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

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Liberal Democrats leader says efforts need to be focused on cracking down on the criminal gangs  

Nick Clegg: We should to go to war on drugs, not on addicts

Nick Clegg
East German border guards stand on a section of the Berlin wall in front of the Brandenburg gate on November 11, 1989  

Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary’s PM thinks it is Western capitalism that is in its death throes

Peter Popham
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes