Here we go again — a handful of asylum seekers in leaky boats seeking a better life head towards the Australian coast yesterday and it’s front page news. The Liberal Party shows itself to be a one trick pony on the issue with its Migration Spokesperson Sharman Stone playing to xenophobia and insecurity about hordes of invaders flooding towards this vast island continent.

How depressing.

It says something about just how distorted Australian views on asylum seekers are when newspapers and other media outlets think that the arrival of five boatloads of asylum seekers this year, the latest being a group of 38 people from Iraq who apparently got past Australian coastguard officials, is a big news story. It’s not.

A handful of asylum seekers heading to Australia are part of a global movement of millions of people who each year do what human beings have always done — when confronted by oppression, or a high level of risk to their personal security and that of their family, seek a safer life.

Australia is hardly a favoured port of call, despite the dishonest attempts of some in the media and the Liberal Party to suggest that the Rudd government’s partial dismantling of the brutal Howard government mandatory detention regime, means otherwise.

To get to Australia is physically difficult. Even though the number of new asylum seeker applications globally has risen in the past 12 months to around 380,000, only 5, 000 of those name Australia as a destination. The US on the other hand is favoured by 50,000.

In any event of those 5000, less than five percent of whom are sailing off our coastline in small boats, one can expect the vast majority to have their claims of asylum accepted. It is rare for people to risk life and limb to get to Australia unless they are in serious danger back home.

Sharman Stone’s claims this week that there is a “major new surge” of asylum seekers is just low rent political posturing.

It is time also, before this debate becomes hysterical as it shamefully did in 2001, to remind the media and politicians of one salient fact — there is nothing “illegal” about asylum seekers. They are are not “illegal boat people”.

Seeking asylum is a right in international law and has been for many years. This is not a matter for debate — it is simply fact. So to term asylum seekers “illegal” is simply a lie on the part of those persons and organizations that use that term for their own base political and manipulative reasons.

And finally, what about people smugglers? Well yes they exist but they are able to trade because Australia and other industrialized nations have such poor processes in pace for speedy and fair resolution of asylum seeker claims. When you are part of a persecuted minority in Afghanistan or Iraq and have the enemy wanting to tear you apart limb by limb on a daily basis, the prospect of filling in paperwork, lining up behind a counter marked “Make your claim here” and then waiting patiently for two or three years to see if you are able to make it to Australia does not sound particularly alluring or practical now does it?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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