As a nation we have been here before. And it is ugly. The darkening political rhetoric about asylum seekers points to a uniquely Australian zenophobia and a national insecurity about matters of race.
Those political leaders, commentators and members of the public who encourage and nourish fear and anxiety about asylum seekers should be held to account for where it leads. Theirs is a rhetoric that legitimizes state sanctioned force and violence against vulnerable people. The natural consequence is death on a large scale (remember Siev X), indefinite detention of families and children, the destruction of human well being and state sanctioned cruelty in many forms. All in the name of protecting some imagined national border and identity.
It is a Liberal parliamentarian- the Liberal member for Kooyong Petro Georgiou- who is the first Federal politician to speak out against this frenzy of hatred being whipped up by both political parties. His piece in today's Age should be read by all Australians.
Georgiou concludes that the policy of mandatory detention introduced by Labour in 1992 and toughened by the Coalition did not deter arrivals.
As Georgiou points out the escalation of conflict and persecution around the world, means that many countries are confronted with an increase in people seeking refugee. Internationally, the number of asylum claims increased by 28% to 839,000 last year. However, 80% of the world's refugees are hosted by 4 countries: Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Jordan.
Georgio points out that the number of applications for asylum that Australia receives- 4500- is minisicule compared to the US (49,600), France (35,400), Canada (34,800), Britain 30,500 and Italy 30,300. Georgiou issues a prescient warning:
Unless we are very careful, we are about to engage in a corrosive debate about people seeking refuge in our country. The portents are there. Political skirmishing is intensifying about who is tough, tougher or toughest on border protection. The term "illegal immigrant" is being bandied about. Refugees are being labelled "back-door" immigrants. Anecdotes about asylum seekers not looking genuine are being recounted. Unsubstantiated assertions about the number in asylum seeker ''pipelines'' are being given currency.