I'll Show Sheehan A 'Real' Refugee Experience


Yesterday Paul Sheehan wrote a scathing review of the SBS series ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’. Sheehan terms the show "a series strictly for the gullible".

Ignoring the fact that the show is about the push factors that force people to flee and the circumstances in which asylum seekers arrive on Australia shores, Sheehan sets forth into a soliloquy against the horrors of people smugglers and "the refugee industry". He writes:

"One of the most passionate and enduring debates in this country has been built on a falsity, a false choice that is being carefully recrafted, repackaged and re-presented on SBS this week, at taxpayer expense."

I partly agree with Sheehan: the debate over asylum seekers has been built on falsity and lies — but not from the sources cited in his article.

The debate has been transformed from an issue over the plight of people fleeing humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, into one of the most passionate and enduring debates in Australia. That’s taken place via a sustained campaign of misinformation and manipulation directed against asylum seekers arriving by boat mainly by the Coalition, isolationist political parties and some conservative columnists.

"Queue jumpers", "illegal arrivals" and "asylum shoppers" are some of the nicer terms that have been used in the debate in spite of the fact that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are within their legal rights under international law. There are no queues for Afghan refugees in Pakistan or for the Tamils in Sri Lanka: a torturous trip of up to four weeks on leaky boats in deadly waters and an additional year in detention is certainly not a shopping trip.

John Howard’s government carefully rolled out stories such as "children overboard" in the Tampa episode for the purpose of electoral gains through misinformation and generating public anxiety. The plight of hundreds of others shipped to the solitude of Nauru were ignored, the truth about the long detention of men, women and children was never included in the debate, the access of journalists to the detained asylum seekers were restricted — all for the political and electoral convenience of the party in power. As a crusader for the truth and for evenhandedness, Sheehan must have written numerous articles on the lies and manipulation about the asylum seekers. Right?

Sheehan criticises the SBS show for not being "literal" enough:

"In the first part, on Tuesday night, the unseen narrator said the participants had just ‘survived a sinking, burning boat’. In fact it was an obvious charade.

"We were told that ‘at the last minute, the stricken boat is spotted’. Again, only for the gullible. The rescue was as false as the emergency."

Oh, the irony of gullible viewership. Only someone as gullible as Sheehan would criticise a TV show for being exactly that — a TV show. Sheehan fails to note that phrases such as "survived a sinking, burning boat" or "at the last minute, the stricken boat is spotted" are actually small representations of what real asylum seekers go through. If Sheehan is a fan of literal suffering, does he want to see dozens of asylum seekers being smashed against the rocks on Christmas Island? Is their tragedy "designed to enforce [empathy]to the maximum"?

Perhaps he should read about the five dead Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who drowned five days after Australian authorities learned their boat had run out of fuel but did not endeavor to save them. Perhaps, if Sheehan agrees, I can introduce him to asylum seekers whose experiences and journeys are far more tormented than anything described on the evening news.

Sheehan goes on:

"The narrator told us that only ‘1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled by the UN’. Again, a highly misleading statistic."

If there’s anything misleading here, it is the author’s desperate attempt at falsifying a statistic without bothering to present the alternative truth. A 2010 report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees states and I quote:

"Of the 10.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, only about 1 per cent are submitted by the agency for resettlement."

Perhaps Sheehan could explain to readers what is "highly misleading" about this report? Especially in light of the fact the global population of refugees is in excess of 43.7 million.

I do agree with the later part of Sheehan’s article that the debate over asylum seekers is not about empathy, numbers or race. The debate is about principle: principled commitment to UN Refugee and Human Rights Conventions, principled commitment to helping the people fleeing chaos in countries like Afghanistan, where Australia has committed lives and resources to fighting Islamic terrorism. More importantly, the debate is about getting to the facts and throwing off the burden of anti-refugee hysteria, the result of a decade of "bashing over the head" by sections of the Liberal Party and columnists such as Sheehan.

The facts discredit Sheehan’s assessment. The fact is that between 96 and 99 per cent of asylum seekers arrive by air, not by boat. Australia’s asylum seeker intake is minute when compared to that of the United States, Italy, Spain, Greece, Canada and other developed countries. The fact is that between 70 and 97 percent of asylum seekers have been found to be genuine refugees. The fact is that almost all the asylum seekers detained and long forgotten under Howard’s Pacific Solution were granted protection by New Zealand, Canada and some Scandinavian countries. The fact is that over the last decade, "boat people" haven’t even taken half of the visas granted under Australia’s Humanitarian Program.

And the fact is that lies and manipulation by some opinion makers in Australia prevent the debate over asylum seekers from being one about facts, principle, responsibility and the truth; instead turning it in to a show of passion, misinformation and hysteria. Unfortunately, Paul Sheehan’s article contributes to the latter.


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