Tuesday, May 10, 2011

People Smugglers, Refugees and Confusing Push with Pull

There's a continuing misguided swirl of political rhetoric in Australia with respect to the role of "people smugglers" and the issue of "queue jumpers". I'm prompted to write this, in part, by an ongoing conversation on Twitter with @kristinmoore2 and @timhollo. 140 characters simply isn't enough sometimes.
Let's try to get some clarity through the middle of this highly charged argument. Firstly to the issue of refugees. That's what they are properly called. The Australian political rhetoric is all about queue jumpers trying to get to Australia quickly. This is a "pull" argument and is both fatuous and wrong. It relies for its validity on some view that the allure of Australia is so great that there are queues of people around the world with their eyes fixed on the shiny attractions of Australia. Under this argument arriving by boat is simply unfairly jumping these veritable queues and is not to be countenanced. People must be made to see that they cannot jump the queue. It's simply crap and what's most disturbing is that it only takes about 10 seconds of thought to understand that.
The alternative and accurate argument is a "push" argument. This argument says that refugees find the situation in their homelands so intolerable that they have little option but to seek an alternative place to live. The "push" arises through war, persecution, torture or other substantial perils in their homeland. People do not uproot themselves and look towards an unknown future unless there are huge pressures that close off all other options.
I go to sea in small boats a lot. Each time I do I focus intently on the safety of what I intend to do. If I'm not the skipper, I carefully evaluate the vessel, the skipper, the plans and make a decision about whether the safety meets my standards. I have on more than one occasion made a decision to stay on dry land.
Imagine being a refugee in the hands of people smugglers. These smugglers are business people: for a fee they offer to provide transport, by sea, from one point to another. From their point of view it's a one way trip for the boat - it very probably isn't coming back. So the boat is a cost and of course they must be sorely tempted therefore to scrimp on that cost. As a refugee, you get no chance to check out the crew, the boat, the plans, the safety equipment (should there be any). You simply cast yourself on the services of your chosen service provider.
I have met very few people of any nationality who do not have a care and concern for their own personal safety and that of their family, particularly their children. How must it feel to put your lives in the hands of someone whose motives and track record are unknown to you?
As @kristinmoore2 has pointed out, this issue of paid escape has a long precedent in recent history, no more so than in the run up to and during World War II. What is wrong with paying a service provider if you are under threat of your life and feel that you have no option to escape? Wouldn't you if faced with that choice? Of course you would. The lack of payment does not therefore lead to some moral high ground.
Please be clear however that I am not arguing that the people smugglers are shiny philanthropists. I am not making that point at all. I suspect that many are shady and careless of the lives of their human cargoes. Nevertheless their existence and the service they provide should be of no surprise to any of us.
What is most worrying is that both major political parties in Australia seem intent on continuing their false rhetoric about a "pull" theory with respect to asylum seekers. Please, let's all do away with that fiction and deal with the real issue: The world is in turmoil, much of it is turmoil on our doorstep. Indeed Australia is involved militarily in some of that turmoil. Under such circumstances refugees are part of what we should expect. People are being pushed from their land and the things that they know. They are being pushed into the hands of service providers they do not know and onto leaky boats for a perilous sea crossing. These are people under enormous pressure, displaying grit and determination that we should all show due respect for. We should expect refugees to arrive by boat and we should provide a proper and humane welcome to Australia for them.

1 comment:

  1. Concisely put - I just find it extraordinary that people seeking asylum still have to use people smugglers. You'd think by now that the rest of the world would have organised itself to facilitate the movement of refugees and asylum seekers in a humane,caring and speedy fashion!