September 2012

Asylum seekers: no simple solutions

Not everyone is able to experience the world of an asylum seeker as did participants in Go Back To Where You Came From. Yet the public make decisions on how to handle asylum seekers whenever they cast their vote in a Federal election, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

The Government gave the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers a sow’s ear in asking them to provide advice on the best way to address the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat, within six weeks. The issue was foreseen as difficult; the Panel weighed over 550 submissions from organisations and individuals holding strong opinions from a variety of perspectives.

The report recommends principles for shaping Australian asylum seeker policy, increasing the Humanitarian Program by around 6,000 additional places, engaging with other nations in the region to build capacity and co-operate on asylum seeker policy, regional offshore processing for asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and renewing family reunion arrangements in migration policy.

Other recommendations include suggestions to more actively co-ordinate resettlement with neighbouring countries, review refugee status determination and continue and refresh various current policies and enforcement strategies.

Refugee advocates, including many within the Church, sympathise with the plight of asylum seekers and hold the view that the policy recommendations are not as generous as could be expected from a country such as Australia. The principle of applying a “no advantage” test to ensure no benefit is gained through “circumventing regular migration” seems back-to-front. A “no disadvantage” test to those arriving by sea as opposed to arriving by air would be preferable.

Yet it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the Expert Panel themselves. They had to make recommendations for workable solutions that would be at least tolerable to the majority of stakeholders. As a result, their report was roundly criticised by refugee advocates for being too harsh and critiqued by immigration sticklers (who may not have a full understanding of the difficulties facing many refugees arriving in Australia by boat) as too soft.

To this end, publicity surrounding the second series of Go Back To Where You Came From was timely, with the outcomes germane to public discussion. For those who didn’t catch it, the series featured six prominent Australians in situations regularly experienced by asylum seekers travelling to Australia. This included visits to some of the most unsafe countries on earth and encounters with people in some of the most gruelling and emotionally harrowing circumstances. Even participants with more hardline views appeared to significantly moderate their views after their involvement in the project.

Former rock singer turned aspiring politician, Angry Anderson, was one such participant. On a recent episode of the ABC’s Q&A, an audience member asked Anderson about his experience on Go Back. “Having… felt first-hand the fear of being attacked, and having witnessed the lack of places where you could officially seek asylum within Afghanistan or any of its neighbouring countries, do you now accept that people who flee have no alternative but to keep travelling until they reach a refugee signatory country like Australia, by any means necessary?”

In stark contrast to what he said prior to the Go Back experience, Anderson expressed sympathy for asylum seekers, and said he understood why they would board boats to seek refuge in another country. He noted that “Experience [and] education is enlightenment”, and that “One thing that wasn’t explained to me as a citizen of this country was the simple dynamics of the situation… Hazara people are persecuted”. In this respect, the media has a significant role to communicate the relevant facts to the wider public. Another Go Back participant, model and actor Imogen Bailey drew attention to this when she complained of the media’s role in driving public opinion against asylum seekers.

The same can be said of some politicians. When Q&A host, Tony Jones, asked whether successive governments may have sought political advantage from the “ignorance” of many Australians on issues facing asylum seekers, Anderson stated that all participants in series two of Go Back were alarmed that “no government” has established a structure or a policy that means asylum seekers arriving by sea do not to have to board boats in the first place.

The Expert Panel sought a solution to this very issue, but both the timeframe and scope of the Panel’s task constrained assessment of the many complex, global issues that affect asylum seekers. Development, famine, war, and genocide, along with related international issues such as consular arrangements and security concerns, frequently motivate the movement of people and underpin asylum seeking.

Not everyone is able to experience the world of an asylum seeker as did participants in Go Back. Yet the public make decisions on how to handle asylum seekers whenever they cast their vote in a Federal election. This means that the recommendations by the Expert Panel probably considered the political realities of the policy, knowing that the Government, Opposition and minor parties all have an eye on public opinion. The Expert Panel could hardly make silk purse recommendations with that factor in the background.

In an ideal society, all people would approach one another with empathy, respect and justice. It is a pity that some of our politicians and media appear reluctant to lead public opinion by educating and enlightening, preferring to follow the polls on asylum seeker policy instead.

Series two of Go Back To Where You Came From screened on SBS during the last week in August and can be viewed online at the SBS website.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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