Two countries. Two asylum seeker tragedies. Two very different responses.

Another Asylum seeker tragedy has occurred in Italy.

This morning, there are reports of another asylum seeker tragedy off the coast of Italy. Over 50 people have been confirmed dead after their boat sank south of the island of Lampedusa. The tragedy comes after over 300 asylum seekers lost their lives in the same area, following a similar incident last week.


Last Friday, October 4, Italy declared a national day of mourning for the hundreds of men, women and children’s lives lost in the horrific sinking of a migrant boat, carrying an estimated 500 people.

The Italians demonstrated an enormous capacity for compassion and sorrow to those affected by this terrible tragedy.

A few days later,  Australians woke up to an opinion piece by former immigration minister under the Howard era, Amanda Vanstone, declaring that a sad story from an asylum seeker does not entitle them to seek sympathy or refuge in Australia.

The story, ‘Media-savvy asylum seekers play hardball’, published in The Age, also declares: “Their modus operandi is to get as many sad stories associated with asylum seekers into the Australian media as possible. They want to press our sympathy button until we can’t stand it any more.”

And isn’t that the truth. We cannot stand it anymore so we are looking the other way. Australia has looked the other way 143 times in fact, with findings handed down by the United Nations in August this year finding the nation guilty of that many violations of international law in relation to the detention of 46 refugees. This is shameful, yet we still continue to read about ‘boat people’ who are ‘un-Australian’ ‘island hoppers’ and an inconvenience to a country suffering from a huge dose of indifference.

In July this year, Pope Francis marked his first appearance out of Rome by travelling to the tiny Italian island,

Pope Francis.

Lampedusa. The island had been rocked by tragedy only days before after a migrant boat attempting the arduous crossing from North Africa sank resulting in a significant number of migrant deaths. Upon arrival, Pope Francis decided to use his philosophical strength and power to openly criticize the rich for their inability to feel concern and to tolerate those in this world who need the most help and deepest sympathies. Describing the time in which we live, as a “globalization of indifference,” the Pope accurately concluded, “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It is not our business.”

As Australia bears witness to an increased number of displaced global citizens searching for a new life, often taking the journey by boat (which is plagued with risk and huge cost) we are noticing ever-increasing indifference and intolerance, fuelled by the media. While we might believe the number of people arriving by boat to be in the hundreds of thousands, Australia saw only 15,800 people-seeking asylum in 2012. And this was not the highest figure globally speaking.

In the national media, language to describe asylum seekers regularly includes ‘illegal’, ‘boat people’, ‘people smugglers’ and ‘suspected illegal entry vessel’. Front pages depict ‘boat people’ infiltrating our shores and taking our jobs. In some cases Sydney’s popular tabloid the Daily Telegraph, sees it fit to discuss the issue with headlines such as ‘Refugee’s island hop their way back to Australia.’ Which encourages concerned citizens to conjure images of asylum seekers taking a luxurious trip around the Pacific Ocean at the expense of the Australian government.


The Telegraph is not alone. But it seems that Australia’s experience of dealing and reporting on the plight of refugees is. So, using Italy as a comparison, which has also seen an influx of asylum seekers travelling by boat in search of a new life, it is time to ask what can Australia learn from the European island when it comes to accepting those who seek asylum?

Italy is spreading a hopeful message.

Earlier in the week a reportedly racist Facebook page was established, directed at the hundreds of migrants who lost their lives. The page sparked outrage in communities around the nation, forcing the page to close down.

Australia’s policy on asylum seekers.

This non-tolerance of negativity is reflected in each media report, through the description of asylum seekers as ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ in contrast to what we are exposed to. Experts and key organisations are in the country are calling for an ‘intervention’ and that this latest disaster should serve as ‘a warning to us all.’ This sense of compassion and sympathy from the nation has continued in the days since.

We have seen local schools in the Lampedusa region mark the disaster with a moment silence and most recently the Italian government has called for each of the migrants who have died to on their journey to have a state funeral.

It is also expected from other European leaders facing similar immigration issues, to hold a meeting to discuss how to combat the issue of more people seeking help and allow an easier travel option for refugees. The European Union has already pledged to help Italy and find suitable alternatives for those who are searching for a new home.

It can be concluded that people in Italy want to help and remember the plight of those seeking asylum.

It can also be observed that some people in Australia have an overpowering desire to process offshore and encourage the implementation of policies such as the current Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders.

In 2013, the world is witnessing a greater influx of war torn residents searching for refuge and a safer place to live. Ongoing political conflicts and social instabilities have resulted in more people searching for hope and a safer place to call home.

Australia has always been divided when it comes to migration. And this issue has come right to the forefront of the political agenda, with newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott preaching that throughout his three-year tenure in the top job, he will “stop the boats.”

Stopping the boats has become more than just a catch cry. It has become the fight of the nation, but why when there are so many other ways to approach the issue?

Jade Waters-Ginnane is a 23 year old freelance writer, who has recently moved to Sydney. With a passion for travel, jade has travelled to various parts of the globe and one day hopes to cover it all. Inspired by the many injustices around the world, Jade hopes  to use her writing to be a positive voice for human rights, particularly those of women. You can find her on Twitter here.

What do you think Australia can learn from the Italians when it comes to refugees travelling by boat?