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Tough refugee policy is not inherently evil

Australians know desperation when they see it, but they do not want economic migrants abusing their country's goodwill.
Last modified: 17 Aug 2013 21:43
Former asylum seekers support Australia's policy

Last week, from Christmas Island, I wrote a blog about Australia's asylum-seeker policy.

It was meant to be a look at life within the detention centre, and what islanders who are not asylum seekers thought of the "refugee industry" so entwined with their lives. 

It was meant not as endorsement nor condemnation of Australia's policies towards asylum seekers; merely a series of observations from one of the centres where those affected live.

I was pleased to see the blog provoked comment. Nacho Dylan said that it was "part of the Al Jazeera narrative ... to ... castigate the West as oppressors no matter what the facts are". Horace demanded, "tell us what you would do". White Shadow said my article "helped" by "establishing the basic facts of the debate".  

Regardless of what they thought of my piece, though, most seemed to assume my sympathies were with the asylum seekers. And, perhaps, having just met some in the Christmas Island camp when I wrote that blog, they were.  

So let me redress the balance a little.

A few days before I visited Christmas Island, I talked to a man who told me that the vast majority of asylum seekers who came by boat were not genuinely refugees. 

"They are economic migrants. They spend their boat journeys rehearsing their lines", he said, discussing how, for example, an Iranian pretending to be gay, and persecuted for his sexuality back home, was sure to get Australia to offer protection.  

Over my two and a half years in Australia, plenty have said similar things to me. Many Australians have views on how refugee-processing has been abused.  

But not many of those who talk are former asylum seekers.  And fewer still are able to recite the lines rehearsed on a boat because they were on that SAME boat listening to the rehearsal. 

I won't reveal my source because it's not the done thing for one asylum seeker to, effectively, grass on others.  But the man I was talking to was one of the biggest fans of Australia's "offshore solution" that I'd ever met.  

"It will work," he insisted. "The Iranians on my boat didn't want protection - they wanted Australia." 

He said most boats would stop because "others like them won't come".  

But genuine refugees, he said, still would. He was one, he said. He'd have made the journey even if it meant life in Papua New Guinea, not Australia.

One man, one anecdote. Who knows how much truth? But I want to set the record straight. I don't think a "tough" policy is inherently evil. I think the current government policy is probably well-intentioned, and almost certainly necessary for a struggling government that's listening to the voters who elect them.  

There is much to be said - as Immigration Minister Tony Burke did to me - for saving people from drowning at sea; Australia's "offshore" programme (resettlement places for refugees currently languishing in camps abroad) is generous when compared to most other countries.

Australians - crucially - are not the xenophobic bigots international coverage can sometimes imply. Most Australians understand desperation when they see it. They want a generous policy. But they don't want to see it abused. Kindness comes with strings attached.