Susan Metcalfe June 06, 2012
Vietnamese asylum seekers are brought ashore at Christmas Island. Photo: Alan Krepp
Our politicians and media are obsessed with talking about people smugglers and asylum seekers on boats but little attention is paid to the scarcity of alternatives that forces a small number of desperate people to get on boats.
The ABC's Four Corners program this week appears to have uncovered evidence of people smugglers exploiting Australia's refugee status determination processes and running their businesses out of Australia. If this is the case then appropriate action should be taken by authorities.
But let's be clear: the majority of people who arrive by boat are those who have fled from persecution and they come to Australia to ask for our protection.
They come because we are part of a world that continues to ignore their dire situation until it is delivered to our doorstep. They come because the other alternatives are unsavoury. They come to give their children a life and a future. They come because, like any human beings, their instinct is to survive. It is not hard to understand.
There is no doubt that destructive political rhetoric and tabloid sensationalism can quickly ignite community fears and arouse suspicions about the people who seek our protection. But for Australians who regularly engage with refugees arriving by boat, the human suffering and evidence of past torture and trauma they see in the people they meet cannot be so easily erased.
Yes, under both Coalition and Labor governments it is likely that people not technically considered to be refugees have at times made it through our assessment systems. Some may have arrived by plane, some by boat. Others may have entered fraudulently through our migration programs. No system is infallible and the motivation in each case will be different.
And there is no doubt that organised people smugglers have shamelessly exploited vulnerable refugees for many years - the sharks will always circle if we leave desperate people to fend for themselves. But the bigger picture of human tragedy is the story we rarely discuss.
The UN refugee agency's recent publication The State of the World's Refugees: In Search of Solidarity explores the current environment for refugees around the world and notes the trends for future displacement.
Launching the report last week, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that over the next decade we will see an increased number of people on the move, becoming either refugees or internally displaced people. And he cautions that the solutions are not coming quickly enough.
''The world is creating displacement faster than it is producing solutions ... and this means one thing only: more people trapped in exile over many years, unable to return home, to settle locally, or to move elsewhere. Global displacement is an inherently international problem, and as such needs international solutions - and by this I mainly mean political solutions.''
The UNHCR warns that the increase in human displacement will be exacerbated by population growth, urbanisation, natural disasters, climate change, rising food prices and conflict over scarce resources.
While the few thousand people coming to Australia by boat each year do present problems for our government - and most importantly, many will tragically die attempting the journey - the group that so fixates the attention of our politicians and media is merely a drop in a much larger ocean of human displacement that no one wants to talk about.
In 2011, 7.2 million of the refugees under UNHCR's responsibility remained trapped around the globe in protracted exile. Another 12 million are estimated to be stateless and stranded in ''human and legal rights limbo''. Twenty-six million people are displaced within their own countries.
UNHCR also notes that more people are already displaced annually by natural disasters than by conflict, drawing attention to the gaps in international protection for those who are not recognised as refugees under international law.
Australia does take a limited number of refugees through our humanitarian program each year, including those who arrive by boat, but it does not reflect well on us that 80 per cent of the world's refugees are still hosted by the developing world.
The future challenges of human displacement will require that Australia and other developed countries step up their contribution to finding solutions for the world's exiled others and High Commissioner Guterres has encouraged us all to look beyond insular concerns: ''The space for humanitarian intervention is shrinking exactly when the need for humanitarian help is increasing. Pressures on the international protection system are clearly growing. In some industrialised countries in particular we see fortress mentalities that serve only to shift responsibility and compassion elsewhere.''
Immediately doubling Australia's refugee intake would help reduce the pressure within refugee populations in the region. But our politicians also need to focus on finding solutions within the countries producing refugees, and they must work more closely with neighbouring countries to improve the processing and conditions for refugees in those countries.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and his opposition counterpart, Scott Morrison, have long had nothing new to say about refugees or boat arrivals, but each day they still churn out the same quota of blame and shame to anyone who can bear to listen.
It is time they offered Australians a new dialogue on the problems of refugees and displaced people around the world and worked on shaping Australia's role in finding future solutions.
We live in a global community and we need leadership to engage Australians in a conversation that extends past our own borders. How is Australia involved in finding long-term solutions for the world's displaced? How are we working in solidarity with other countries to take care of the world's needy? How are we ensuring that exiled refugees have alternatives that provide them with safety and dignity?
These are the conversations we need to be having instead of the demeaning commentary and political rhetoric that passes itself off as debate in this country.
Susan Metcalfe has written widely on refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.
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