign owned detention facilities where they will be conveniently out of sight and out of mind, a quiet forsaken place where the suicide attempts of children are hidden from public scrutiny. We ignore the denigration of their rights in exchange for the comfort of our percieved ‘safety’.

– They throw their paperwork overboard! So what? If a people smuggler tells you to throw your paperwork overboard because you’ll have a better chance of being accepted, you do it. Many arrive without paperwork for a myriad of legitimate reasons, like trying to accumulate 100 points of ID as you’re running for your life is not a priority. Or popping in to the local embassy, taking a number and requesting that bureaucracy take its course in the midst of chaos in order for you to obtain identity paperwork so you can flee is not an option. Many of these countries do not place the same cultural impetus on identity paperwork as us and many of them don’t even produce the documents we require of asylum seekers! If you discover that you require proof of birth to seek asylum, contacting your embassy to request it in a country where it is not required and generally not issued is akin to holding up a giant sign that reads ‘I am about to flee, you’d better hurry up and kill me’. Most asylum seekers do turn up with some documentation, though Australia often doesn’t recognise the documents provided. Requiring ‘lease agreements’ as proof of residency is a stellar example of the blatent stupidity of our system. People smugglers will often confiscate passports for their own purposes, if the asylum seeker has a passport in the first place. Many are stateless and thus don’t have a nation which recongises their existence, let alone their right to identity documentation. Passports are often forged to facilitate border crossings and don’t pretend you wouldn’t do the same thing if your life depended on it.

Refugees are screened and subject to far more rigorous background checks than anyone who has their passport stamped at the airport without a second glance. Heck, some refugees even arrive on fake passports that they’ve used to escape persecution. Laws are there for a reason, safety, and sometimes it makes sense to break them for the very same reason. It is the job of our judicial system to determine a well founded fear of persecution and judge the actions of asylum seekers accordingly. Let’s stick to our job, welcoming refugees to our communities and holding our government accountable for the just provision of refugee determination.

– They are all economic migrants just looking for a better life. Over 90% of the ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ in 2013 have been deemed to be genuine refugees. In previous years this figure has been around 93.5%. Those arriving by plane are almost twice as likely to have their claims rejected. The statistics show that economic migrants generally don’t risk their lives on a roll-of-the-dice voyage.

We need to secure our borders! Let’s have all the lols shall we!? Considering we are completely surrounded by two shark infested oceans, our borders are amongst the safest in the world. Unless man-eating sea creatures suddenly evolve into land dwelling killing machines, we are pretty sweet in the border security department. This is yet another catch phrase used to elicit fear and contribute to the climate of prejudice that our politicians are able to capitalise on, providing us with solutions to crises that don’t exist. Moreover, we have more control over our arrivals and a greater knowledge of our populace than most countries. Even those with reduced control over movement, (like our pal the USA) manage to cope swimmingly with the conundrum!

We can’t afford it. This argument is bizarre. Yes, we can afford it and we could significantly reduce the extortionate costs of the current model freeing up billions of dollars that could be spent on ‘our own’ as is so often argued. Community resettlement in Australia will cost an estimated $30,000 – $35,000 per year; this pales in comparison to the billions of dollars currently spent on privatised, outsourced offshore processing and deterrent policies each year that operate outside Australia’s jurisdiction and that are largely hidden from public scrutiny. The cost of ‘hosting’ a detainee on Manus Island or Nauru is estimated to be $221,000 per annum and onshore detention is estimated to cost $119,000 per annum. Deterrent policies haven’t worked for twenty years so perhaps we could take that money and put it toward something that actually delivers a return beyond the ballot box.

What is so wrong with PNG? They should be happy to be out of their country! Where to start. After decades of Australia’s foreign aid or thinly veiled imperialism in PNG, infant mortality, sexual violence against women and corruption has never been worse. Homosexuality is a crime, poverty is rife, approximately 97% of the land is traditionally owned and a fledgling (at best) democracy fails to provide basic rights to its own people. Each rally we have had in Sydney has been mirrored in PNG as its citizens hit the streets to demand an alternate solution.

The UN condemned G4S run camp at Manus is rife with disease and reports of sexual abuse have been met with indifference by both G4S staff and the government. Moreover, the controversial British multinational G4S contract went for an eye watering 80 million dollars. Resettling asylum seekers in the community while they await processing is not only a more humane approach but it is a comparative bargain at the current cost of between 25,000 and 30,000 per person per year, money that stays within the country. Lengthy incarceration comes at a high cost to the Australian taxpayer and to those subjected to detention in these privatised facilities.

Beyond the concerns for PNG’s suitability as a host nation for our refugees, it is abhorrent that one of the richest countries in the world is outsourcing its fundamental responsibilities as a nation to one of the poorest. Our government currently advises against its citizens travelling to PNG and – if this wasn’t reeking of irony quite intensely enough – currently accepts Papua New Guinean asylum seekers!

– So you’re just going to let 49 million refugees in then!? No, because that’s ridiculous. Contrary to accusations, few proponents of a fair solution are championing an ‘open doors’ policy. It is easy to feel insignificant and overwhelmed in the face of the enormity of this crisis. Sure, we can’t fix the problem and no policy is ever going to be perfect but this does not serve as a justification to stand idly by and do nothing. I would hate to be the one to decide where we ought to draw the line, but this decision should be guided by the ideology that we should do the best we can for the most we can while still able to extend the freedom, prosperity and justice afforded to us as sovereign citizens, to our new neighbours.

Our affirmative action in the face of this crisis will have a flow on effect regionally. It has been shown that when one sovereign state tightens its immigration controls this tends to have a defensive effect regionally as other states mirror legislation to prevent an overwhelming redirection of refugees to their state. To this, many have said to me ‘so what’. So what? So this means we are satisfied to let these individuals live a stateless existence that we consider unworthy of the application of human rights. In other words, we’re self-entitled pricks.

– Refugees are morally corrupt An argument arises that all this waste on deterrence policies is somehow justifiable on the basis of a homogeneous perception of the ‘character of a refugee’.

These character assessments tend to come from members of the public who depend upon on their ‘dodgy feelings’ about the issue as the only qualifying evidence that survives scrutiny. I’m not quite sure when the validation of someone’s rights became dependent upon character anyway, I’m almost certain the UNHCR doesn’t have a qualifying checkbox which reads ‘could you be described as a tad cantankerous at times?’ This hysterical reaction to what represents less than a 1/4 of 1% of the Australian population stems in part from the blessed burden of an empathy deficit – most of us will never be able to identify with the refugee experience and yet we think ourselves qualified to pass judgment on what kind of person flees persecution and what kind of person is deserving of protection.

Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz notes that those who shared their soup were the first to die. ‘Morality’ is a privilege and faced with the unfathomable difficulties of war, brave decisions must be made in order to survive. It is easy to pass judgment on the choices of a refugee from the comfort of our privilege but we must challenge our own worldview, the context which shapes it and most potently, make contact with people whose experience is different to our own. Such assumptions are inhibiting rational debate and resolving this is as simple as shaking the hand of someone who can challenge your construction of reality.

Australians have a responsibility to face the consequences of our policy and attitude towards refugees and in doing so, recognise that our fear is making strangers of people who should be our neighbours. This is not just a squishy, feel-good issue, this is an issue for all Australians for moral, legal and practical justifications. If we choose to ignore social injustice, our inaction will inhibit our growth and success as individuals and as a nation. It is in our interest to unite and demand a fair and just way forward.


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