For a country as well off and as culturally diverse as Australia, it is a puzzle to many that one of the major issues confounding its leaders is about the boats. In particular, the boats that carry refugees and asylum seekers that brave the perils and dangers of the sea to reach Australian shores and its promise of a good life. The major parties on both sides may have taken a rest from the election but the debate is still on regarding the best way to remove Australia and its white sandy beaches as a destination for people who seek refuge.
Refugees and those who seek asylum are easily targeted for causing problems for a prosperous nation. People fear that the influx of “non-citizens” will cause unemployment, demographic imbalances, and the all too terrifying national security. Politicians on both ends of the spectrum have used this issue to instigate fear and anxiety among its constituents in order to pursue its own agendas. The debate involves how to handle refugees who engage smugglers to bypass refugee camps and enter the country illegally. Both parties have supported legislation and policy directives that implemented detention for all illegal arrivals and the transport to offshore centers in island countries, barring any possibility of resettlement in Australia.
In the past years, the Labor government, led by Kevin Rudd, initially condemned such measures as inhumane and unlawful, but has used these same policies and has even magnified its severity, all the while justifying its actions with the humanitarian goal of saving “lives at sea”. In 2012, processing centers were re-activated in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, despite promises that it would not re-open them. Observers noted that the initial objective in deterring asylum seekers by highlighting the deplorable conditions in these camps failed because it never addressed the original reason why these same people seek refuge in the first place. In July 2013, an official policy announcement was made that asylum seekers will indeed be sent to Papua New Guinea for documentation and resettlement.
Newly elected Prime Minster Tony Abbot and the Coalition has campaigned on a “Stop The Boats” message and has openly vowed that it will be the first thing on the agenda. The new government plans to expand the processing centers and look for other countries who can accommodate the refugees. During the campaign, the coalition also presented a plan to stop the arrivals of the boats if it is “safe to do so”. The Abbot team has even raised the boat arrival issue as a national security threat and has indicated plans to designate a three-star commander to protect the nations borders against the refugee boats.
It is reported that more than 17,000 individuals were received as asylum seekers in 2012 alone. This was the highest number ever recorded. However, this figure comprises less than 1.5 % of the total asylum seekers all over the world. The future may look gloomy for all these refugees, but, all hope is not lost. Both parties have signified their intentions to “possibly” accept settlers and also to properly handle the asylum seekers by settling the refugees directly from the camps to other countries who provide settlement areas. Also, Australia is actively accepting immigrants through its skilled family and migration scheme. In 2012, it has accepted 190,000 people through this process. Hopefully, through these programs, refugees and asylum seekers will find themselves a welcome place in the sun, in Australia or in another “friendly” place.