For the benefit of those reading this from a foreign shore, our island home, Australia, is currently mid way through a federal election campaign.
Like most election campaigns throughout the world, this campaign has a number of slogans that are constantly being drilled into our ears in the hope of provoking some kind of emotional response that will prompt us to vote for one of the two major parties. The slogan that has really caught my attention in this campaign is “Stop the Boats”.
Before I go any further, a bit of background is needed. As you will all know, Australia is an island nation and therefore, the only way to get here is to fly, which is rather expensive, or to arrive by boat. After World War II we encouraged immigrants to arrive here by boat, in fact we sent ships over to Europe and other parts of the world to bring these people to our shores. For the last 30 odd years, this attitude has changed significantly and not only are we not allowing refugees to settle here, we are threatening to intercept them in the middle of the Indian Ocean and turn their boats around.
Think about this for a second. These people who have fled their homeland for reasons of war, genocide and racial persecution are not travelling aboard the Queen Mary. They are packed aboard rundown boats that are by no means seaworthy. Turning the boats around for most of these people is condemning them to a certain death.
The “Stop the Boats” slogan is historically one that has been adopted by the conservative right of Australian politics, however this time around both the right and left (who are increasingly on the move to the right) are committing to the same promise.
Both major parties in Australia have managed to do two things in regards to the plight of genuine refugees and how the Australian public think about them. They have managed to dehumanise the issue and also to strike a false fear into the minds of the Australian people. What would be the reaction if the slogan was changed to “Stop the Helpless and Innocent Children”, or “Stop the Boats and Condemn Innocent People to Death”? Would we be reacting in the same way and encouraging these politicians by giving them our vote?
2010 asylum seeking boat tragedy off Christmas Island (image: http://www.smh.com.au)
This issue is not about turning around inanimate objects of timber that we call boats. It is about undertaking our responsibility as human beings and our commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention (to which we are signatories). The fear that has been struck into the minds of the Australian people has made the majority of us believe that if we allow this to continue, our country will be overrun with foreigners and our way of life will be threatened. The plain fact is that only 25,000 people arrive on our shores by boat every year. In comparison to this, in the year ending 2011, we settled 136,588 immigrants in Australia. The number of people arriving by boat is only a fraction of this.
With the news this week of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against their own people and images of murdered children flooding the online news outlets, the time to close our borders to genuine refugees could not be worse!
By no means am I suggesting that we simply open the gates to everyone and anyone, but I am suggesting that we take the time to sort genuine refugees and asylum seekers from those that are jumping the immigration queue and settle them in a country that has historically welcomed those in need with open arms. Australia is a multicultural country and this is something that is greatly celebrated.
At the end of the day, when you really drill down into the long history of this land, one that spans over 50,000 years of human inhabitants, the original boat people arrived here from Europe just over 200 years ago. Who are we, those that are not originally from this land, to deny others the same life that we have made for ourselves?
This election campaign is increasingly looking like a choice between two very similar evils. Evils that play on fear and widespread lies that have been created and instilled into the minds and hearts of a people who have been lead to believe that restoring our economy to surplus and ridding ourselves of the Carbon Tax is far more important than helping those in need and undertaking our responsibilities as members of the human race.
Syrian refugees in an overcrowded camp in Jordan (image: http://www.unhcr.org)
Boat tragedy off Christmas Island (image: http://www.smh.com.au)