'Thank God we stopped the boats'


It's a good thing the Abbott government stopped the boats but not because the refugees were the problem.


With the influx of refugees to Australian shores this past decade, the phrase "stop the boats" has been thrown around quite frequently. The effective and now popular slogan was brought to life by then immigration minister, now Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Surprised? Neither am I.

After all, Morrison made it quite clear he wasn't the biggest fan of people seeking refuge in Australia and the support structure around their successful transition to Australian life. In 2014, as immigration minister he accused refugee advocates of encouraging asylum seekers to self-harm (an independent inquiry rejected the claim and the government paid compensation), in 2016 as treasurer he extended waiting time for new migrants to receive welfare payments in a bid to "encourage self-sufficiency" and of course, he stopped refugee boats coming to Australia. He has the "I Stopped These" boat trophy in his prime ministerial office to prove it.

Considering how hard the Australian government is working to discourage individuals from seeking refuge in this country, it seems stopping the boats has done future refugees a big favour.

So here I am, a refugee activist, doing something I never thought I would: agreeing with Morrison's slogan. Stop the boats. Stop the boats for the sake of the children who spent years on Nauru. Stop the boats for hundreds who drowned at sea. Stop the boats for the sanity of refugees. Stop the boats for the countless separated families.

'I always feel like I lost my best years being imprisoned for simply asking for help.'

Let me tell you what refugees think migrating to Australia will be like. A rocky journey but one with a promising future. They know for a fact that the boat journey could kill them but they save the money and pay the smuggler anyway because that small chance of survival means freedom.

But what do they get by asking for Australia's help: years in detention limbo shrouded in fear they will be sent back to the unliveable conditions of their home country, and, if they do make it to Australia, the uncertainty of being left to fend for themselves with few rights and constant insecurity.

Afghan asylum seeker Ali* put it this way: "I lived on Manus Island detention centre from the age of 20 to 24. I always feel like I lost my best years being imprisoned for simply asking for help."

How does the government conclude that someone who risked their life to travel across open sea in a small, overcrowded boat isn't trying to escape something? Are we forgetting how many lives have been lost in the treacherous waters between Indonesia and Australia in the past two decades. The SIEVX advocacy group puts the toll of drownings and probable drownings at more than 1550 for the period 1998-2013.

Would individuals really put their lives at such great risk if they weren't experiencing danger – war and persecution - in their home country?

"I fled Afghanistan for obvious reasons," Ali said. "Being Hazara and Shia living in a mostly Sunni-populated, not to mention war-ridden, country, it wasn't safe for me. Constant targeted attacks and genocides against my people forced me out of the country. I really didn't have a choice."

Let's assume after four years of "careful and intricate" examination by the authorities, an asylum seeker is actually recognised as a refugee by the Australian government and released into the community. You'd think their prospects were finally looking up. Unfortunately, no, the problems don't stop there. It seems for refugees in Australia, difficulties are inescapable.

Next comes visa status. The unnecessarily complicated visa conditions for these individuals are enough to make you want to pack your bags and go back to your war-torn country. The initial lack of work rights makes starting life in Australia difficult. Then, the continuing uncertain visa status, a temporary visa or bridging visa, make it nearly impossible to transition to permanent resident or citizen status, which would then open the doors to not only a better lifestyle but family reunions.

Family separation is a big issue amongst refugees with many never having expected it would be so difficult to reunite with their family once they reached Australia.

"I left my country in hopes of a better life, not just for myself but for my family further down the track. I didn't realise how much further down the track that was until I found myself living in Australia, seven years later, on a temporary visa while my family waits in unliveable circumstances," said Ali.

With the uncertain circumstances and few opportunities, come a rise in mental illness and suicide. A 2016 report by The Stringer citing Australian Bureau of Statistics data revealed one in four suicides in Australia are amongst migrants. In October, Medecins Sans Frontieres described the mental health of asylum seekers on Nauru as being in an "absolutely devastating" state.

The Australian government has proved how little they care for the wellbeing of refugees who seek help from our country. They may argue it was their concern for the group's safety that led to their decision to stop the boats, however, what then is the justification for the mistreatment of those who have reached Australian shores?

Detention centres were and still are inexcusable. So are the harsh visa conditions, the constant uncertainty these refugees are faced with and the countless separated families.

It's time for Australia to do better. Not just the government, but the public also. Let's not forget that the we live on stolen land, and with the exception of the First Nations peoples, we all "landed here" from somewhere else. It isn't usually Aboriginal voices you hear expressing hatred towards asylum seekers. It seems to be the Australians whose parents migrated from Europe a couple of generations back who have the strongest opinions on how refugees will destroy our economy and take advantage of our welfare system.

For a country that takes every opportunity to parade its accepting nature and overall multiculturalism, it's convenient that we manage to turn our back on the people that need us most.

The prime minister may have stopped the boats but there are still refugees in our country. We won't let more people enter but let's help the ones who are already here.

* Surname withheld


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