They might be one of our closest relatives. They might be our co-worker or our neighbour. We best know them as asylum seekers and refugees, and they play an integral part of our rich Australian culture.
It’s fair to say that the claims about whether Australian officials doled out thousands of dollars to people smugglers is a white-hot debate for everyone.
In late May [this year], a boat carrying 65 people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, who were seeking asylum in New Zealand, was boarded and allegedly paid off by Australian custom officers.
Asylum seekers on board the boat described being kept in “jail-like conditions” on a navy ship as Navy and Customs officials intercepted, before the boat was turned around and sent back to the Indonesian Island of Rota.
There, the local police chief alleges the six crew members were given $US5,000 each by Australian custom officials.
You might argue that the political finger-pointing and intense media scrutiny overlook the grim reality for the Indonesian asylum seekers forced to flee their homes by treacherous sea crossings.
On the other hand, you might argue that redirecting refugees and asylum seekers to other safe havens is warranted in order to protect our national economic and social stability.
Whichever you may decide, one thing is certain—we are not doing enough.
A recent study by the Australian Red Cross has found most Australians are misinformed about refugees and asylum seekers. They think it is a crime to come by boat without a visa seeking protection.
Almost two thirds of Australians surveyed also think that the Government is doing enough or should do less to help refugees and asylum seekers.
The study, where 1000 people over the age of 18 were surveyed, found most respondents thought there was an official queue that refugees and asylum seekers could join to be resettled.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to rule out that the Australian government has paid people smugglers, citing operational secrecy.
However, Mr Abbott has moved to reassure Indonesia that the operation to stop asylum-seeker boats works within the law.
So what can we do now?
Australia’s treatment of boat people needs a radical rethink.
It is shameful that this deliberate mistreatment of asylum seekers has been “justified” by describing them falsely as “illegal”, when in fact they commit no offence by coming here and asking for protection.
Sixty years ago, Australia helped draft the Refugee Convention, and was one of the first countries to sign it.
Rather than looking to outsource its responsibilities, Australia needs to once more show global leadership, contributing to a global response that prioritizes protection, human life and human dignity.
Let’s not pretend it’s going to be easy, at the expense of this problem getting worse, we need to act NOW.
(Miss Sabrina Cortez has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and Journalism from the University of New South Wales. She has extensive experience as a Public Relations Intern and Journalist at prestigious news publications in Sydney.)