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.