Australia: New Asylum-Seeker Policy Makes U.S. Approach to Immigration Look Merciful

I thought it would be a love affair like no other, destined to last a lifetime. Joining the Australian Labor Party felt like the culmination of a decade of shy but determined courting: years of filling out my parents' ballot forms on their instructions, and listening to my father hold forth on his union and how it helped the working class. Finally, when I hit 17, I was carried to the ballot box on the wave of the Kevin '07 campaign, which promised that, as a Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd would be a true modernizer, and that his tenure would be a boon to the nation, unlike the previous 13 years of conservative rule.

Signing up to the party that gave us Medicare (Universal health care! Without the Communism!), higher education loans, and a functional welfare system seemed like a natural step. I was, after all, a human being. The party's leadership-grappling and open backstabbing worried me somewhat, but like a child determined to keep the family together, I was convinced that everyone loved each other deep down. With Kevin Rudd became prime minister once again on June 26, I believed that the business of governing Australia could truly begin.

But then the new asylum-seeker policy was unveiled. Rudd, the man who once said that he would not "lurch to the right" on this question, decreed that all asylum seekers who arrive by boat without visas will be sent to Papua New Guinea, a relatively tiny island country to the north of Australia, and never be settled here.

Read that to yourself again: never be settled here. The term "asylum seeker" is defined by UNESCO as, "someone who has applied for protection as a refugee and is awaiting the determination of his or her status."

Australia, a country of some 20 million residents that has the capacity for many more, is now refusing to provide protection to people who have fled by boat. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right of people to seek asylum in other countries, but Australia is blowing a large raspberry in Ban Ki-moon's direction. 

People who arrive by boat are often among the most desperate of asylum seekers, as they risk life and limb to come to Australia. Just this week, a boat sank after leaving the Indonesian island of Java; the number of people who drowned is still rising. For survivors, it will have been a thoroughly wasted journey.

The Department of Immigration has even released photographs of some of the asylum seekers. One happy caption reads, "A female asylum seeker comes to terms with the fact she won’t be settled in Australia." Ha ha, oh well! You win some, you lose some, right?

Scaremongering about boat people is nothing new, but it is unfortunate that Labor, which began as the people's party, is heavily relying on it to win votes.

The Pacific Solution, the policy of conservative John Howard's government that transferred asylum seekers to offshore detention centers in other countries, has been transmogrified into an even-more-evil twin, a punitive asylum-seeker policy that lacks a shred of mercy or humanity.

It makes the United States' confused approach to the Mexican border seem downright kind in comparison.

The Australian Labor Party has not lurched to the right so much as it has barrelled its way there, set up a tent, and built an apartheid wall between it and the left. Now, it is busying itself with punishing anyone who disagrees.

For this, we can thank opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose three-word catchphrase, in lieu of proper policy — "Stop The Boats!" — has helped accelerate the swift dehumanization of asylum seekers.

It is as if there are not people aboard Abbot's rhetorical boat, just bits of wood and metal. It is entirely possible that Australian leaders viewed The Lonely Island's "I'm On A Boat," and mistook it for documentary footage of asylum seekers.

Alas, it is not surprising that the hard-line right is being pandered to; Australia has a shameful past and present of entrenched racism. There was the fair and lovely White Australia policy, and the persistent mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, who were not considered to be humans by law (they were classed as "flora and fauna") until 1967.

Responding to this new approach to asylum seekers, human rights advocate Julian Burnside, QC, recently wrote, "neither the government nor the opposition has considered the legitimacy or humanity of their approach. Neither has given the public an accurate and honest explanation, meaning they've instead been grievously misled by false statements and gross sensationalism."

Gross sensationalism is the stock and trade of tabloid journalism, where sex and death and loud blaring headlines sell papers and improve bottom lines. Just ask Rupert Murdoch, the man who controls 70% of Australia's metropolitan press, and thus enjoys a wide selection of mouthpieces with which to further his conservative agenda, whether it's hounding former Prime Minister Julia Gillard out of office, or whipping up a frenzy about the so-called "queue jumpers" who float here to eat hardworking Australians out of home and hearth.

Fearmongering has its place in the media, but it should not be allowed to dictate a country's policies.

Rather than taking a stand against the toxic tide of misinformation, the Labor government is buying into it, and normalizing the inhumane treatment of people who need our help the most.

Australia was, after all, established by British immigrants who sailed in and commandeered the land from its indigenous inhabitants. Its history and development are deeply wedded to immigration, and its many permutations have benefited us. The multicultural and multiethnic society in which we take pride did not come about during White Australia, but when the borders were more open, and refugees from World War II and the Vietnam War were welcomed — even though some were clinging to life in rickety boats without so much as a scrap of paper.

The new asylum-seeker policy is inventively cruel, and it will set a precedent for government mistreatment of those who arrive illegally. Other developed countries, such as the UK and the United States, are grappling with the problem of immigration, and given a trend towards conservative governments with spitefully inhumane policies, before too long, Australia will be held up as a model example of a country that polices its borders.

No mention would or will be made of the cost at which these hermetically sealed borders will be achieved, or the complete cold-bloodedness of those in power, who continue to watch footage of bloated, lifeless corpses bobbing around in water, and only see fewer mouths to detain and feed.

When my Australian Labor Party membership card arrives in the mail, I will have to take a long, hard look at what I have signed myself up for, and whether it is worth supporting a party that is hurriedly divesting itself of its open-handed, generous past.

My parents were able to migrate thanks to a Labor government, and I would not have attended university but for the grace of the Higher Education Contributions Scheme system. The National Disability Insurance Scheme will support millions of disadvantaged individuals, and David Gonski's education reforms promise billions of much-needed dollars to schools in the states that have signed up for them.

The Australian Labor Party has long positioned itself as the refuge of the underdog, the disadvantaged, and the publicly minded, but its new asylum-seeker policy is a bitter pill to swallow. There are alternatives to this transparent, vote-seeking heartlessness, and it is a troubling that the voices that would speak out against it have been muted.

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Aicha Marhfour

Melbourne-based writer, often for free.

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