It’s a scenario that is far too familiar to the Australian public. On October 3, a small, barely seaworthy vessel sunk off the coast of a remote island, with at least 360 people dying in their quest for refuge and asylum. On October 11, another shipwreck occurred, this time claiming 34 lives. Yet these scenes occurred half a world away. That remote island is the Italian island of Lampedusa, around 110 kilometres from the Tunisian coast.
From Eritreans, Somalis, Ghanaians and Syrians, to Iranians, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans and Afghans – it’s a sound reminder to Australians that our country is not the only one facing an influx of desperate, displaced peoples. The two theatres of exodus are remarkably similar, with Italy having already seen around 30,100 migrants arrive from across the Mediterranean this year, up from 10,380 in 2012, whilst Australian saw 25,541 arrivals in the 2012-13 period, up from 8,311 in the previous year. Yet one can’t help but note that, just like Lampedusa, the European response to this tragedy is also half a world away.
Upon the news of the Lampedusa disaster, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta tweeted that it was ‘an immense tragedy’, and announced a national day of mourning. Pope Francis called for the use of abandoned Catholic monasteries and convents to house the influx of refugees. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, was quick to commend the Italian Coast Guard for their swift response to the disaster. The greater European response as a whole has also been quite positive, with the European Union, an organisation on the financial brink, immediately submitting €30 million in financial aid for the refugees. Earlier this year, Sweden remarkably offered sanctuary to millions of displaced Syrians.
Comparatively, in August, whilst the public was pre-occupied with the Federal Election race, the UN’s Human Rights Committee found Australia guilty of almost 150 violations of international law. The Australian Government’s latest program, Operation Sovereign Borders, is laughably named, as it pours hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding and infrastructure into Papua New Guinea and Nauru: spoils which are virtually impossible for the leaders of those financially strapped nations to reject. The Australian Government is now the largest employer in Nauru. It’s a strange new mutation of neo-colonialism: supposedly buying Australian sovereignty by getting other nations to sell theirs.
“We won’t be discussing operational matters”, Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison says ad nauseum, in one of his weekly Operation Sovereign Borders briefings – the only avenue through which information about the crisis can now be sourced. ‘Operational matters’ appear to include the nationalities of asylum seekers, living conditions in facilities, incidences of self-harm and the health and wellbeing of those held in camps. In the most recent briefing, Morrison was forced to concede – but only with considerable prompting – that medical staff at Manus Island needed to be removed for their own safety on October 18. He refused to make any further comment, other than to pass the buck and suggest it was an issue for the PNG Government to deal with.
The incident at Manus Island is, at the time of print, a national secret.
The sad truth is that the asylum seeker issue in Australia is little more than a political weapon. “Stopping the boats” was a pivotal platform for the Coalition in this year’s Federal election, but there is no doubt that this is a bipartisan issue. Immediately upon the formulation of the Papua New Guinea agreement, the former Rudd Government spent millions in advertising the new regime. “If you come here by boat without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia”, was scrawled across all major newspapers for weeks, in what can only be described as a demonstration of action to the Australian people, as the sales of Australian newspapers in such exotic departure points such as Malaysia and Indonesia is somewhat low, to say the least.
The most terrifying aspect of this myopic pursuit for short-term political gain is the precedence it sets for the pacific region well into the future. With effective global action on climate change unlikely, a massive crisis looms on Australia’s doorstep. Many pacific island nations are at significant risk of either being severely depredated or completely decimated by rising sea levels, erosion, and changing environmental conditions, and Australia may well be facing a massive influx of environmental refugees in the decades to come. As the main safe haven in the region, it will be an issue that Australia will be required to address – and there will be no option for return.
The manipulation of the asylum seeker affair is the marque of cowardice rather than leadership. The true measure of a leader is to do what is logical and right in the face of opposition. Former deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer virtually destroyed his political career when he ensured the Australian Government passed gun control legislation in 1996, placing human lives over his popularity. Sadly, it is impossible to think right now that anyone with any real power in the two major parties would be willing to make a similar stand.
The refugee and asylum seeker issue will not simply go away through mistreatment and secrecy. It breeds contempt, and dehumanises us as a society. With the lack of support of an organisation like the European Union in our region, this situation requires Australian leadership, not populism. Both Australia and the people seeking our assistance deserve it.