The biggest problem with boat people

By Ruth Limkin

Sometimes it seems there’s so many issues in the world, with so little time to learn about them. We know that there’s more than meets the eye, and that relying on mainstream media soundbites and headlines rarely makes for a well informed view.

For many of us, the arrival of ‘boat people’ – better referred to as asylum seekers – is one of those situations. While we often think it’s just been big news in the last ten years, it’s been an issue that the Australian public has been aware of, and confused about, since the 70s.

Like many of you, I have very many questions. How do we care for individuals, while also addressing systemic issues? How do we increase our intake of refugees, and balance those who are languishing in refugee camps with those who make perilous journeys across the ocean? And how would my answers be different if I had to run the country, or if I was on the boat?

One of the best summaries I have read about Australia as a receiving country for refugees and asylum seekers is the Background Note prepared by the Australian Parliamentary Library. You can read it here. It’s a comprehensive summary, so while it still doesn’t answer all the questions you may have, it’s a really good place to start learning.

A few sentences highlighted what may just be the biggest problem with boat people asylum seekers.

“When the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1951, there were an estimated 1.5 million refugees internationally. By 1980 the number of refugees was estimated at 8.2 million. At the end of 2009….the total number of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced peoples) under UNHCR’s care remained high, standing at 26 million by end-year. While the number of refugees remained relatively stable at 10.4 million, the number of IDPs protected or assisted by UNHCR rose to an unprecedented 15.6 million.”

The biggest problem is that this problem is much bigger than we ever thought it would be. And we’re struggling to cope.

I suspect that much of the world thought that the issue of refugees would settle down after WW2. Sadly, it has done the opposite. I’m not sure that men and women who started the UNHCR guessed the level of dislocation that they one day would be having to contend with.

The world is not getting safer and conflict is not going away. In the end, that’s the biggest problem we have.

At it’s heart, this is a spiritual problem resulting in tangible pain. So while we need strategic, compassionate solutions for families and for nations, we need more than just that.

Anti-apartheid activist, Alan Paton, said, “There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.”

I think he was on to something.