The first boat arrived in Darwin in April 1976. Over the next five years there were 2059 Vietnamese boat arrivals with the last arriving in August 1981. The arrival of 27 Indochinese asylum seekers in November 1989 heralded the beginning of the second wave. Over the following nine years, boats arrived at the rate of about 300 people per annum—mostly from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China. In 1999, a third wave of asylum seekers, predominantly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, began to arrive—often in larger numbers than previous arrivals and usually with the assistance of ‘people smugglers’.
It is my opinion that the Australian public – largely due to media bias – are largely uninformed about this issue and are unnecessarily reactive as a result.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that, compared to the rest of the world, Australia’s boat people “problem” is relatively small. In the US, for example, it is estimated that more than 500,000 illegal aliens arrive each year. Similarly, parts of Europe struggle to monitor and control the large annual influx from Africa and the Middle East. In comparison in 2010, 134 boats arrived unauthorised in Australia with a total of 6,879 people on board (including crew). Though considerably more than the seven boat arrivals in 2008 with 179 people on board, in comparison with Europe and the US this is still a small number. In the year 2000, when approximately 3,000 boat people arrived in Australia, Iran and Pakistan each accepted over one million Afghan refugees. In fact, the burden of assisting the world’s asylum seekers mostly falls to some of the poorest countries. In 2009, for example, Pakistan was host to the largest number of refugees worldwide (1.75 million), followed by Iran (1.07 million) and Syria (1.05 million). These figures should help us gain a healthy perspective of the small nature of Australia’s asylum seeker “problem”. The truth is that there are far more important issues that our politicians and media should be responding too and spending money on – such as health care, infrastructure, taxation reform and care of our aging population.
Secondly, the majority of asylum seekers actually arrive in Australia by air with a valid visa and then apply for protection sometime after their arrival. In the last year illegal boat arrivals made up 47% of asylum seekers – an increase of 16% on the previous year, but still less than half. In spite of this, political and media attention only focuses on those arriving by boat.
A Christian response to refugees and asylum seekers should be twofold. Our first response should be inline with the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). In this statement Jesus is teaching His people to put themselves in the shoes of others – to be compassionate and proactive. Have you ever tried to put yourself in the place of a refugee? What must it be like to feel that you cannot stay in your own home, in your city, in your country because staying will mean violence, starvation, persecution, or death? What level of desperation drives a person or a family to leave the home they love and pay big money to get on a dodgy boat in order to get to Australia? How would you like to be treated by others if you found yourself in this situation? Australia demonstrates its compassion by allocating 13,000 places annually to asylum seekers.
But compassion doesn’t mean we have to be a soft option. Jesus also taught people to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We do have a duty of care to refugees – but we have an even greater duty of care to those who already call Australia home. I have no doubt that the majority of those seeking asylum in Australia are genuine refugees, but I also don’t doubt that there are some who will not be a blessing to this nation. Asylum seekers need to be carefully processed as to their health, safety and identity (not an easy job when many deliberately destroy their passports). Only after careful processing has taken place should genuine refugees be granted asylum in Australia. Those who riot, burn detention facilities, and demonstrate other anti-social behaviour should be deported without question. We do not want to import people who behave in this manner when they don’t get their own way. Asylum seekers also need to be educated on our culture and values so they can easily assimilate here.
The other area that requires shrewdness is in our dealings with the people smugglers themselves. These people are greedy at the expense of the most vulnerable. They care little for refugees; they care greatly for getting rich. The penalties for people smuggling were increased last year but these increases don’t seem to be a deterrent so far. People smugglers are bringing refugees to Australia at an increasing rate and somewhere between 200-300 of these refugees have lost their lives at sea. More needs to be done – in cooperation with nations like Malaysia and Indonesia – to cut this crime off at the source.
This is a complex issue and one that is not going to be solved quickly or easily. In fact with an increase in global conflict even more people will be forced to seek asylum in safer places like Australia. We have a responsibility to help these troubled people; we also have a responsibility to make sure Australia continues to be a safe place for its citizens!