The national debate on asylum seekers in the last two weeks has drawn a strong reaction from advocates for asylum seekers and refugees.
The debate has been stirred by the interception of the seventh boat carrying asylum seekers by a navy ship last week and the explosion on another boat carrying asylum seekers two weeks ago which killed five people.
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre CEO, Kon Karapanagiotidis, said the claim that Australia is facing a serious problem with asylum seekers is a myth.
“Australia has hardly any people seeking asylum in this country compared to what’s happening globally,” Mr Karapanagiotidis said.
He highlighted the fact that there is a worldwide increase of 12 percent in people seeking refuge away from their home countries due to the catastrophic conditions in the war torn countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Mr Karapanagiotidis points out that “The hysteria is about having had 260 people seek asylum by boat this year compared to 171 last year. “
The Director of the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture, Paris Aristotle, further stressed that Australia’s asylum seekers numbers pale by comparison to other Western countries.
“It’s completely blown out of proportion compared to Europe. Greece last year had approximately 15,500 asylum seekers, Italy had over 30,000, Spain had 18,000, the U.K. had over 30,000 same as France. The numbers coming to Australia are dramatically less,” Mr Aristotle said.
According to a 2008 report by the United Nations on Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries, the number of people who sought asylum in Australia was 4,750 and in the last five years there were 18,650.
The same report found that out of that number only 2.7 percent came by boat with the overwhelming 97.3 percent arriving in Australia by airplane.
“The level of media hysteria is what distorts the problem, some press reports were referring to how well these asylum seekers were dressed as if they don’t have a genuine claim,” Mr Aristotle said.
He underscored the irony of Australia committing forces to fight a war against the regime of Taliban in Afghanistan that is considered vile and oppressive yet when people are fleeing from this apparently resurgent regime they are not entitled to seek protection.
Mr Aristotle argues that the Opposition is playing politics with the asylum seekers issue with its simplistic stance to a complex issue. He argues that Australians need to show more empathy and that the international community agree on a multilateral approach.
Mr Karapanagiotidis is also strong in his condemnation of the position taken by sections of the Liberal Party, accusing them of wanting Australia to return “ to the most shameful time in our treatment of refugees.”
The times call for a more humane rather than harsher refugee policy, Mr Karapanagiotidis said.
“The people coming by boat to Australia are fleeing for their lives. They are not leaving their countries by choice but by necessity. Talk of this government being soft on refugees is a joke.”
Mr Karapanagiotidis explained that the policy of Mandatory Detention has not ended although he concedes that the Labor government is on the right track with their decision to abolish the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) regime introduced by the Howard government.
The TPVs set various restrictions for asylum seekers such limitations on employment opportunities and the receipt of welfare, while the fear of not being granted refugee status and being sent back was always there.