Although Australia is a nation conceived and developed by immigrants, the contemporary political climate towards asylum-seekers is one of hostility—a hostility that has seeped into the Australian population. The recent failed attempt by the Australian Government to introduce a refugee swap deal with Malaysia highlights the core issue regarding Australia’s immigration policies and discussions—the debate has changed from being a humanitarian issue to a political strategy. In 2011, many asylum-seekers arrive by boat to Australia—a stable and wealthy democratic nation—full of hope, but this hope is short-lived. Their hope is replaced with despair as they are immediately, and in some cases indefinitely, placed in detention centres. Welcome to Australia. 

Despite both major political parties disagreeing on the specifics mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, they agree on Australia’s process of mandatorily detaining asylum-seekers. This, even though the “mandatory” nature of asylum seekers’ detention, the undefined period of detention, and the inability of asylum seekers to challenge their detention in a court all violate Australia’s international human rights obligations.

Mandatory detention, however, is just one of a host of issues surrounding immigrants in Australia. The run-up to the 2010 elections saw the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, base a large part of his campaign on a pledge to “stop the boats” the government was allowing to reach Australian shores. Abbott’s rhetoric gained widespread support despite the fact that the vast majority of people arriving in Australia by boat, compared with approximately twenty percent of asylum-seekers who arrive by air, are genuine refugees. This type of politicisation led former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, to claim earlier this year that the politicians involved in the asylum seeker debate “have contempt for the Australian people.” He is outraged that today’s Australian politicians are playing politics “with the lives of vulnerable people,” attempting to win public support by appealing to the “fearful and mean sides” of people’s nature. Fraser’s feelings are echoed by the University of Technology Sydney’s Professor Jock Collins, who feels that Tony Abbott “is apparently unconcerned about tapping into core racism, prejudice and xenophobia to win votes.” The problem, continues Collins, is the current Labor Government “isn’t much better.”


The Federal Labor Government claims to support “the rights set out in … the international treaties to which Australia is a signatory”. Yet the refugee swap deal with Malaysia would have seen many asylum-seekers being deported to Malaysia, a country that has not signed the 1951 Refugee Conventionand where refugees are subject to detention, prosecution as criminals, whipping, and deportation. The Labor Government has failed to come up with a cohesive immigration strategy, instead merely reacting to the countless accusations made by the opposition—accusations that have in many casesdehumanised the debate. Australia’s third political party, the Greens, is critical of both the Labor and Liberal parties. Greens Member of Parliament Adam Bandt recently claimedboth parties are “working together to diminish the legitimate right of people coming to this country to seek asylum.”

The negative political rhetoric by the Labor and Liberal parties of Australia has had an impact on public sentiment towards asylum-seekers. It has also been shown that detaining asylum seekers—in detention centres that are, in effect, prisons—has created in the Australian public a negative sentiment towards immigrants in general. Rhetoric in the political and media spheres when referring to asylum-seekers arriving by boat has for years wrongly included such terms as “queue-jumpers” and “illegals.” There are, however, attempts to improve public sentiment towards asylum-seekers. Amnesty International began a campaign that aims “to shift the hearts and minds of the Australian public on the issue of asylum seekers,” but the effectiveness of the campaign is thus far unknown. There are also some community initiatives to counter the negative attitudes towards all immigrants in Australia—it is an unfortunate reality that such measures need to be considered at all. A process of political pandering in the immigration debate is restricting the Australian public’s access to the facts—the debate rages on despite their being no such thing as an “illegal” asylum-seeker.

Australia hosts just 0.22% of the world’s refugees. Almost half of all refugees, the “vulnerable people” former Prime Minister Fraser was referring to, come from Iraq or Afghanistan. Even though Australia is still militarily active in both of these countries, asylum-seekers—not questionable foreign military engagements—dominate political discussion. In the first half of 2011 less than five thousand people claimed asylum in Australia, compared to 36,000 claims in the U.S., and over 26,000 in France. Yet, while the senseless debate over asylum-seekers continues, reallives are needlessly being lost.

Former Prime Minister Fraser sums the situation up well, saying “a strong, multicultural Australia that draws strength from its diversity, that debates real issues of importance to ourselves and to common humanity, has contributed so much in the past. It must do so again.”


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