All of the “debate” about asylum seekers seeking Australia takes part in an historic, geographic, social vacuum. It is as if, until they appear on a leaky boat near Christmas Island, these people don’t exist, and, having appeared, that they exist only to help Tony Abbott become Prime Minister.
Did you see recently a beautiful animated map online showing changes in Europe 1000AD to present. A shifting kaleidoscope of colours ebbed and flowed before your eyes as countries emerged or failed, conquered or were conquered, combined or split. Nothing was firm, all was fluid, a mockery, if you thought about it, of all the nationalism associated with being born in a “country”. But these shifting political boundaries hid a more important shift. As boundaries moved so did people, displaced in their thousands, tens of thousands, millions, as ethnic and religious and nationalistic and economic based conflicts took place.
There isn’t a part of the world where the same kind of map couldn’t be drawn. That’s the salutary lesson. We look around now and see what appear to be fixed and stable countries, but some arose very recently, and few country boundaries are older than one hundred years. Since history began there have been records of people moving, escaping, fleeing, first this way, then that. And they are still moving, either on land in Africa, Europe, Asia, Central America, or on sea (Mediterranean, Caribbean, the sea between Indonesia and Australia), in huge numbers at times, depending on which places have hot wars, or civil wars, or religious conflicts, and which ones temporarily don’t. Most of the conflicts have little directly to do with Australia, but we did help the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both now sources of asylum seekers heading in all directions out of the hell holes the wars created.
And we are already starting to see a whole new ball game – climate change. Not just rising seas, but loss of drinking water sources, and lack of rain for crops and animals, and the failure of marine resources. People are starting to move for these reasons, and we are going to see a gathering flood of such refugees. In addition the battle for shrinking resources will itself cause more warfare. At the same time Europe, America and Australia are going to have their own problems with climate change reducing their own ability to feed people.
Clearly we need to find a process that doesn’t involve people risking their lives on leaky boats. In the absence of refugee processing centres in the main places people are fleeing, there needs to be something in Malaysia or Indonesia that would allow processing there.
And stop pretending growing refugee numbers is the Australian government’s fault.