Asylum seeker influx stirs Australians
By Michael Perry
Australia is being invaded!!
Well, thats the impression you get if you’ve been reading the Australian media headlines.
Photographs of a rickety wooden ship crammed with 260 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, which was intercepted by Indonesia as it sailed to Australia, have been splashed across newspaper
frontpages this week and dominated TV news bulletins.
“Six more boats on the way” and of a “Flood of 10,000 boatpeople”, warned headlines. “Acting to stem the tide” and “No vacancy for boatpeople”, said headlines on stories of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd moves to stop boatpeople arrivals.
Monitoring the political pulse, webwite breakfast politics was swamped with asylum seeker stories on the morning of Wednesday Oct. 14, the day after the latest boat was intercepted in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra islands.
But what is invading Australia? Boatpeople? Or divisive politics, sparked by an opposition trailing badly in opinion polls, mixed with ignorance of the facts by Australians?
In recent months Australia has seen a steady flow of boatpeople arrivals off its northwest coast. More than 1,600 have arrived so far this year, mainly people fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
But the numbers are a drop in the ocean compared with the tens of thousands of asylum seekers sailing across the Mediterranean to Europe each year.
In 2007 alone more than 51,000 people arrived on the coasts of Itay, Spain, Greece and Malta. In the first seven months of 2009, the number of illegal immigrants entering Italy doubled to 15,000, leading to new laws carrying a four year jail term for entering the country illegally.
In 2008 there were 16 million refugees and 26 million internally displaced people worldwide, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in June.
Pakistan topped the list with 1.8 million refugees, followed by Syria with 1.1 million and then Iran with 980,000. Afghanistan accounted for the largest number of refugees at 2.8 million and Iraq next with 1.9 million.
While Australia’s media and some politicians warn of a rising tide of refugees, the number of refugees in Asia-Pacific actually fell six percent in 2008, in contrast to a rise in Europe.
The UNHCR’s 2008 Global Trends report on refugees and displaced people mentions Australia only once, acknowledging that it accepted 11,000 refugees in the year. Australia is absent from
any list of asylum destinations.
Contrary to popular impression, aircraft is the preferred mode of transport for Australia’s illegal arrivals. Some 96 percent of illegal arrivals don’t come via a rickety boat but sitting in the comfort of an aircraft. Backpackers and other tourists who overstay their visas account for the majority of Australia’s illegal immigrants.
Yet, the media and politicians routinely whip up a storm over boatpeople arrivals, ever since former conservative Prime Minister John Howard used the issue to win the 2001 election.