Leading article: A disaster that shows the true face of a demonised people

The dead of Christmas Island were desperate and poor people, driven to take terrible risks

Share
Related Topics

In the wake of the horrors of the Second World War, refugees were widely seen as deserving recipients of compassion and assistance. But today their modern equivalents have become objects of popular contempt and fear. Fifty-nine years ago, nations signed up to recognise their obligations to asylum seekers in the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Now governments ignore or seek to evade those same obligations.

For the past decade, asylum-seekers have been demonised in Australia by politicians and media alike as immigration "queue-jumpers". Here in Britain they are regarded with hostility too. An assumption prevails in both nations that asylum-seekers are "bogus" and that claims for refugee status are attempts to evade migration controls.

If any good can come from this week's ghastly shipwreck off Christmas Island, it will be a challenge to those prejudices. The accident has revealed a very different face of refugees to the one presented so often by populist political leaders and right-wing newspapers. Asylum-seekers have been shown to be not opportunistic rule-breakers, but desperate and poor people who will often take terrible risks to reach a place of safety.

The Australian state has long adopted a punitive approach to those arriving in search of asylum. Refugees face mandatory and indefinite detention. They are sent to off-shore processing centres, rather than being permitted to remain on the Australian mainland. Asylum applications from citizens of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have been subject to a blanket suspension. From John Howard's "Pacific solution" to Julia Gillard's East Timor plan, Australian leaders have repeatedly sought to push asylum-seekers out of sight.

Australian politicians must take some of the blame for this week's disaster. Their refusal to process claimants in neighbouring Indonesia has enhanced the incentive for refugees to make the perilous journey to Australian territory by sea, usually entrusting their lives to reckless people-smugglers in the process.

The Christmas Island disaster coincides, rather grimly, with a shift here in Britain to a more compassionate approach to asylum-seekers. The Coalition Government announced yesterday that it will from next May be bringing to an end the detention of child asylum-seekers. There is, of course, still much mistreatment of asylum-seekers here in Britain. Conditions at the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire remain far from adequate, and there have been several cases of failed asylum-seekers being assaulted during deportation. But this move on child refugees is, nevertheless, to be welcomed as a step in the proper direction (not to mention a victory for the Liberal Democrats, who have long campaigned for such a reform).

The penal approach is not just cruel, it is ineffective. The harsh treatment of asylum-seekers in Australia has not been much of a deterrent. This year, some 6,300 asylum-seekers reached Australia on 130 boats. Though low by international standards, this was the largest number in Australia in two decades. To some desperate individuals, Australian detention is preferable to persecution at home. But though Australian policy has not been a deterrent, it has certainly been a moral disaster, for which the Christmas Island shipwreck is likely to prove a lasting symbol.

Britain has looked to Australia in recent years for ideas on immigration. The previous Labour government adopted an Australian-style points system. On asylum-seekers, Australia should follow Britain and switch hysteria for humanity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape