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Let us grieve, but not question why they take to the boats

This was the final sentence in an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper on Thursday 3 October reflecting on the sinking of the migrant boat off the coast of Italy near the island of Lampedusa, where it is now confirmed there are over 300 dead.

Like Australia, Europe faces the continual challenge as boats arrive in waves, reflecting the fever pitch that is reached when people who are faced with desperate circumstances take desperate measure to try to make a better life for themselves.

And like Europe, Australia must grieve the 1,484 human lives that have been lost on their way to a better life in Australia. Whether they were labeled asylum seekers, migrants, refugees or queue jumpers – these were people – human lives lost in a way that could be avoided with moral courage and will. But as the article in the Guardian laments “there will be more days like this, more tragedies in places such as Lampedusa”.


It appears that in the western world we have a disingenuous approach to the massive challenge across the world of people seeking refuge from poverty, religious or political oppression, or simply fleeing for their lives from wars and ethnic genocide.

To quote the Guardian once more, “we confront the problem with an unedifying hotchpotch of neuroses and political spasms that ensure we never truly see it in the round, never discuss it rationally and never get to grips with it”.

This is no more so than with the current Australian government’s response to the needs of those outside Australia who live in the midst of poverty and despair.

As the rhetoric goes, we need to protect the borders from these people who want to invade our country. These people want to come and enjoy the prosperity we have. They want access to good food and medical care and education and political and religious freedom. Apparently that means we need to protect ourselves from them.

But the irony is that if situations in the countries these people fled from came anywhere close to the lifestyle that Australians enjoy, there would be no need for them to leave. And yet the Australian government, in all its wisdom, has cut the overseas aid budget – directly contributing to increased poverty and oppression overseas.

The result is that Australia has a ‘balanced’ budget, while others are denied basic needs – a denial that makes them desperate to get to Australia through desperate means. So through right wing shortsightedness, people are denied the means to create better circumstances in their home countries, the primary reason that people seek refuge in Australia.

The last decade has seen welcome growth in the developing world as poor countries, principally India and China surged, taking 620 million out of poverty compared with 1990. But the improvement has been patchy. Even in those countries where poverty has been reduced, many who have been pulled out of officially classified poverty remain vulnerable in terms of living and social conditions. They may not die of poverty, but it’s no way to live.

So that’s the quandary – we are damned by the right Conservative folks for sending aid to countries living with poverty. Damned if human beings from those poverty stricken countries come to our rich land and attack our borders, and so we must reduce our aid to them. And then we damn them – for purely self-centered reasons – and limit the extent to which they can help themselves.

So let us grieve for unnecessary loss of human life, but let us not puzzle as to why they take to the boats. And let us also speak out to the politicians that cannot summon the courage or the vision to do anything about it.

As noted in The Conversation on October 8, if the wave of sympathy over the terrible loss of lives at sea is not translated into action, it simply results in empty words and pointless effort.

The Conversation also notes that right now, with many in Europe struggling to come to terms with a terrible tragedy on their shores, Australia faces a unique opportunity to show leadership in this domain. To do this, Abbott and Scott Morrison must reconsider their preference for rhetoric, hyperbole and silencing of debate. Instead, they can offer positive solutions to help address the global phenomena of people smuggling and illegal migration, such as humanitarian intakes and legal migration channels.

Change for asylum seekers is long overdue. It’s time to work towards a new solution.

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