The recent capsizing of two boats attempting to enter Australia has once again sparked major discussion in Parliament and has sent the media on another 'boat people frenzy'. While Australia does have to take care and have systems in place to protect our borders, it has become such an over publicised topic and one which needs really needs to be viewed in a wider context.
The first 'boat people'
The term, 'boat people', first entered the Australian vocabulary in the 1970's, nowadays bringing with it a myriad of negative attitudes and emotions. After the arrival of the first wave of boats carrying people seeking asylum from the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the term 'boat people' emerged. Over half the Vietnamese population was displaced in these years and, while most fled to neighbouring Asian countries, some embarked on the voyage by boat to Australia (www.aph.org.au).
The first boat arrived in Darwin in April 1976 carrying five Indochinese men. Over the next five years there were 2059 Vietnamese boat arrivals with the last arriving in August 1981.
The arrival of 27 asylum seekers in November 1989 marked the beginning of the second wave. Over the following nine years, boats arrived at the rate of about 300 people per annumâ€"mostly from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China.
In 1999, a third wave of asylum seekers, predominantly from the Middle East, began to arriveâ€"often in larger numbers than previous arrivals and usually with the assistance of 'people smugglers (www.aph.org.au). In the last decade the numbers have often reached the thousands per annum, and in this last year close to 3000 arrived on our shores.
Boat people are people
So who are boat people? A boat person is known as an asylum seeker, arriving unauthorised in Australian territory. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. (www.unhcr.org).
Above all, boat people are PEOPLE. Just like you and me they are human beings, who have fled dangers and lack of safety in their homeland. I have never had to fear for my life as each new day dawns. I have never considered the fact that tomorrow my home or my family may not be there. Boat people seek protection in a new region away from the risks and instability of their place of origin. They deserve to be viewed and treated with dignity and respect.
The truth about boat people
What is not shown in the media is the fact that majority of onshore asylum seekers actually arrive in Australia by air with a valid visa and then apply for onshore protection at some stage after their arrival. Boat people account for 47% of all asylum seekers (www.aph.org.au). However the main political concerns and debates lie with the increase of illegal vessels attempting to make it to Australia.
The Immigration Minister has acknowledged the small scale of the problem in Australia compared to countries in Europe and other parts of the world. In the US, for example, it is estimated that more than 500,000 'boat people' arrive each year. Similarly, parts of Europe struggle to monitor and control the large influxes from Africa and the Middle East each year. In comparison, in 2010, 134 boats arrived unauthorised in Australia with a total of about 6,879 people on board. In comparison with Europe and the US, this is a rather small number.
Out of 10 million current refugees, about 75 to 90 per cent of asylum seekers remain in their region of origin placing the burden on neighbouring countries, not on Australia. In fact, in the year 2000, when approximately 3000 'boat people' arrived in Australia, Iran and Pakistan each hosted over a million Afghan refugees. The burden of assisting the world's asylum seekers mostly fell, and still falls, to some of the world's poorest countries (www.aph.org.au).
Where to from here?
There is rising concern regarding the numbers of boat people and their safety, but often is overdramatised and as a result is used so effectively in political campaigning. What needs to happen in Australia is to have consistent, fair systems and standards in place, not only for border protection, but also in relation to detention and resettling programs. Boats continue to make their way to our shores and our politicians are crying and arguing in Parliament. We cannot put an end to people arriving by boat. It is sometimes the cheapest and only means some people have to flee. But we can make their experience a more humane one.
William Maley from the Australian National University stated that, "deterring people from trying to get on a boat from Indonesia to Australia, is not going to stop people drowning. The best it can hope to do is push them to the westward route, out of central Asia, into the arms of the Russian mafia so that they can then have a chance of drowning in the Mediterranean" (www.abc.net.au).
This quote alerts us to the fact there is so much more to consider before brash comments are made or selfish policies are instated. The boat people issue is diverse and widespread and the systems we have in place need to match this.
Regardless of political persuasion, it is our duty as Christians to protect the rights of those who are imprisoned, hungry, naked or forsaken. This doesn't mean we need to open our borders and let everyone in. We should be treating current boat people with love and justice and should therefore develop far more welcoming and hospitable policies.
Yes, we need to protect our country but asylum seekers don't deserve to be portrayed as criminals and treated as such. As Christians we need to check our attitudes and comments in regard to boat people and ensure it lines up with how Jesus would view and treat them.
Laura Veloso is wife to John and the mother of 3 young boys. She is trained in child welfare and primary school teaching and has experience in overseas missions and youth leadership.
Laura Veloso's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/laura-veloso.html