Asylum Seekers

The posts below are selected and edited from a Metafilter thread started on 18 January 2002 by Tarrama, who wrote that "at least 58 asylum seekers have sewn their lips together during a hunger strike at the Woomera detention centre". Comments by other people than myself are highlighted in blue.


If they arrive illegally they should expect to be subject to the process of being detained until their status is determined. ¶ posted by eyere

Their sewing lips together because asylum not granted fast enough a nice indication of the good citizens they will become. ¶ posted by Postroad

So because they're unfortunate enough to come from countries whose citizens don't get automatic leave to enter Australia for a few months just to wander around and spend money in gift shops... and because they don't have the proper papers because they're fleeing those countries... and because some of those countries have also spawned or harboured other people we consider 'evil', people who probably don't consider the ASX a leading symbol of Western capitalism worthy of attack... then we lock them up for years, not months, in the Australian equivalent of Siberia.

Yes, some of these people will end up being sent home. Many of them won't, though, as after a long period of processing they will be found, surprise surprise, to be genuine refugees; and their first year or two of life in their new homeland will be a scar across their memories. That'll really encourage them to fit in and settle down, won't it?

What is wrong with letting these people live in the general community while their claims are processed, perhaps with the condition of having to report to an immigration officer every few weeks? Even paying them a modest welfare benefit wouldn't cost the country any more than it does to run Woomera. And if a few of them go into hiding, so what—how is that worse than an over-staying back-packer from Putney?

If people sewing their lips together in desperation is to be explained away as 'a procedural matter', then Australia has thoroughly forfeited its welcoming, tolerant and humane image.

('Terrorists could be among the flood of asylum seekers coming into Australia, according to Liberal backbencher Peter Slipper.' Yeah, sure. Also, victims of torture, desperate parents, doctors, engineers, honest hard-working individuals, and while we're at it, ten-tentacled shape-shifting aliens from the planet Zog. Flood? 'Trickle' is the appropriate term in Australia's case. Talk to Pakistan, Burundi and Albania about 'floods' of asylum seekers.)

And Postroad: go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Sit in jail with nothing to do for month after month after month waiting to start your life again while your case file sits in some Canberra bureaucrat's in-tray a thousand miles away. Wonder when or if it will ever end. And then walk out into the streets and become a happy, well-adjusted citizen in the blink of an eye.


rory: while I respect your altruism, there are certain realities that every nation finds it necessary to observe, we can't just open our borders to everyone who is persecuted in their own nation, really, can't we be realistic about this? ¶ posted by eyere

"We can't just open our borders..." No one's talking about doing that. These people are usually the fortunate few who somehow scrape together enough money to pay unscrupulous middle-men to take them on a dangerous journey on a clapped-out vessel to a country they know nothing about, because they are in such desperate straits that they figure that anywhere has to be better than where they are. That takes incredible bravery and determination—the stuff of potential 'good citizens' in my book. And they do so knowing that they are leaving behind the land of their birth, a land they in all likelihood still love, a land they hate to have seen fall into ruin. That is something you only do when life absolutely demands it.

I'm currently an emigrant from my homeland—which happens to be Australia—but only because I know I can go back whenever I want to. They don't know that; for all they know, they've taken a one-way trip away from their family, friends, culture, language—everything that's important to them.

Do you seriously think that people will be queuing up all around the world to move away from everything they know and love just because they'd like to see a few koalas and experience the mighty economic powerhouse that is the Australian economy?

I am being realistic. No one is saying 'don't process these people's claims, just let 'em in and let 'em stay forever'. But I am saying 'let them spend the time while their claims are being processed adapting to their potential new home, rather than festering in a prison'. Who knows, by the time their claim is finally, belatedly processed they may have decided that Australia isn't the blissful magical wonderland of tolerance and respect that our politicians and popular media like to paint it, and they'll move home themselves.

