By Joshua Schea
“All they do is come here and bring all that violence with them… it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t shoot people up” (Gail). Strong words which seem to underline the feelings of many Australians at this time in Australian history; a time marked by new laws and a lot of talk related to the issue of asylum seekers. There are large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Australia right now, over 10,000 each year, and how to deal with the influx of people is a major concern causing many people to take strong opinions on the matter.
The quote opening this piece is not a lone opinion, and a negative attitude toward refugees is common in several parts of Australia. In fact, according to common search terms on Google, “West Australians might be showing their true colours as they’re more likely to be searching the terms “boat people” or “illegal immigrants” (Isabelle Oderberge). However, such negative terminology is not localized to one state, with Queensland and New South Wales using almost as much negative terminology in their searches.
So how is the Australian government responding to this situation? Most recently, a plan has been put forward to have asylum seekers processed and settled in Papua New Guinea. In fact the first, “group of 40 single adult men departed Christmas Island on Wednesday for Manus Island, where their refugee claims will be assessed under PNG law. They are expected to arrive at Manus Island on Thursday” (The Australian News). The Thursday referred to in this article is August 1st, and is the most recent event in the debate of how to deal with refugees. This is the result of a law passed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on July the 19th.
This law has been met with much emotion; contentment from many Australians who wanted something done about ‘the boat people’, and outrage from many international advocates. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is at the head of an attempt to renounce the new deal between Australia and PNG, claiming that it violates UN policies concerning refugees (SMH, Bianca Hall and Jonathan Swan).
One final point that I would like to discuss is the argument that the path between Australia and the Middle East, where most asylum seekers originate, are not U.N. signatories and do not accept refugees. This is not a made up argument, and is true, as many maps can show. However, I was confused about why refugees would take the longest possible path to reach asylum; countries in every direction but east would take them in. Both my host family and Australian news television agree on saying that the reason for this is the availability of government handouts in Australia. Should refugees be allowed to choose which nation protects them—can beggars be choosers?
In researching this topic, I was intrigued when I found that nearly all opposition to Australian refugee policy came from outside the country. It appears to me that U.N. policymakers do not make the effort to view the issue as an Australian. As an anthropologist, I believe this is a big mistake, and perhaps the best way to understand refugee policy in Australia is through the eyes of Australians.