The news that the federal government is going to put some asylum seekers in the massively expensive, high security detention facility on Christmas Island for the first time is being portrayed as unavoidable. This report says the government has been “forced” to open the centre after the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat rose to 164, “compared with last year’s 148.”
This ignores the obvious fact that there is no need for the asylum seekers to be kept on Christmas Island in the first place. The government is caught by the irrationality of its own policy – not a law, just a policy – which currently requires all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to be taken to and kept on Christmas Island, even if they arrive first on the mainland or are intercepted closer to other centres, such as Darwin.
For no apparent logical reason, asylum seekers who arrive by plane are treated completely differently.
Even if the government does want to keep people in detention for a number of months, there is ample unused capacity in immigration detention centres in Australia, particularly in Darwin, which is mostly used for foreigners detained for unauthorised fishing.
The insistence on treating boat arrivals differently from plane arrivals, and keeping all boat arrivals on Christmas Island, is all about maintaining and reinforcing the false perception that excising Australia’s northern and western islands from the migration zone provide some sort of protective barrier against boat people.
Unfortunately, this also continues to reinforce the false beliefs that (a) boat arrivals are some sort of threat to our security, even though every single one of them seeks to declare themselves as soon as they arrive, and (b) that such tiny numbers of arrivals present some sort of significant problem.
It is time Australia grew up about these matters, and moved on from our irrational 19th century fears. The number of boat arrivals here are tiny in comparison to virtually every other developed country (except New Zealand for obvious reasons), and smaller again than the number of refugees and displaced peoples that many poorer countries have to host, including countries in our region.
Wasting millions of dollars traumatising them for no good reason might still make good politics, but it is poor policy.
There is a real likelihood that the number of unauthorised people movements around the globe is going to increase even further in coming years. Climate change or finanical and political instability won’t help either. We need to learn to deal with this rationally and develop regional and global solutions, not kid oursleves we can fence ourselves in, or let irrational fear lead once again to trying to justify the traumatising of vulnerable people.