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Australia's asylum seeker vergogna


Man throws heart in binOver the last month, over 200 asylum seekers have drowned at sea on their voyage. If they had been intercepted while at sea, or made landfall, they would have been taken to an island for identification and screening. Those who were rescued were taken to the island. Once interviewed, they could wait some time before getting any residence.

What makes this story different to the Australian experience is the attitude of the receiving country. The asylum seekers were from several African countries and Syria. The rescuing and receiving country was Italy.

Italy is one of the major European countries that receives thousands of asylum seekers and irregular migrants by boat every year. The island of Lampadusa has become a first stop in the assessment process, then people are transferred to Sicily or the mainland of Italy. Permanent resettlement can take some time, but apart from the initial screening they are not detained. Nor are they sent to an impoverished developing country for resettlement.

In fact, when the deaths at sea were reported, the Italian Government announced a day of mourning, and some local towns had their own commemorative events. The Italian president called it a 'slaughter of innocents' and the Pope called it vergogna — shameful, or a disgrace — that so many people died at sea, and that the Navy and coastal services were unable to rescue them. Other small towns have openly welcomed the refugees. 

In Australia, the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister refer to such people as 'illegal entrants'. They demonised them in opposition, and now proceed to punish then in government.

In Australia, an initial screening is done before the people are sent to Nauru — an impoverished Pacific island that is unable to care for its own people and is totally dependent on aid — or Papua New Guinea, a mostly undeveloped and traditional village culture lacking basic health and education services for its own people.

After the tragedy at Christmas Island in 2010, Scott Morrison criticised the then Labor Government for offering to pay for the travel costs of families of those who had lost relatives in the tragedy. He later stepped back slightly, saying his comments were right, but not their timing. In Italy, a state funeral for those who died will be held. 

In the Australian scenario, those who help the people to travel are prosecuted and given mandatory prison sentences, regardless of their level of culpability. Free advice and legal services will be withdrawn, and the only visa the putative refugees will get is a temporary protection visa, which means that for at least five years, they will not be able to sponsor their immediate family or travel to see their family in a third country.

Neither major party comes out of this very well. Deterrence from undertaking dangerous sea voyages was a dominant factor in the Labor policies, but the Coalition has added to this with punishment of the asylum seekers with the TPV and turn-back policies. Saving lives at sea is important, but it should not be tied to policies which emphasise punishment of people seeking protection.

We seem to forget that if the asylum seekers are successful in their claims, they are termed refugees; not illegals, irregular maritime arrivals, offshore entry persons or any of the other linguistic phrase that tends to obscure their stories of fear of persecution.

Italians are not necessarily more ethical than Australians, but certainly the attitude of their government and local officials is in stark contrast with our own. There are many Australians of good will who spend time and money to assist asylum seekers but it seems their good works are overshadowed by official attitudes of punishment and demonisation. Maybe that is our vergogna.

Kerry Murphy headshotKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers.

Heartless man image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Lampadusa, asylum seekers, deaths at sea, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

Easy said, but they didn't announce a day of 'free money and a house' - which is what they need and want, and why they move on. Quote "For refugees in Italy, the right to unemployment benefits is the same as for Italians. The extent of support is determined by the numbers of years of regular work the person has had. It is also a requirement to have worked a minimum of three months during the previous year. These regulations make it extremely difficult for most refugees to access such benefits. This is both because the jobs available are most likely to be in the black economy and therefore not registered, and are often of too short a duration. Even Italian citizens find it difficult to access unemployment benefits. The lack of opportunities and constant struggle for survival that refugees face in Italian society expose them also to the threat of entering criminal activities and prostitution. Trafficking is a huge problem in Italian cities, and an increasing number of female asylum seekers arriving in Norway from Italy are trafficking victims threatened by criminal organizations in Italy. An increasing number of these women arrive either pregnant or with children."

JohnJones | 14 October 2013  

I am currently in Italy and I'm astonisted by the high level of compassion for the many thousands of asylum seekers that reach their shores. When a major tradgedy occured a couple of weeks ago (over 300 asylum seekers drowned at sea) the Italian government declared a Day of National Mourning. I can't imagine this happening in current times in Australia.

