For all the eight years I have lived in Australia — I am now a permanent resident — I have never understood the obsession we have with people who arrive by boat and the apparently desperate need for some sort of policy that “stops the boats”.

“Stop the boats” — these three words make me think of an invading horde, not a group of mostly desperate people taking extreme and dangerous (often life-threatening) measures to make a life in Australia.

There’s talk in the so-called expert asylum seeker proposal from Australian defence force chief Angus Houston of a “no advantage” policy for boat people. As if there really is some kind of “advantage” gained by arriving in a derelict craft across choppy seas to be placed in detention for an indefinite length of time with the hope of being granted the right to stay.

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The only people who are advantaged are people such as me, who come to Australia with an education, skills, find a job, get a visa and are able to call Australia home and fit into society like the proverbial hand in a glove.

But I have never understood the near hysteria (raised to maximum pitch by the media) of so many people in this country opposed to people who arrive by boat. Governments seem to come and go based on how good they are at deterring boat arrivals just as much as by their ability to manage the economy and keep the unemployment rate down.

“Illegal” boat arrivals are a tiny “problem” that hardly makes a dent in the fabric of our society, except to give us the opportunity to expand our multicultural tapestry.

The recommendations in the asylum seeker report by Houston recommends increasing Australia’s intake to 27,000 within the next five years from current level of just 13,000.

Figures from the Department of Immigration reveal Australia received 168,000 new migrants through its various visa schemes in 2010-11 with 185,000 expected in this financial year. Up until July 9 this year 5459 people made the journey to Australia via boat, last year there were 4565 and in 2010 there 6555. Figures released yesterday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the number of humanitarian visas at less then 10,000 for 2009-2010.

So we are talking about less than 10% of all visas being granted on humanitarian grounds and less than 5% all migrants arriving in Australia via boat.

We are a rich country, with jobs for nearly everyone (an unemployment rate the envy of the First World) and a proud history of building out culture on the backs of waves of migrants from all parts of the world. If you visit a suburb such as Footscray in Melbourne, you’ll find east African restaurants, many of which would have been started by refugees, alongside the popular Vietnamese eateries.

Thankfully there are many humanitarians in this country who actually believe in the plight of desperate refugees, not an unrecognisable Labor government (on this issue anyway), who is intent on adopting any policy that may revive its fortunes in the polls, no matter how far its strays from its humanitarian principles.

As I understand it, Labor is in favour of circumventing our pledge on human rights under UN agreements to get the Malaysia people swap deal through — all in the name of politics, votes and power.

People swap — as if we’re trading gold, silver or cotton.

But at least I can understand the politics. I don’t get the core reason we are so obsessed with these desperate people, who make up a tiny proportion of new immigrants to Australia

Perhaps I have not been here long enough. Perhaps I am too much of a lefty. Perhaps I am soft.

People talk about refugees applying through the normal channels and not “jumping the queue”. As if they were standing in line for tickets to the grand final.

But what queue are we talking about? Do those displaced in countless domestic conflicts around the world come to a crossroads with two arrows — one pointing to the left saying “Persecution this way” and the other point to the right saying “Australian humanitarian visa this way”?

Anyone who thinks a refugee is taking the easy way out by jumping on a boat and “jumping the queue” should watch the film In this world by acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom about Afghan refugees journey fleeing a Pakistani refugee camp for a better life in London to get a sense of what it really means to be a refugee.

It includes a scene of families couped up in a cargo container, with not enough air so that when the ship arrives at its destination in western Europe, most of the people are already dead.

Surely there is space for the tiny numbers of people who come by boat, without all the political game playing, which has been going on long before I landed on these shores.

Perhaps you can let in fewer of my kind in future and make room for those who don’t really have any choice.

*Larry Schlesinger is a journalist for Crikey stablemate Property Observer

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Peter Fray
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