Day 15 NaBloPoMo: Seeking asylum in Oz

We just came back from a pub where we had the Wednesday $12 steaks, which were pretty good, although not the tastiest. Naturally, as we were eating, the topic of the latest asylum seekers came up. <img width=”200″ src=”*9WGAGJ8t*QBtMh2k-X-XYYj28OeobBEvNyoXw5*-28vji7FlBBUc0/ChrisIs.jpg?width=200″ style=”padding: 5px;” />

It was horrifying when they announced today that a boatload of women and children had smashed onto rocks on Christmas Island while trying to land during a storm. Spotrick had pointed out how thick and cyclonic the weather looked on the satellite map just this morning. These poor people had travelled thousands of kilometers, mainly over land, to have their hopes dashed and possibly half their lives taken, without quite reaching the land of their dreams.

You can see the flimsy boat and wild seas in this piece from an Australian report.

Inevitably, one of the people at the table asked why these asylum-seekers had not arrived by aeroplane, rather than via a smugglers boat from Indonesia. This is an ongoing topic here- if you arrive by air and have fake papers, you can immediately ask for asylum. You can then receive a temporary Visa and make your way into the Australian community- all according to international law. You don’t get any money to live on or anywhere to live- but you get the visa. Our friend always says this and I say the same in reply as well- these poor women and children couldn’t buy a ticket to Australia from Iran or Iraq; they come mainly from small towns, many unfamiliar with air travel, let alone to countries they have little knowledge of. All they know is that they want to get away from the constant threat they feel they are living under- they escape across a border, people hide them, feed them and send them on; maybe they are packed into a container or truck, or bundled onto a freight train to travel through unknown regions, meeting people they cannot understand. Eventually they arrive in India or Sri Lanka and discover there are men there who will get them to Australia if they can pay all the money they have. They may be lucky enough to get on the first boat they meet, but mostly they will be sent from pillar to post, living in primitive conditions and not knowing where their next meal is coming from. At last they all board a miserable looking fishing boat, captained by some down and out fisherman who needs the money, because his fishing grounds are not yielding any more, or he usually fishes illegally in Australian waters and the patrols are fierce that week.

It must be extremely anxiety provoking for the Iraqi and Iranian women, who don’t know how to swim, placing the lives of their precious children in the hands of some scruffy fisherman on his raggedy boat- but they do it with hopes for a secure future in that lovely empty land in the sun, Australia.

Unfortunately, distant conflicts bring desperate people to Australia. Some of them have heard about the country via relatives who have come here legally as part of an annual migrant quota or illegally at first, then granted asylum and gaining citizenship. Evidently Australia sounds rather attractive- there is no religious or regional conflict here, apparently most of the people are middle class and friendly and we have a democracy and an army that does not police the local community. What asylum seekers don’t know is that although Australia is huge, its 20 million people live in very small areas within the country where there is sufficient water (or there used to be) and where communities have been growing quite slowly over the years. They don’t know that Australia has its own poor people who are fully or partially dependent on the State for income and housing. They also don’t realize that our health and social services are linked to our taxation system, so that they can only provide enough largesse to cope with the numbers of people who are already reliant on them locally- we haven’t got the income or tax basis to cater for a lot more people at the same standards.

Some Australians are very hostile towards asylum seekers because they perceive them as Muslim hoards, representing the likes of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the Twin Towers atrocity. Obviously this is rather frightening for some people- you can hardly blame them when THEY don’t have the full picture either. However, most Australians are fairly willing to welcome newcomers, regardless of neither where they came from nor how they arrived. We find that as long as new migrants are friendly and curious, they are just as welcome as our friends and relatives who might visit from overseas. In my university classes this year, there were far more students from overseas (more than 50% Muslims) than there were Australians! Yet our lecturers said we were one of the best and most involved groups they had ever taught! So our section of the population seems to be able to live and co operate with non-Australians quite usefully.

Given that we probably welcome foreigners quite easily compared with many other countries, why am I still apprehensive about the continuous small stream of asylum seekers arriving offshore at Christmas Island and along our Northern coastline? I worry because I know that Australia is struggling to provide housing, appropriate utilities (like electricity and water supplies), health care and social welfare benefits to the Australians who are already living here. Migrants never seem to be told that public housing applicants might have to wait 10 to 15 years for a suitable dwelling to become available- hardly any new ones are built, compared with the numbers of needy people. Also, our rentals are starting to become quite expensive and are certainly out of the range of affordability for someone on the dole (unemployment or disability allowance, aged pension or supporting parents’ payment). My friends who arrived at my front door homeless last year had tried to obtain public housing or some assistance with paying the rent for private accommodation. One was on the dole and her daughter was waiting out a qualifying period after being sacked from her job as a miner. They were rejected completely from putting their names on the list for public housing because there were no children less than 18 years involved. When they sought out private rentals they discovered that they could only be subsidized to live in a dwelling that cost only $70 per person per week; over that price and they couldn’t get a cent!

The harsh reality is that people who arrive with nothing and no job don’t get a good deal in Australia at all. Sure- if you are genuinely ill, you can go to any doctor or hospital and you will be treated and you will NOT be given a bill. However, if everybody and his great grandmother goes expecting the same treatment, the system can’t cope and falls apart. Then everyone complains that the government they voted for isn’t doing what it promised, they throw it out, and then get a worse deal from the next lot who don’t know how to make good the promises once they see the state of the economy!

The situation with utilities has been getting quite serious over the last few years, especially water supplies in Southern Australia. There has been a drought for many years and several large cities have built desalination plants to extract fresh water from the sea, rather than relying on rain and reservoirs. South Australia is at the end of several thousand kilometers of slow-flowing rivers and gets very little rain. For many years the city of Adelaide (1 million people) has pumped water 80 km from the Murray River to fill reservoirs in the Hills just above the city. The reservoirs have reached very low levels at times, yet the river hasn’t been able to supply any more to top them up at the end of summer. We have been on severe water restrictions, causing the death of thousands of beautiful, big trees in public areas and uncounted numbers in private gardens. Most private gardens have withered and street trees became spindly and brown, houses have cracked because the ground has contracted and people have been putting as many water tanks onto their properties as they can afford- we haven’t got any!

So you can see that although we generally have a good reputation for taking in asylum seekers and integrating most of them into our society, there may come a time when that is no longer feasible. How long can Australian workers produce enough extra income to support both their own non-working family members, plus all the extra jobless living in the community and in migrant detention centres? I think it’s a crazy idea to try to deter asylum-seekers by “processing” them (ie. their claims for refugee status) off shore in Nauru, East Timor or Christmas Island. Asylum seekers don’t know anything about our local processes or ability to provide financially for additional people so it’s not going to “deter” them- they’re desperate and fear death or suffering in their own countries. They just want to live quiet lives, working hard in a decent job, providing for their families and taking their part in a community. They certainly don’t want to kill Australians or blow us up- they’re just people like us who have been placed in impossible life circumstances.

Can anyone find an acceptable solution for us all without cruelty to locals or migrants?



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