Why the asylum seeker debate is missing the point

In all the talk of stopping the boats and the devising of policies more punitive then the ones that came before, there is one simple piece of information that is generally overlooked: people who seek asylum in Australia do so because they are escaping something far worse, and no amount of deterrence is going to stop people fleeing wars and persecution to save their lives.

Yesterday was world humanitarian day, a time in which to pause and take stock of the terrible toll of war. Anyone who hasn’t been under a rock recently can see that people living in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan or Mali are under constant risk. There are also other, less visible contexts, in which minorities like the Oromo and Ogaden people of Ethiopia face life-threatening persecution. They will flee from their homelands, usually reluctantly, to seek safety, and this is not going to change until the conditions in their original homelands changes. I would do the same.

Yet the asylum seeker debate in Australia seems to be compulsively stuck in a myopic view of the world, where Australia’s attractiveness as a destination is the only criteria under consideration and which ignores the reasons that people get on the boats in the first place.

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The existence of war and persecution needs to come right back into the picture so we, as a nation, can start to think constructively about the form our collective – dare I say moral?  – responsibility should take. What can we contribute to peace and security in the countries that are expelling refugees? Paul Komesaroff and Suresh Sundram made some suggestions for peacebuilding in Sri Lanka in The Age last month. These are difficult issues, but ultimately peace and justice are the only conditions that are going to stop people seeking asylum.

Written by Denise Cauchi

Director, Humanitarian Crisis Hub