And who knows, having asylum seekers knocking on their doors every day rather than tucked tidily out of sight in the desert might encourage the government to process their claims more quickly.


A little out-of-date but indicative numbers of illegal immigrants heading to Australia in 2000 and 2001. Three or four thousand a year; say six thousand or so until the end of 2001. The size of a small country town. Australia hosted some 16,700 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2000. Compare this to:

During the 1999 crisis in Kosovo, some 465,000 people sought refuge in Albania. Nearly all departed the country the same year.

More than 420,000 Burundians were refugees at the end of 2000.

In 2000, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revised its estimate of the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan to 2 million, of whom 1.2 million live in refugee villages. That's before the war.

'Flood'. Sheesh.


A relevant op-ed on refugee issues [via].

'What is the way to get into a country? If you are fleeing from persecution, how do you get to another country?'

Why, you walk into your Kabul branch of Qantas and show them your fresh new ticket and passport with neatly-stamped visa and... what's that? No branch of Qantas in Kabul? Passports hard to obtain from the very regime you were seeking to flee? No Australian embassy in Afghanistan? Good heavens.


To stem this tide one needs to address the fundamental economic problems which drive these people for their homes. ¶ posted by johnnyboy

This is true (though the Afghan refugees who have arrived in Australia over the past year have been fleeing more than just a bad economy, as should be blindingly obvious to all of us by now), but Australia's Canute-like stance towards boat-people achieves absolutely nothing in this regard. We're happy to take you if you're fleeing a good economy, though, say if you're feeling oppressed by the northern winter, as long as you bring some of its cash and skills with you.


The nice thing about non-violent protests, especially the self-punishing kind, is that those in power don't have to do anything at all. "Here's food. Here's medical services. We will keep you alive and physically healthy." Regardless of the reasons (or lack thereof) for the detention, voluntary rejection of basic life needs does not create a bargaining position. ¶ posted by yesster

Unless you're doing it to raise media attention and create public awareness of government injustice, in a country where governments crave favourable instances of both. I'd say that constitutes a bargaining position, although not one I'd like to be in. Holding a gun against someone's head, though, would be a terrible bargaining position in this case, as public sympathy would tend towards those at the receiving end of the gun.

The media and public opinion are not 'optional extras' in representative democracies.


'Asylum seekers' are relying [on] the good nature of the country they 'fled' to. And then they get testy because it's taking too long? This is what bothers me the most.... Ok, yes, maybe there is a better way for the governments of the world to handle immigrants, legal and illegal. But c'mon—if you're really looking for a better life, why does it have to start right NOW.. isn't it worth the wait, whatever that wait is? Everyone is so into immediate gratification. ¶ posted by rich

So if I'm the friendly neighbour in Evil Regime II and someone comes running into my house to get away from the axe-wielding maniac, I get to lock them in my bedroom for a year before I decide whether they have a legitimate reason to be scared? And as long as I feed them they can't complain, because I'm doing them a favour?

And 'immediate gratification'? Wanting to be released from imprisonment that you consider unjust is not the same as wanting an iPod.


I doubt if they stood up and said 'I want to leave and go back to where I came from' that Australia, or any immigration area would prevent them from doing so. ¶ But just food for thought.. what if 100 people showed up at your door asking to to get away from an axe weilding maniac and didn't want to sleep on the floor, but in a bed and started trashing your place and threatening you if you didn't give all of them a bed? ¶ posted by rich

"I doubt if they stood up and said 'I want to leave'..." Well, quite, but beside the point, isn't it? The point being that seeking asylum shouldn't be equated with asking for a favour. Granting a favour seems a personal thing, not something a state should be in the business of doing—states should be more about justice than favouritism. (I admit that my neighbour metaphor makes the same lapse in equating the reasonable behaviour of individuals with the reasonable behaviour of states.)

"What if 100 people showed up at your door..." Well, as soon as Australia (population 20 million) is beset by 2 billion boat people, I'll admit that we have a problem.



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