For decades now, Australia’s asylum seeker policies have been built to cater to certain perceptions. Millions of dollars have been spent on detention facilities and offshore processing centres to cater to the perception that people who arrive by boat are a threat, when the well established reality is that the majority of asylum seekers come by plane, on valid visas, who then later apply for asylum.

Those who enjoyed a bag of peanuts and perhaps an in-flight movie to get here are afforded the luxury of staying in the community while their claims are processed. Those that risked death get detention. This is despite the fact people who chose the wrong mode of transport (as if choice comes into it) are more likely to be recognised as refugees than those who have arrived by air.

But re-educating the public once you’ve catered to the idea that boat people should be locked up is very hard to walk back from. And sometimes, quite often in fact, it’s politically palatable to play to that fear.

But while talkback has lit up over boat arrivals, the Christmas Island crash, the subsequent funerals, and the latest riots, the Gillard government remains quietly committed to meeting its June deadline of no women and children in detention. They’ve cut a deal with ASIO to process claims faster, last June they agreed to take 500 refugees from camps in Indonesia and, according to The Age today, it’s “considering introducing community detention for thousands of asylum seekers languishing in detention centres while their refugee claims are finalised”.

The Immigration Department refused to comment.

But rest assured, if the Gillard government has the guts to tackle this entirely sensible policy move, they won’t be trumpeting the news. Why? Headlines like this:

As long as there’s a media machine to keep feeding the public’s perceptions, the government’s job will be all that much harder.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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