On 15 December 2010, 50 people are believed to have drowned when their asylum seeker boat was smashed, only metres from safety, on the shores of Christmas Island. Some of the bodies of those who died will never be recovered. In protests by asylum seekers that followed, children held in detention are seen holding up placards asking: “The children died. Why?” 
Yet the children and adults that died on 15 December are (horrifically) only a small fraction of deaths associated with “border security”. Sometime in 2010, the known number of deaths associated with Australia’s border controls passed 1000.
This number in turn is only a small fraction of the known global toll associated with similar border security policies which are playing out on borders around the world: in places such as the United States, Europe, Israel, South Africa – to name just some of the most prominent. In the case of Europe United for Intercultural Action has documented 13824 deaths from 1993 to June 2010 (see campaigns – fatal realities of Fortress Europe). In 2009 the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican Human Rights Commission documented more that 5000 deaths attributed to border controls on the U.S. – Mexico border.[1A] The true numbers are likely much higher and unlikely to ever be known.
Some argue that the cause of such deaths is that laws are “too soft”: that if government adopts harsher measures to keep asylum seekers away, the toll would be lower. Others argue that laws are already too harsh and that they contribute to the death toll.
There is no doubt that the tragedy on 15 December shocked the Australian public and, for a time, we have seen compassion displace fear as the dominant sentiment of public debate as reported in the media. For a time, we have been able to imagine what it would have been like to witness these awful events, and for a time we have been able to recognise that those who lost their lives are no different to us: no different to us at all. Will this recognition persist? Or will our fear of “the other” of the “boats” again come to dominate public debate?
The public debate, as will be evident from the foregoing, is not solely based on reason. Emotion can play an important role in how the debate unfolds: both positive and negative.
When we are unable to empathise with the sufferings of asylum seekers however we are liable to become unaware of the profound suffering involved. Those who struggled for the abolition of the slave trade recognised the importance of empathy in public debates that concern human rights. William Wilberforce, the parliamentary leader of the movement which introduced the first bill to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain in the 18th century spoke as follows:
I will believe them [the slave traders] to be men of humanity; and I will therefore believe, if it were not for the enormous magnitude and extent of the evil which distracts their attention from individual cases, and makes them think generally, and therefore less feelingly on the subject, they would never have persisted in the trade. I verily believe therefore, if the wretchedness of any one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship could be brought before their view, and remain within the sight of the African Merchant, that there is no one among them whose heart would bear it.
Although we find it hard to believe that slave traders may have had human feelings for their victims, a similar puzzlement must attend border control policies which implicitly accept the following propositions:
- it is OK for the world to allow millions of refugees to languish in refugee camps for years or decades
- it is OK to introduce harsh policies to keep asylum seekers away from our borders
- it is OK, rather than accepting refugees, to limit the numbers who are allowed in.
- it is OK to deny “other” human beings their reasonable aspiration for a better life.
Perhaps like the people that William Wilberforce spoke of, we are “distracted by the magnitude” of the problem.
It ought to be obvious that the refugee issue (and the broader issue of forced migration) is global in nature and that any debate about what one country should do can make no sense if not considered together with how it interacts with the policies of other nations.
Most net migration receiving countries pursue the similar policies: adopting harsher and harsher strategies involving routing potential arrivals through deserts or dangerous waters, the building of fortifications along international frontiers, imprisoning arrivals for long periods after they arrive or expelling them back to dangerous situations.
Today we accept as “normal” what would have been horrifying in the past: i.e. establishing refugee prisons around the country where men, women and children are imprisoned. In regard of the argument that such harshness is a necessary evil – in order to save lives, the reality is that as one country makes it harder to enter, desperate asylum seekers only try to reach other shores. The deaths do not stop, they are just diverted somewhere else.
At the same time the world invests in a system for the care of international refugees. However, the idea of an orderly system: “a queue” in which people may wait for the largesse of the more fortunate among us, is problematic. Rather than a queue, we have in reality human “refugee warehouses” where human beings we seem unprepared to assist can be conveniently forgotten: someone else’s problem. Millions are held in refugee camps for years: some have been there for generations. This is the reality of the international refugee system in which millions of our fellow human beings are denied their full human rights for protacted periods. The queue idea is problematic in another sense: it claims the right to set a number, to say you can come in, but you can’t. Who gave us that right? Where did the idea we could claim it, come from?
Rather than the current cycle of thinking of refugees as “someone else’s problem”, real solutions can only grow from recognising that refugees are not “foreigners”, they already are, and have always been members of our human community. The disasters that affect their lives, are disasters affecting our community. All countries need to work together to solve this shared problem.
To imprison such men, women and children whose only offense is “irregular arrival” is unworthy of our humanity. Even our criminals are accorded the right to bail and to freedom, yet as soon as an asylum seeker steps on our shore they are imprisoned on far away islands and remote desert prisons. How can it possibly be OK to imprison those who simply seek a better life? Why is it not OK to do this to our own citizens, but it is OK to do it to “foreigners”? Perhaps we haven’t thought about this issue deeply enough. Perhaps we are allowing irrational fear to overcome sensible empathy for our fellow human beings.