The Asylum-Seeker Debate in Australia

Electoral politics have swamped the debate on irregular migrants, the "boat-people" that is, in Australia. Prime Minister candidates Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and the Greens continue to present many of the shibboleths and oversimplifications that have skewed discussions of this issue for years. The motifs peddled in most quarters are directed by misinformation, exaggeration and fabrication and ideological blinkers.

A self-evident fact often glossed over is that migration in modern times, legal, humanitarian or irregular, is a complex phenomenon. Given the diverse lands from which migrants have headed for Australia, regional differentiation must be attended to. Yet sweeping generalizations are continuously voiced - not only by politicians and human rights lawyers, but also by concerned citizens of compassionate heart and, on the other side, by red-neck Aussies.

Strands of Orientalist thinking which conceive of the East as a source of inferior technology/morality and a potential contamination of Australian 'purity' sometimes thread the commentary. The focus on unscrupulous people-smugglers and talk of "leaky boats" sustains this implicit emphasis on the superiority of the Australian life world.

That is one reason why people smugglers are the whipping horse for all parties. That is one reason why "people smugglers" are the whipping horse for all parties. Sensational moments where a boat or two has been sunk and the figure of "1100 lost at sea" serve as foundations for this motif. But note the missing dimensions:

Over what period of time have 1,100 lives been lost and in comparison how many asylum-seekers have reached Australian territory in the same period?

How many boats have reached Australian shores over the last five years as against the few that floundered?

Any evaluation must be guided by these figures, preferably broken down into their components. True, one can express one's boundless compassion by insisting that "one boat lost is one boat too many." But there are pragmatic issues involved in this subject and the people of compassion have yet to address a specific problem: namely, what can Australia do if nothing is done and the flow of irregular migration continues to spiral at a 45 degree angle over the next decade?

Having myself argued for a liberal policy towards the in-migration of young people as a necessity for Australian society, this knotty question is one that I too have to address.

When legal activists and people of compassion front up to the TV and assert that there is no evidence that motives of economic self-advancement direct the asylum-seekers on boats, one is left aghast. This is intellectual deceit. It is deceit that flies in the face of video documentaries on Sri Lanka as well as a recent report from Dinoo Kelleghen, a former Australian journalist with experience on the Refugee Review Tribunal.

It is deceit powered not by economic self-interest, but by ideological blinkers. For some "good compassionate Aussies" every asylum-claimant is a subject of persecution. Otherwise, they argue, why would they board leaky boats?

For such people the reasons why thousands of Sinhalese youth (usually male) went on multi-day trawlers (which are mostly sturdy safe) to Italy in the period 1990-2002 remains irrelevant. That is, such inconvenient facts are rendered irrelevant by their own imprisonment in an ideological dungeon of compassion laced with self-deceit.

Australia can never get to grips with this knotty issue without addressing a central point: namely, the strong link between previous migration (both regular and irregular) and asylum-seeker migration. Sri Lankans, for instance, have migrated to Western countries over the last 60 years for a variety of reasons. Ever since the 1970s they have also migrated on a temporary basis to work in the Middle East. Remittances from both sets of migrants have been Sri Lanka's principal foreign exchange earner over the last few years.

Encouragement, tales of success and remittance monies from both regular and irregular migrants have combined to generate one of the forces inspiring and enabling people to venture on irregular migration by utilizing the services provided by people-smugglers. The latter are entrepreneurs responding to a demand (which can be political or economic or a mix of both concerns).

This is the rub then for Australia. Papua New Guinea, the Pacific or Malaysian paths of deterrence will not stem this process in significant ways. Successful migrants in Canada, Europe etc., assist their kin in venturing on irregular means of entry to Australia and other Western countries. A snowballing process of chain migration is at work here and yet, as far as I am aware, no one has deciphered this phenomenon in depth. The Australian debate will end up icebound in Antarctica if the relationship between regular migration, remittances and irregular migration is not addressed as an international issue of great complexity.