I WOULD to like to respond to a couple of points in the letter from David Formby (CL 23/9/01).
People smuggling, like most criminal activities, arose in response to a perceived need. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) gives a figure of around 23 million people for the number of refugees or people of concern throughout the world.
There are only about a dozen countries that take in refugees for resettlement, Australia being one of them. We have a humanitarian program of taking 12,000 people per year at the moment. Of those 12,000, only about 3000 are class 202 refugees (those with no connection to Australia and in the most need), the rest being family reunions (mostly wives or fiancees) or people with an existing connection to Australia (ie family member or friend who can sponsor them).
Last year we accepted 21 Afghans from the estimated 6 million in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.
For persecuted and threatened people to leave Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan to get to a neighbouring country involves paying people smugglers, bribes to border guards, purchase of false documents, etc. There is only one UNHCR office to service all of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, in Islamabad, Pakistan. You don’t get to enter the compound to make an application without paying the ‘entrance fee’ to the guards, you don’t get your paperwork processed without paying a ‘fee’.
In our country, these ‘fees’ would be called ‘fee for service’ and go into government coffers. There, we call them bribes and they are paid to the poorly paid locally employed workers. Paying a people smuggler is just one more payment a refugee can be forced to pay in an effort to stay alive.
Quite a few of the asylum seekers entering this country, particularly from Afghanistan, have already tried the ‘legal system’ through the UNHCR and have waited for years, while those around them in the camps have died from starvation and disease.
The queue so often talked about by the government, presupposes that it is just a matter of waiting your turn. With so many applicants and so few places around the world, most people on the queue will never get a turn.
Our government does not take people in turn, either. It picks and chooses across the board, based on its own reasons for selection, not necessarily that of most need.
What is the difference between entering Pakistan or Jordan illegally to apply for asylum and entering Australia illegally for the same purpose? The answer is simply NIMBY – not in my backyard. Our government thinks that would-be refugees can enter any other country but ours to seek asylum.
When Mary and Joseph, with their new-born son, fled Judea for Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre, did the Egyptian border guards turn them back because they hadn’t applied through the proper channels for asylum? Were they thrown into a detention centre because they lacked paper work and their claims had to be assessed?
Sure, addressing the source of the problem is always the best solution, but we all know that that solution is at best a long-term project if it is likely to be successful at all.
In the meantime, a bit more official and unofficial compassion can ease the plight of a few more hapless victims of institutionalised violence and murder.
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