Last week on a plane between Sydney and Melbourne, I met a bloke who was heading home from a conference about refugee policy, hosted by the Refugee Council of Australia and the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees regional office Canberra. He works for Hotham Mission’s Asylum Seeker Project, which is doing some excellent work in housing unaccompanied minors and assisting other asylum seekers living in the community while their claims are being processed. He asked me, as a linguist, if I could help him out with a task that had been directed to the attendees of the conference by UNHCR’s Richard Towle:

The idea that asylum seekers arriving by boat have jumped a queue (there is no queue!) has infected the thinking of many Australians and is the basis of a misbelief that people arriving by boat are illegal or less worthy of our protection. Take it from the head of UNHCR in our region – that for many reasons, this is a completely erroneous and destructive metaphor. Can anyone come up with a metaphor antidote to kill the virus? Richard Towle said the best they had so far was the idea of someone arriving by ambulance at a hospital emergency department and being asked to go back and get a referral from a GP.

The half million people who have been watching Go Back to Where You Came From would probably be aware by now that for most refugees and people fleeing hardship, persecution, war and other atrocities in their own country, there is no queue; there is no legal option available. All they can do is (illegally) cross a border in order to flee or to find and join a queue – such as the UN refugee camp featured last night, Kakuma in Kenya (Swahili for nowhere), which houses more than 80,000 refugees in waiting.

The fact of the matter is that if such a global queue for resettlement of refugees actually existed, then at current resettlement rates it would take 135 years to proceed to the front (based on this media release). The family from Burundi featured in the first episode of Go Back waited in a camp for nine years before being resettled in Australia, and they were lucky; the average waiting period is closer to 20 years.

Back to the brief: I recently heard one analogy that Australia’s opposition to irregular maritime arrivals was like saying that if your house was on fire, you should proceed to use the front door instead of jumping out the window. As vivid as this is, I think Crikey’s astute readership can provide something better, and so I now pass it on to you, dear reader.

There’s no prize for this one beyond the praise that will be lavished unto you by all and sundry.

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