Two months ago Australians were deeply moved by the tragic fires that swept through parts of Victoria. We extended our sympathy and assistance to the victims of those fires. People gave generously to the bush fires fund to help those in great need. While questions concerning the origin of these fires are now being asked, it was the victims' wellbeing that was the priority following this tragic event.
This week we were confronted again with a tragedy involving fire, this time aboard a boat carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan. The response to this tragedy was different.
While the victims were offered swift medical attention, the main issue headlined in newspapers was the who had caused the fire, and who was to be blamed. Questions abounded about the effectiveness of Australia's border control and 'soft' immigration policies. Concern for the victims seemed to be a secondary consideration.
The issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat engenders passionate feelings. Most of these seem to be in condemnation of people smugglers, but also of those who in desperation are driven to use smugglers' services to get to Australian soil at any cost — even, as implied by some in the media, by setting their own boat on fire.
The implication is that if these are the kind of people coming to Australia, we do not want to welcome them.
It is good that such strong feelings arise, because it shows we care about the issues. Yet whatever our feelings and conclusions, we need to ask ourselves some essential questions in order to understand why these boats keep coming.
What is behind the spike or higher influx of boats arriving in Australia now?
Those who have been tracking people's forcible displacement for decades tell us there is currently a global surge in people fleeing persecution, internal conflicts and violence — the civil war in Sri Lanka, political crackdowns in Iran, and increased persecution by the Taliban of Afghans.
Long periods of stay as well as increased violence in countries such as Sudan and Pakistan, where refugees and asylum seekers have lived in refugee camps for many years, is another factor. People in these protracted, long-term situations, faced with the prospect of spending many more years, perhaps the rest of their lives, in limbo, have reached such levels of despair and frustration that they feel they cannot live like this any longer.
It is obvious that such people feel they have no other option than to risk their lives in boarding overloaded, unsafe, rickety boats, some of which, they must realise, will not reach their destination. We do not know how many of those who try die on the way.
Can we sustain a 100 per cent proof border control system?
Claims have been made that Australia's 'softening' border control policies are attracting people smugglers. Yet the government claims this is not so, and that withstanding recent and humane changes in immigration policies, Australia maintains stringent border protection against 'illegal' entrants. (In fact asylum seekers are not 'illegal'; they are exercising a right of protection under Australian and international law.)
The reality is that no amount of money or resources will ever produce 100 per cent proof border control. It is simply not possible to cover the thousands of kilometres of Australian shore line. No amount of deterrence will ever totally prevent people smugglers from attempting to fill this 'asylum-seeker market void', because the demand is there and the profits, in relative terms, can be very high.
Of course, this does not mean Australia should give up altogether on border protection. Defining our migration policies and trying to limit people smuggling are legitimate and important roles of government, and we should remember that not everyone trying to come into the country is necessarily an asylum seeker.
Further, the 'protection' alluded to in this border control mechanism can help protect asylum seekers who, fleeing persecution in their own countries, find themselves in danger of losing their lives at sea.
Are we really being invaded by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers?
Australia was one of the first countries to sign the Refugee Convention. Signatory countries have the duty to assess the refugee claims of anyone who claims a well-grounded fear of persecution.
The process of refugee status determination, carried out in Australia by the Department of Immigration, decides whether such a claim is valid. Australia has been carrying out this process for years and at present allows about 13,500 refugees per year to stay in the country.
About half of these come as resettled refugees from different parts of the world. Their cases have been assessed and accepted elsewhere. The rest come either under a special humanitarian program or as asylum seekers.
Close to 4800 people made a claim for asylum in Australia in 2008 (compared, for example, to close to 37,000 in Canada and 31,000 in Italy). Most of them arrived by air with valid tourist or student visas, with less than 180 arriving by boat.
Fewer than 50 per cent of total on shore claims submitted by those arriving by air succeeded in the refugee determination process. Close to 90 per cent of those arriving by boat did.
Could it be argued that those who ventured on the perilous sea journey were seen as being more 'deserving' than those who arrived by planes? Not likely. What is more likely is that those driven to risk their lives in such a way saw this as their final option to escape dire human rights violations and the possibility of death.
Perhaps a final question to ask ourselves is: If I were facing the same level of persecution as many of the asylum seekers, would I find myself among them on the boats? It is an impossible question to answer because in most instances we cannot even imagine the situation they are escaping from.
In view of this, the major issue is not how we face a threat of a few boatloads of people wanting to settle in Australia, but rather how we respond to a tragic and compelling human situation that affects millions of people around the world. If we are to ensure that Australia remains a humane country, and if we are to ensure that each of us acts compassionately towards those in need, what is our response to be?
On the international/institutional level, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, speaking last week on asylum and migration in the Asia-Pacific region, suggested that a comprehensive approach is needed in order to respond effectively to irregular and mixed movements affecting the region.
This would have to address root causes and improve living standards and rights at the point of origin. It would also require a strengthening of the humanitarian space in asylum countries for those in need of international protection, as well as international solidarity to provide solutions in a spirit of burden sharing.
The reality is that in terms of 'burden sharing' Australia's current quota of 13,500 falls short. Other countries with far fewer resources than ours bear the brunt of this burden of looking after refugees and asylum seekers.
At the personal level, perhaps we might start by asking whether we are willing and able to see this as an opportunity to welcome into our midst some of the people in greatest need in our world.
Of course, we could claim that we have enough problems of our own, that we are being hit by a recession, or that it is impossible to help everyone in need. These are sound arguments.
Yet our attitudes and feelings can be powerful agents of change. If we regard asylum seekers as illegals who burn boats to force themselves on us, then we might choose to close our doors to them. But if we regard them as human beings in great need, deserving of being treated with dignity, compassion and respect, we will be able to tap more easily into that great spirit of generosity that moved our hearts so deeply two months ago.
Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ is the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.