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

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.