Ignore refugee boat arrivals?

By Andrew L. Urban

During the many public debates about asylum seekers in Australia during 2010-11, when there was a significant increase in refugee boat arrivals from Indonesia, several commentators took the view that it was somehow ridiculous for public debate to be so fixated on this issue. They argue that the numbers, even at recent historically high levels, are insignificant, especially in the context of the total refugee intake.

Why are we even talking about it, they ask?

The implication is that it doesn’t matter about a few thousand refugees arriving by boat. It doesn’t warrant our attention. They are relatively small numbers.

Unfortunately, they were never asked by the journalists present (or anyone else) to offer a response to the question raised by this view, namely, does the Government simply ignore the matter? If it does nothing, it effectively encourages refugees to flee by boats on the premise that if they don’t die on the way they are welcome? Except of course for a lengthy period in detention.

It is true that as a percentage of total refugees the numbers arriving by boat are not significant. An increase of 1,000 refugees a year was proposed by the Government (May 2011) as part of its Malaysian solution and opposition to that is limited to the nature of the deal, not the volume of refugees taken. Indeed, there is a good argument to increase the intake of refugees even further in a wealthy democracy.

In the context of the political debate, however, it’s an empty posture to say ‘the numbers are too few for Australians to get bothered about’. A functioning democracy has to find a far more sophisticated and humane response than that.

The ‘not worth talking about’ position is effectively a declaration of policy bankruptcy.

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