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Big News: Asylum Seekers Seeking Asylum

How many asylum seekers were on the Tampa? It depends what paper you read, and on what day you read it. The Sydney Morning Herald said there were 436, two days later they said 438. Reuters have said 460. Another paper said 434. Now just about everybody has reverted to “over 400” asylum seekers – except the Holmes Show who, with several overseas media, had a reporter on the boat for an hour last week. But however many there were, everybody has an opinion as to whether John Howard should have let them onto Aussie turf.

For the record there were 436 asylum seekers, 43 of them children, 22 women and at least two were pregnant and three seriously ill. They were attended to by 27 crew. After all, the Norwegian container ship is only designed for about 30.

Aussie immigration minister Phillip Ruddock has said that under United Nations standards only 15 percent of asylum seekers who illegally enter Australia would qualify as genuine asylum seekers, whereas under the current interpretation of the Australian courts 85 percent manage to stay. They get placed in mandatory detention centres under temporary protection visas until they are assessed. They get conditions worse than prisoners. Last year 4452 people were granted TPVs.

According to the UN, one in every 280 people is a refugee. Just ten countries have permanent refugee programmes. Australia’s annual refugee intake is
12 000, more per head than any other country except Canada. Ours is 750, but the most New Zealand has taken in any one time is ten, by air. Singapore, on the other hand does not accept refugees and Japan took just 16 last year.

We’re about to take 150, which will cost you $1.35 million. It’s all part of the refugee budget anyway.

“Thanks very much, we’re most grateful,” says Howard. Grateful he should be. In an election year, Howard does not want to be seen as being soft on refugees. But he is not doing has election chances much good by his “not on our turf” stance -not even as a stop off point.

Church leaders were appalled at Howard. They often are, despite Howard being an Anglican churchgoer. They are still waiting a formal apology for the stolen aboriginal generation. Churches sent a delegation to Canberra to express their concerns. “Where’s the compassion?” they asked. Ironically these church leaders had commemorated Refugee Sunday at services just the day before the march. They continue to call on the government to avoid making changes to the United Nations 1951 Refugee convention – signed and ratified by Australia – that gives a legal obligation to provide asylum to refugees, irrespective of their mode of travel. Last month Howard called for changes to the convention to prevent people seeking asylum in Australia, which would weaken the whole regime of international refugee protection.

This week he announced the introduction of llegislation to exclude Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from the nation's migration zone, after he revealed that another 237 refugees had been intercepted off north-western Australia. The legislation would be introduced in parliament on September 17 and means asylum seekers would have to reach the Australian mainland before they could apply for refugee status.

But Australia is not over-run by boat people – it’s just that Howard is hard nosed because he is sick of illegal immigrants jumping the queue over refugees. In the year ending 1999, Australia received 8000 unauthorised arrivals – two thirds of their refugee quota. But the UK got 52,000, and Canada and the US got 427,000. Germany got 98,000 asylum seekers as well as 117,648 refugees.

So much for “Advance Australia Fair”, the anthem with the lines “for those who come across the seas we’ve got boundless plains to share.” Maybe they should change the anthem to Waltzing Matilda if they are going to tell asylum seekers to go waltzing off elsewhere - to places like Nauru and New Zealand.

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