"Just because the boats stop, doesn't mean the suffering does".

Addressing our global refugee problem is about so much more than preventing persecuted people from departing ports on unauthorised vessels around the world.

The cold black letters on a bright white screen don’t match the Hollywood technicolour that the words evoke. Pictures conjured by your mind’s eye, while terrifying, aren’t remotely accurate. It’s the glossy film-version of tragedy and loss; a hollow Hallmark understanding of grief.

Yesterday, we learned that a Libyan boat had sunk off the coast of Italy.

On board the 20 metre-long vessel, were an estimated 700 migrants, all seeking a better life than the one they left behind. The most likely cause of the capsize was a stampede of desperate passengers to one side of the boat, attempting to escape.

asylum seeker boat sinks
Men rescued from a refugee boat sailing to Italy. Image: Getty.

According to reports, there were hundreds of people trapped in the ship’s hold at the time of sinking; including around 50 children. Rescuers are methodically working their way through the dead bodies floating in the water, 126km off the coast of Libya. But with less than 30 survivors so far, authorities believe it is unlikely they will find many more people alive.

Related content: Up to 700 feared dead as asylum seeker boat capsizes.

From the comfort and warmth of our centrally-heated living rooms in the developed world, we simply cannot comprehend what it would have been like to be trapped on that boat as it sank deeper and deeper into the sea.

Nor can we understand the utter desperation that would be required to make someone get on an unseaworthy vessel in the first place. To be packed in with your family, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, like cattle.

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Rescue personnel carry a body recovered from the Mediterranean. Image: Getty.

In calling for an emergency summit of European Union leaders, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has likened the deaths of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean sea to ‘a massacre’.

For once, that word is not hyperbole – it is a deathly accurate description.

Moreover, Sunday’s disaster is far from unique.

Two other ships carrying hundreds of desperate migrants, mostly from war ravaged parts of Africa, have capsized on their way to Italy in the past week alone.

asylum seeker boat sinks
Another boat carrying asylum seekers sank of the coast of Rhodes, Greece today. Image: Getty.

Last year, almost 220,000 people crossed the Mediterranean sea, fleeing their home countries in the hope of finding asylum in Europe — 3,500 lost their lives as a result.


If current trends continue, those devastating numbers are likely to be higher in 2015.

Following Australian politics and media, you could be forgiven for thinking that our country is alone in facing the challenge of asylum seekers risking their lives on leaky boats to come here. But that is a complete fallacy.

In fact, the vast and treacherous body of water between Australia and our closest neighbour, Indonesia, means that far fewer individuals seek to make the journey here by boat than otherwise might.

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An asylum seeker boat bound for Christmas Island. Image: Getty.

Compared to other parts of the world, the number of unauthorised people arriving in Australia on boats during the past few decades (when this issue has been at its most politically contentious domestically), is small.

Across the globe, there are more than 50 million refugees.

Related content: These men are supposed to protect our asylum seekers, but they’re doing the opposite.

Each year Australia generously opens its doors to accept around 13,500 of those people and offer them the support they need to build a better life. And while that generosity deserves credit and acknowledgement, it must also be accepted that as a nation, we are capable of doing far, far more.

Australia is a prosperous country, with extensive natural resources and masses of fertile, liveable, largely uninhabited land.

Despite what some politicians would have us think, we are in no danger of being ‘overrun’ by desperate and persecuted people from other parts of the world.

Australia has the capacity to open its heart, and yes, its wallet, to more migrants than we currently do.

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Asylum seekers reportedly heading to Australia. Image: Getty.

Stopping the boats is an easy message to sell because ending the tragedy of migrant deaths at sea, like the one we saw in the Mediterranean on Sunday, is in all our interests.

But just because the boats stop, does not mean the suffering of those people who would otherwise have got on them stops. Addressing our global refugee problem is about so, so, so much more than preventing persecuted people from departing ports on unauthorised vessels around the world.

It requires developed nations like Australia to proudly put up our hands and say, yes, we can and will do more. We can accept more refugees through formal channels, offer them citizenship of our country and support their safe passage here.

 Related content: Sarah Hanson Young: No child should be exposed to these horrific conditions.

We cannot do it alone, of course. We are one country of many.

But surely, part of being lucky enough to have the very great privilege of being Australian, is a willingness to share that privilege with others. If we, and others in the developed world, accept the responsibility of extending our citizenship to just a few more persecuted people than we currently do, there will be fewer lives risked and lost at sea.

There will be fewer people living in such horrific, unimaginable circumstances that they would consider those risk worth taking. There will be fewer tragedies like the ones we saw in the Mediterranean yesterday.

And our globe will be a better place for it.

Where do you stand on the asylum seeker debate?