Sue | 15 October 2013  

Thank you Kerry for this stark comparison between Australia's and Italy's attitude towards those who come asking for asylum. Many Australians are ashamed of our national response which has become a competition in harshness between the major parties. There are good people within all political parties who are just as disturbed as you are at where we have arrived in our asylum seeker policy. There are countless volunteers working with asylum seekers in the community who despair at the impact of our policy upon those we work with. Seeing young lives buried in depression and hopelessness while hearing echoes from within the voice of the public of the major parties' demonisation of all who flee here, adds to the shame many of us feel. So God bless our new Pope for the leadership he is giving and thank you to all those like you who continue to work in season and out of season to welcome the most vulnerable of strangers in our midst.

Camilla | 15 October 2013  

Thank you for this excellent comment. The reference to 'linguistic phrase' is very important. A single use of the word 'illegal' (regarding boat people without papers) in a UN document on people smuggling was used to justify the constant repetition of the word during the election campaign. The ABC's FactCheck pronounced that S.Morrison correctly used the term, citing this as the basis of that judgement. The enormous number of Fact Sheets and MythBusting efforts of so many groups over previous years and during the campaign hardly withstood this clever and manipulative abuse of a single word.

Sister Susan Connelly | 15 October 2013  

Italy is not an island continent with a still largely European population on the fringe of Asia. Our history of engagement with our Asian neighbours, at least since 1788, has been one of great caution, even fear. The White Australia Policy was a core part of our national identity till 1973. There are, I believe, deep, often unconscious factors motivating people on both sides of this debate in this country. This, I think, is part of the reason for the stridency and aggression displayed by some. Italy was never an isolated, mainly monocultural and monolingual nation. It was traditionally one of the centres of Western European culture and a crossroads rather than the end of the line. The debate on this matter, on both sides, seems to me to show we are an immature nation still developing a national identity and culture which encompasses ethnic and cultural diversity and openness. The "Muslim factor", also a problem in Europe, which does arise in Italy, is part of the problem here. This is a good article which partly delineates the problem.

Edward F | 15 October 2013  

Tunnel vision with no light at the end. Please switch on the light.

john frawley | 15 October 2013  

The article certainly deserves wide attention. It would be good to have it re-published in major print media!

Thomas Mautner | 15 October 2013  

While recent surveys show Australia ranks among the top five countries with high living standard, the top ten tourist destinations and Australian universities among the top one hundred, I am just wondering whether any survey about Autralia’s treatment of asylum seekers exists. If a society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, I am not entirely surprised our great nation is somewhere near the bottom, since the so-called Pacific solution. The newly elected Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek whose parents came from Slovenia emotionally said that Australia gave her family an opportunity to rebuild their lives, let alone electing her a member of Federal Government. How the asylum seekers in Nauru or PNG can rebuild their lives while the Australian Government continues to dehumanize them? I am a refugee myself –one of the so-called boat people. And I am wondering when the Prime Minister keeps preaching that the newly migrants must learn the Australian way and adapt to the Australian life, does he mean they should change their attitude towards the most vulnerable and weakest members of our once most tolerable society? So Viva Italia! Vergoga Australia!

Toan Nguyen | 15 October 2013  

Edward and John are like broken records that say nothing, there is no difference between us accepting asylum seekers with care and compassion and the other 147 nations who ratified the refugee convention. It is what we promised those 147 nations we would do. We are not exceptional, we don't have the right to pervert the law just because we are white in an Asian region, I don't think I have ever seen or heard such open ugly racism.

Marilyn | 15 October 2013  

All too true!

john bartlett | 15 October 2013  

Australia has to acknowledge first and foremost that the the movement of people in search of a safe haven is a worldwide concern. The constant snivelling about 'poor us' is pathetic.

Jane Brittain (ANU Migration Law student) | 16 October 2013  

Even more ridiculous is the amount of money we waste on patrolling the sea between Indonesia and Christmas Island and call it border protection. Christmas Island is 2600 km from the mainland and 5400 km from Sydney. The people of Christmas Island have never felt threatened by men, women and children with nothing at all who pose no danger to us but both major parties have now criminalised their arrival, not by legal means but by ads. and threats and terrorising people and the MSM are too lazy and too dumb to report any facts among the drivel of press releases they pump out. Meanwhile we think we can colonise the neighbours who seem to only have borders when it suits us.

Marilyn | 16 October 2013  

If the arrivals in Nauru or Manus Island were physically tortured, this treatment would be roundly condemned. Instead, they are mentally tortured by government policies, and driven into mental illnesses. Shame

John OK | 16 October 2013  

Hi there In one word, I would say you are a Legend.

Syed | 29 October 2013