Boat arrivals are a drop in the ocean

Boat arrivals are a drop in the ocean

The Labor Party is trying to crack open a nut with a sledgehammer. Distressingly, the nut is a small group of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. The sledgehammer is an immigration policy that incorporates mandatory detention, offshore processing and a suspension on asylum claims made by Sri Lankan and Afghan nationals.

And if Labor is using a sledgehammer, the Coalition has a bazooka. Coalition policy, released last month, dredges up the 45-day rule, temporary protection visas and the Pacific Solution from the murk of the Howard years.

The policies of both major parties constitute significant intrusions on human rights and it is important to examine the assumptions on which they are based.

The first assumption is that Australia is about to be flooded with boat arrivals. This anxiety is not supported by the numbers. About 4500 asylum seekers have arrived by boat in the past year. Compare this to 200,000 new permanent residents each year and about 50,000 visa overstayers from such places as New Zealand, Britain and the US.

Last year, Australia received only 1.6 per cent of the asylum applications made across 44 industrialised nations. This is no surprise, as the vast majority of refugees remain in their region of origin. There is no reason to suspect that significant numbers of refugees will make their way here.

There is also an assumption that asylum seekers pose some ill-defined risk independent of their numbers. They do not constitute a threat to Australia's health or security. Humane refugee policies adopted by both parties throughout the 1970s and early '80s facilitated, without crisis or fanfare, the successful integration of refugees, many of whom have come to make a valuable contribution to Australian life.

Albert Einstein was a refugee. Bob Marley was a refugee. The Von Trapp family were refugees. And, today, at least 7 per cent of Australians have been, or have a parent or grandparent who has been, a refugee.

Since 2001, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has never exceeded 4 per cent. Most asylum seekers arrive by plane on tourist or student visas and their claims for protection are assessed while they live in the community. If there is an additional or extraordinary risk associated with boat arrivals that requires special treatment, the public has not seen any evidence of it.

Immigration policy is also driven by the assumption that boat arrivals are queue-jumping rule-breakers. It's no surprise that this misconception has lodged itself in popular belief. The Coalition's nine-page border-control policy directions statement uses the word ''illegal'' 25 times - yet there is no rule of international or domestic law that prohibits seeking asylum by boat. The irony here is that while much of the rhetoric casts boat arrivals as lawbreakers, it's Australian governments of both persuasions that violate international law (and, in some cases, domestic law) through their immigration detention policies.

Perhaps the most insidious excuse for harsh ''border control'' policies was expressed by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last week when he proclaimed that ''people smuggling is an inhumane business that puts people's lives at risk'' and draconian border control policies were necessary to ''save lives''.

If Abbott, or Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for that matter, were truly concerned about the dangers associated with people smuggling, they would consider the factors that drive people to get on boats in the first place.

Australia resettles about 35 to 50 refugees from Indonesia each year, but about 2000 more - including children - wait in Indonesian jails and detention centres. Our grossly inadequate resettlement intake encourages people smuggling. It presents asylum seekers with an impossible choice between a decade waiting for resettlement in an Indonesian jail, or risking the boat journey to Australia.

If politicians were serious about eliminating people smuggling, they would support a fair and transparent asylum application process in Indonesia, and increase offshore refugee intakes from the region.

Asylum seekers will get on boats as long as they have no other option. We know that Australian immigration policies have little impact on this reality: temporary protection visas were introduced in 1999, but the record number of boat arrivals occurred in 2001; the freeze in processing asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan was immediately followed by a 19 per cent increase in boat arrivals from those countries.

The policies of both sides of politics are designed to exploit common misunderstandings and prejudices about the characteristics of refugees and the factors that drive them to come to Australia. Refugees have committed no crime. They are fleeing their countries because they have experienced serious persecution and fear for their safety.

You don't need a bleeding heart to recognise that these people should be treated humanely; just a beating one.

Strip back the xenophobic rhetoric and you'll see that boat arrivals do not constitute a great threat to Australia. The humane treatment of boat arrivals - the speedy and fair processing of their refugee claims while they reside in the community - is possible and preferable. A message to our leaders: open the nut with your hands.

Rachel Ball is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Resource Centre and a committee member of Liberty Victoria.

This article was first published by The Age.