By MIA FREEDMAN
I want to stop the boats. But not for the same reasons as so many of the people and politicians I hear chanting that loathsome slogan.
I want to stop them because I want asylum seekers to be safe. I don’t want them to risk their lives on leaky boats and endure unimaginable hardship, terror and all too often, death.
I’m struggling with this though because for so many years now, the phrase ‘stop the boats’ – coined so effectively by the Coalition – has been used not as an argument for compassion but as the war cry of intolerance. Of hatred. Of bigotry.
Thanks to the way asylum seekers have been painted as rorters and fakers and terrorists and queue-jumpers, the Australians demanding we ‘stop the boats’ have been predominantly driven by fear, by ignorance.
I think I’m fairly typical of another type of Australian who believes we’ve boundless plains to share. While nobody is suggesting we open our borders unilaterally, Australia certainly has the capacity to accept more people
I know seeking asylum is not as simple as ‘joining a queue’ (that other phrase so beloved of the stop-the-boat crowd) because we’re talking about people in desperate circumstances; not boarding a Qantas flight.
In many many countries there is no queue. There may not even be any camps.
I know that I would do anything for my family and that includes taking great risks if that’s what it took to keep them safe and give them a chance at the kind of life we all take for granted.
I know that sitting in our lounge rooms and our coffee shops, our pubs and our playgrounds in our warm clothes with our medicare cards in our wallets, free education for our children and food in our stomachs, it’s easy to have very lofty views about what desperate people should or shouldn’t do; of how things should be.
But I also know that if I was in a burning house and the door was locked, I would smash a window and do whatever it took to get my family out.
No doubt you’ve heard the news: from this weekend, Australia will now not accept any asylum seeker who arrives by boat. They will all – without exception – be transferred immediately to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing and even those who are found to be legitimate refugees (as 84% of asylum seekers are) will “be resettled there permanently” according to the drastic change in the government’s immigration policy announced by Kevin Rudd on Friday.
It was a frightening, enlightening, heart-breaking, educational experience.
I travelled there with UNICEF a couple of years ago as an ambassador for their vaccination program that seeks to eradicate some of the diseases that kill thousands of children in that country every year.
The streets of Port Moresby – PNG’s capital – are not safe. We were accompanied everywhere by carloads of heavily armed guards – even in rural areas. Our hotel was surrounded by electrified fences and more armed guards.
We could not go out during the day let alone at night, even in groups. The poverty we witnessed was widespread, extreme and distressing. We visited Port Moresby’s largest hospital and the conditions there were third world.
You would not want to take your pet there. But at least there were some doctors and limited medication. In the rural clinic we visited there was nothing. The ‘maternity ward’ one nurse proudly showed us was a room the size of your average Australian kitchen with two iron camp beds covered in stained rubber sheets.
“What if a woman needs emergency assistance during her labour?” I asked the nurse. “Oh we can’t do anything here,” she said sadly. “She has to find a ute and make the trip into Port Moresby.”
That’s 90 minutes away. In the back of a ute, which is notoriously hard to come by. There are few cars in the rural areas. You can imagine how bad the infant mortality rate is.
Children in PNG regularly die of diseases that are easily treatable in Australia. The standard of healthcare and education is beyond dire.
The rates of violence against women is truly terrifying – a conservative estimate indicates 68% of women have been victims of physical violence, and that 50% of women have been raped in their own homes.
And this is where we are sending desperate people – who are in the vast majority, legitimate refugees.
Like many, I am deeply troubled by this.
However, I know that a major deterrent is needed to stop people risking their lives and the lives of their children by clambering aboard leaky boats. I know it’s no longer black and white because the rate of asylum seeking boat arrivals has become out of control – quite literally.
The pressure on authorities at Christmas Island, not the mention our navy personnel who are plucking traumatised people – and bodies – out of the water every week, is extreme.
Something has to give. I get that.
But why then, at the same time as we are implementing such extreme measures, are we not increasing the number of refugees we accept from camps? Some of the people in these camps have been there for decades. Some children have no memory of any other life and no hope for ever leaving.
If this is truly a policy based on compassion and a desire to stop people drowning, why is it not being ameliorated by a simultaneous increase in our refugee intake through other channels?
Notably, the Coalition’s ‘stop the boats’ policy included a dramatic reduction in the number of refugees accepted from camps. No pretence of compassion there…
I don’t claim to have the answer. I realise this is an incredibly complex issue.
But let’s not hide behind that complexity to win votes and play politics with the lives of desperate people. Let’s change our immigration policy by all means, but please can we stop this from being such an amoral mercenary political issue. It’s a question of humanity and compassion and any change in policy must be infused with liberal doses of both.
Below are some images from Mia’s trip to PNG, depicting the quality of life there. All photos by Conor Ashleigh.
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How do you feel about the asylum seeker polices from the major parties this election?