For many years now, Australia has been the destination of "boat people" - refugees or would-be immigrants from troubled lands to the north and west. Decades ago they were from Vietnam, more recently from the Middle East, Afganistan and Sri Lanka.
And for the same period, debate has raged in Australia between those who want to keep out the "illegals", and those who want to offer help to people in distress. Elections have been fought over the issue, and opinions are highly polarised.
Take these two examples:
In favour of compassion
Recently my friend Russ presented on his blog, Out on a limb, a number of reasons in favour of treating refugees like humans, based on material prepared by GetUp!. It was presented in the form of myths about asylum seekers, which were:
Myth 1 – Australia takes in more than its fair share of asylum seekers
Australia's current intake is lower than average, below UN recommendations, and per capita only 20th (out of 44 countries considered) in the world.
Myth 2 – Boat people are swamping our shores
Only 10% of asylum seekers arrive by boat, most come by air. A greater percentage of boat arrivals are found to have valid reasons. Far more people overstay their visas illegally.
Myth 3 – the Government's changes in policy have made Australia a soft target
There is no evidence that changes in Government policy, either a "tougher" stance or a more lenient one, have made any significant difference to the numbers of arrivals. Rather, conditions in the countries of origin seem to be the main factor.
Myth 4 – Refugees are a burden on our economy
Refugees are an insignificant proportion of welfare payments and may assist the economy in providing expansion to the workforce.
Myth 5 – Boats are bringing terrorists to our shores
This is an unlikely route for terrorists. In the US, all immigrants involved in the World Trade Centre attacks arrived on visas.
Myth 6 – Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants
Seeking asylum is legal under Australian and international law to which Australia is a signatory. Whether they are allowed entry as genuine refugees is a matter for Australia to determine.
All this seems very reasonable and humane. On these facts, it would seem that Australia should be more generous to people in distress. Yet there is another side to the story.
In favour of a "stronger" policy
In a recent Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Paul Sheehan (Migration: the true story) argued that Australia is not a racist, inhumane or intolerant society:
1. The record high number of refugees admitted by the previous government did not generate significant public opposition.
2. Despite rising violence by militant Islamists around the world, the increase in Muslim numbers via legal channels in the past two decades has generated no meaningful political opposition.
3. Australia has a high number of foreign-born residents (almost 25%) and one of the world's largest per capita immigrants intakes, with the majority of arrivals being non-European.
4. It is more difficult to identify and check those people who arrive by boat than those who arrive by air and overstay their visas.
5. A recent spate of convictions for terrorist activity within Australia has largely involved people who came as immigrants.
6. The Tamil Tigers, from whom many recent arrivals originate, have received considerable support in Australia.
7. Australia can only accept a certain number of refugees without harm to economy, environment or social structure.
8. The present Government deploys a zero-sum refugee policy, so if boat arrivals are accepted, those who register to immigrate have to wait longer.
9. UN conventions on asylum seekers do not override Australian law.
10. Some would-be immigrants are demanding rights that do not exist under international law.
This too seems reasonable, if not so humane. Which story is true?
It seems likely that both sets of facts are true. In which case, the truth is very complex, and there are no easy answers. We want to help the unfortunate refugees, but we want to remain in control and be fair to others. There are arguments both ways, and the Australian Government and people will have to resolve them.
I am still a little inclined to the compassionate option. But we would all be better served if politicians on both sides spoke less like the "shock jocks" of talkback radio and gave us their considered assessments of these facts and the best possible compromise.