Rhetoric on cue

9 May 2011

Written by: Erdem Koc

Here we go again.

That famous debate about deterring asylum seekers from ‘jumping the queue’ has popped up once more on the national agenda.

The federal government announced on the weekend a plan to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia, trading them for 4,000 genuine refugees who’ve had their claims assessed in that country.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat can be sent directly to Malaysia, and to the ‘back of the queue’.

And that Australia, in return, will take people from the ‘front of the queue’ — those whose claims to asylum have been successful.

So, just who are these people at the ‘front of the queue’?

In its 2009-10 report, the Department of Immigration identified Afghanistan as the country from where most people seek asylum in Australia.

Some others include Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran, Zimbabwe and Pakistan.  Clearly troublesome countries.  Two of which Australia has a direct involvement with.   In this context, ‘direct involvement’ means the countries we invaded – that’s Afghanistan and Iraq.

To understand why the rhetoric in this debate is often so flawed, let’s return to basics.

Suppose you’re a citizen of either of the countries mentioned above.   Let’s take Afghanistan as an example.  You want to claim status as a refugee, and seek asylum in Australia.

To do so, you must be found to be a genuine refugee under the United Nations Refugee Convention – to which Australia is a signatory.

To be found as a refugee, you must be unable or unwilling to return or seek protection of that country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

The same Convention states that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Let’s say you satisfy these conditions.  In other words, you want to join ‘the queue’.

Your options are limited.

The United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, does not have an office in Afghanistan.  The Australian government, on the other hand, keeps it embassy location in Kabul a secret – for understandable reasons – and the only telephone number on its website is a Canberra one.

The issue is therefore quite clear.  In countries like Afghanistan, or Iraq, or many others, there is no standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their applications assessed.

Thus, there are no queues to jump.

When politicians talk about those who ‘jump the queue’, they’re usually referring to those who are irregular maritime arrivals – the official term for ‘boat people’.

And yet, there are often just as many asylum seekers – and sometimes more – who arrive by air.

Apparently if you can afford to fly to Australia than sail, you’re not ‘jumping the queue’.

The UNHCR has repeatedly said that the increase in the number of people seeking asylum to Australia reflects a worldwide trend. That as a result of ongoing wars, conflicts, instability and other factors, there are more and more people in desperate need of international protection.

The term ‘queue jumpers’ is not only entirely misleading, but it is incredibly insensitive and offensive to the people who we, under international law, have a right to protect.  Or, at the very least, to attempt to protect.

Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and as such, asylum seekers are forced to travel to another country to find protection.

It’s time we recognise our international obligation which we agreed to, and discuss proper policy with humane outcomes.

Because unleashing hollow rhetoric on cue in this debate helps nobody.

Erdem Koc teaches journalism at La Trobe University.