The Boat People Obsession. John Menadue

The Australian Parliamentary Library has again pointed to our obsession with boat people.

In its 11 February 2013 Research Paper”Asylum seekers and refugees, What are the facts”, it highlights (p.8) that despite increases in boat arrivals in recent years, the number of ‘Irregular arrivals by sea’ to Australia is quite small compared with other countries.

The chart below shows this quite clearly.

Irregular arrivals by sea, selected countries

Parliamentary Library, data source: UNHCR, All in the same boat: the challenges of mixed migration, UNHCR website.

The chart shows dramatically that boat or sea arrivals in Australia are quite small compared with other countries. For example, in one weekend in 2012, more boat people arrived in Italy from Libya than came to Australia in the whole year. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, but in 2011 it received over 100,000 boat people.

We have lost any sense of proportion about boat arrivals in Australia.

Despite all the evidence, the media has made no serious effort to counter the erroneous reporting that we are being ‘swamped by asylum seekers and boat people’. One-liners about the failure of ‘border protection’ are thrown around with little appreciation of the facts.

The world is changing around us. Refugee numbers have increased dramatically from 1.5 million in 1951, to 15 million in 2011, with another 27 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. All borders are under pressure. We see this most dramatically today in people fleeing Syria and crossing the borders into neighbouring countries. Some will seek asylum in Australia probably coming by boat.

But we have a phobia about boat people which is so easily exploited by opportunist political leaders and journalists who have little interest or knowledge of asylum issues and policies. Why is it that in the last ten years over 70% of asylum seekers to Australia have come by air, of whom about only 40% secure refugee status, but only 30% of asylum seekers have come by boat and with double the rate of successful refugee determination?

I suggest there are several reasons for our phobia with boat people.

  • It is so easy for politicians to raise our fears of the ‘yellow peril’ when we see unkempt asylum seekers coming to Australia by leaky boat, whereas asylum seekers coming by air are more likely to be wearing suits, having made false declarations about their intentions in coming to Australia.
  • Lazy journalists find it much easier to tell their story with pictures of people on leaking boats than accessing airports and secure areas where asylum seekers come in dribs and drabs, all day, every day. The story is much harder to tell without pictures. Asylum seekers coming by air don’t provide easy photos.
  • The government has not seriously attempted to set the record straight by giving us a global picture of asylum seekers and the relatively small number that come to Australia. It has not tried to win the argument either based on fact or by appealing to our decency. I cannot recall Prime Minister Gillard ever putting a case for treating asylum seekers with dignity. She has responded to the prejudice that flows out of focus groups. She has left the field to the Alan Jones, Ray Hadleys and the Scott Morrisons of this world.

Our obsession with boat people is out of all proportion to the problem we face, particularly if we consider the pressures on the countries set out in the chart above – Greece, Italy, Spain and Yemen

The mode of arrival of asylum seekers is not important What is important is the total number. Countries with land borders will have asylum seekers coming on foot, by train, bus or car as in Syria today. Island countries like Australia will have asylum seekers coming by air or boat.

John Menadue

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