SYDNEY— Immigration is becoming one of the key themes in the Australian election campaign ahead of the vote on September 7. Both major parties are promising a tougher stance to stem a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat, despite criticism that the policies demonize the vulnerable.
Last month, demonstrators targeted the Prime Minister during noisy demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne last month. They believe Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plan to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea is a national disgrace.
In recent months, several migrant boats have sunk en route to Australia from Indonesia. An unknown number of people have drowned.
Rudd said sending asylum seekers who arrive by sea to neighboring Papua New Guinea, with no chance of resettlement in Australia, is about saving lives, not winning votes.
“If you come by boat, you will never permanently live in Australia. This has not been an easy decision for me or my colleagues. The bottom line is that we have to protect lives by dealing robustly with people smugglers," said Rudd. "Australians have had enough of seeing asylum seekers dying in the waters to our north and northwest. They’ve had enough of people smugglers profiting from death.”
Rudd’s uncompromising policy was followed by a pledge from conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott to use Australia’s military to stop asylum boats, which sail mostly from Indonesia. “The crisis on our borders has become a national emergency. We’ve had almost 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat, a thousand or more deaths at sea. The problem is getting worse. This government can’t solve it. We are announcing today that under a Coalition government we will swiftly implement Operation Sovereign Borders,” said Abbott.
Riz Wakil came to Australia by boat more than a decade ago. The Hazara refugee from central Afghanistan now runs a successful printing firm in Sydney. He’s horrified how mainstream politicians are portraying the asylum seeker issue.
“Both sides of the politics are convinced that if we demonize refugees, rather than focusing on education, on disability pension and all the other issues that matters to Australian people, if we are cruel enough to demonize the refugees and portray them as intruders, they are coming to invade Australia and they will destroy our society, somehow we will win the next election,” noted Wakil.
Since January more than 16,000 unauthorized migrants have arrived in Australia by boat. For the whole of last year, the figure was 17,000. The surge has created great political pressure on the government, which responded with its plan for Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbor.
But Lucy Fiske from the University of Sydney believes the asylum seeker issue has become overblown, drowning out other economic and political policies that have a greater impact on Australians' lives. “There is still a relatively small number of people coming if we look at it in global terms, or in the UK would receive at least five, maybe ten times as many asylum seekers as Australia, even at our highest years, and yet if you look at our news media and listen to our politicians at the moment you would think it was the only issue,” she said.
In Sydney’s blue-collar western suburbs, many voters support the government’s hardline plan to stop asylum seekers.
“I don’t think they have the right to live here and they shouldn’t come," a woman exclaimed. "I’m Australian. I believe in the White policy.”
“They are, what do you call them, financial refugees. You know, if they can afford to spend that much money [to people smugglers], and look at all the people stuck in the camps that have to wait their turn,” one man said.
“I feel sorry for them because they are coming from Third World countries and people do not understand why they are leaving because of the war, because they can’t live there, either their house has been bombed, or something has gone wrong. That is why they come to Australia for a better life,” another woman stated.
Others seem quite angry about people coming in by boat.
The immigration debate in Australia is often toxic, especially ahead of an election on September 7. To many voters, asylum seekers who come by boat are illegal migrants who are jumping in front of those who go through the legal immigration process. While others believe that this wealthy nation should be treating them far more humanely.
Since 1901, Australia has resettled more than 800,000 refugees.