IN Italy, about 5700 people were pulled to safety last weekend as they attempted the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
On the same weekend, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced proposed tough legislation banning any person arriving in Australia by boat from mid-July 2013, from ever entering the country.
From one side of the world to the other, the contrast in political approach couldn’t be starker – it represents a clash in world views in how to deal with a global humanitarian refugee crisis.
It is the difference between one country’s open border, and another, which is closed for life to boat asylum seekers.
Prime Minister Turnbull told reporters his team would seek to amend the Migration Act to prevent “irregular maritime arrivals”, taken to the regional processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, from making a valid application for any Australian visa. There will be exceptions for children.
“This will send the strongest possible signal to the people smugglers,” he said.
“If they seek to bring people to Australia, those passengers will never settle in this country.”
If passed, it would impact about 3000 asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus receiving medical treatment in Australia and also apply to more than 1550 proven refugees.
Ironically this is about the same number of refugees who arrived on Italian shores last weekend.
From the Government’s point of view the new measures are about fixing problems caused by Labor’s immigration policy, which resulted in many boat people dying at sea.
“We’ll never give up our border controls to the people smugglers again. We’re cleaning up this mess,’’ Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.
And yet for critics like Professor Robert Manne, emeritus professor and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University, the Government’s border control represents a “uniquely harsh” approach.
“Thirty years ago if you had been told that Australia would create the least asylum seeker-friendly institutional arrangements in the world you would not have believed it,” Prof Manne told The Catholic Leader in September.
“It has been the absolutism, embedded in the so-called Australian immigration culture of control, rather than the racism of the White Australia Policy, which helps explain our recent policy history, now animated by a new absolutist ambition – that we should strive for a situation where not even one asylum-seeker boat reaches our shores,” he said.
Reaction to Australia’s newest policy stance also highlights a deep domestic opinion divide, which has also been used for political advantage.
“The Government is dancing to our tune,” Queensland One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts boldly boasted on Twitter.
And from the other side, Greens’ Senator Richard Di Natale urged Labor and crossbench senators to join with the Greens and block the legislation the Government intends to introduce.
“It’s about the Government chasing the mean, cruel agenda of One Nation and trying to shore up some votes from the hard right,” he said.
Perhaps the saddest truth in the battle to win public opinion is at the coalface of the problem – the desperate, human struggle of the most vulnerable.
Pope Francis maintains his message of open-door refugee policies.
He has repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of migrants and refugees.
Notably, five months into his papacy, his first trip outside Rome was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, an entry point for African migrants, to pray for those who died at sea.
In 2015 he asked every European parish, religious community, monastery and convent to sponsor one refugee family.
And in February of this year he visited the United States-Mexico border to celebrate Mass and talk of the “humanitarian crisis” of forced migration.
In April, he returned from a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos with three Syrian Muslim families that the Church planned to support.
In these papal visits, Pope Francis has called for mercy toward those crossing borders.
In Australia, it is a message that eludes our leaders.
– Mark Bowling