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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Treating asylum seekers worse than criminals

Australia treats criminals, including pedophiles and rapists, better than it treats asylum seekers. Most criminals only get sentenced to a few years jail, if that, and are usually given a relatively comfortable cell to themselves. Whereas asylum seekers, who have committed no crime, are imprisoned without charge for years in cramped and inhumane conditions.

Jail may not be the most luxurious place to spend time, but Australian jails are far better than the detention centres that we incarcerate asylum seekers in. Asylum seekers, including children, are often imprisoned for years before being granted asylum.

Amnesty International's recent visit to Nauru found the camp to be 'a human rights catastrophe with no end in sight'. It found '... 387 men cramped into 5 rows of leaking, tents, suffering from physical and mental ailments - creating a climate of anguish ...'. Amnesty describes conditions at Nauru as 'cruel, inhumane and degrading'. No-one has legal representation and not one case for asylum has been heard yet. Our criminals have more rights and better treatment than that. Australia should be ashamed.

It is not illegal to arrive in Australia by boat and seek asylum, regardless of how much some politicians like to maintain that position. What is illegal, is for Australia to continue with inhumane conditions and off-shore processing. It is illegal because it breaches a number of conventions to which Australia is signatory to, including the Refugee Convention and other human rights conventions.

Hypocritically, Australia condemns the treatment of asylum seekers by countries which aren't signatory to the Refugee Convention, even though our treatment of asylum seekers is disgraceful and the worst in the western world. Other western nations, such as the UK, USA and European nations release asylum seekers into the community. In fact, Australia is the only country in the world with mandatory detention for asylum seekers.

The reason for the off-shore processing is because it is meant to deter people from making the dangerous journey by boat. The deterrence factor of off-shore processing is debatable. Australia is an island. That means that people will continue arriving here by boat.

Shamefully, last week the Australian government approached a number of church and community groups asking how we can make things harder for asylum seekers. This in itself borders on persecution. We make things harder for people seeking our protection than we do for people who commit crimes. We should be facilitating the processing of asylum seekers by working better with our neighbours and other countries.

Australia takes very few asylum seekers compared to other nations, and ranks 46th in the world for accepting asylum seekers. As an example, Sweden, with a population of 9.5 million, took 81,000 refugees in 2011. Australia has a population of 22 million and had 21,000 refugees in 2011. Sweden has 8.8 refugees per 1,000, compared to Australia taking 0.98 per 1,000 head of population. Yet, Australia is 17 times the size of Sweden. Refer to Table 22: 

We have politicised the issue at the expense of people's lives. Instead of Australians being so fearful of a few people who can contribute positively to our society, we should be extending a helping hand and assisting them to settle here. Apart from the human cost of these racist, inhumane policies, Australia also spends billions of dollars trying to stop people arriving here. After years of incarceration in crowded refugee camps, some in which the accommodation is barely better than a tent, we expect them to then fit straight into Australian society as well-adjusted citizens. Oh, and to be thankful for our magnanimous gesture.

The Fraser government worked with its neighbours to resettle refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s. This resettlement program helped to stem the flow of boats to Australia while settling many more refugees into Australia and neighbouring countries. While this was admirable, it was purpose was to stop the arrival of boats rather than assisting refugees. Fraser's theory was that by opening the 'front door' to refugees it would reduce the number entering through the 'back door', or by boat. Unfortunately, it set in place the idea that boat-people are arriving illegally. Nonetheless, the policy had some merit and may certainly be more humane than the current political-driven, fear-based policies that see Australia treating asylum seekers in a manner that is not commensurate with the idea of us being the land of the 'fair-go'.

While there is persecution in the world, people will flee it. The only way to truly stop people seeking asylum is to stop persecution. Of course, this is idealistic and unlikely to ever happen. In the meantime, we can honour the conventions we've signed and help asylum seekers settle into Australia, not via mandatory detention, but through being released into the community pending decisions regarding their claims.

Instead of being driven by fear and hatred, we should be driven by an altruistic sense of compassion and caring for those who are suffering. We should be treating asylum seekers with dignity and compassion, not treating them worse than criminals.

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