Let's Redefine Asylum Seekers


Knowing that people, especially asylum seekers, are suffering as a result of Australian government policies is very difficult to stomach.  Recently, in response to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Papua New Guinea solution, thousands of Australians have felt a call to action.

However, to date, actions including rallies, engaging with social media and challenging politicians, have had little effect: deterrence policies for asylum seekers are firmly entrenched — or are a precursor to even more forceful deterrents, such as Operation Sovereign Borders.  A silver bullet in the refugee debate would be useful.

Here's one: let's redefine asylum seekers as consumers. They are sources of information, participants in a mobilised community, potential communicators and agents of change.

30,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia in the past 12 months.  We describe them variously as "boat-people", "queue jumpers", "illegals" and "detainees".  All of these terms are pejorative and signify our willingness to both dehumanise and devalue people seeking asylum.

There are few other contexts in which a community of 30,000 people is decried as an unwanted phenomenon. To any business, 30,000 represents a potential market. Yet in political terms we have generally accepted that 30,000 extra people is bad for the "national business".

Currently, some corporations have already spotted and seized on the economic boon an asylum community provides. Toll has spruiked its capacity to sell tents; Canstruct has secured contracts to build accommodation en masse.

Many other companies could be challenging government policies in order to allow themselves a slice of the refugee pie.Telecommunications companies, retail giants, infrastructure employers and any business that needs people as either labour or consumers should be fighting for their share.

People smugglers have a fairly indestructible business model based on the awful reality that there are 46 million displaced people across the world. Demand for their service is virtually unlimited. They see people seeking asylum as an economic opportunity – and so can we.

The crassness of this argument is tempered by the fact that this has been the very basis for waves of migration in previous eras.  The difference today is perception rather than fact.

Australia has not yet settled on an optimal population for our land mass and resources.  We have been hesitant to adopt the notion of a "big" Australia. However, we can be a bigger Australia than we currently are. Our population is currently too small to sustain local manufacturing without relying heavily on exports. Our population is too small to compete with, or have any leverage over, larger and growing economies like Indonesia and China.

Currently, we spend billions on detention centres ($2B per year). We are about to spend millions on Manus and Nauru. People seeking asylum are already consumers – but we can be much smarter and spread the wealth much further.

Consistent with this construction of immigration would be an offer from a business-person to fly in asylum seekers to Australia.  In fact, Clive Palmer already has!

If this argument seems completely morally devoid, it is. And it could work.

If other nations imitated the trend to value people for their purchasing and labour power, we could see a revolutionised shift to absorb rather than shun people fleeing their homelands.

An inventive extension would be to value people seeking asylum as sources of information and participants in a mobilised community.  If every asylum seeker was to be given a mobile device enabling them to receive and send information, report incidents, make informed choices, call authorities to account, become empowered, we could see patterns of asylum shift quite dramatically.

In our consumer-driven 21st century world, none of this is completely fanciful.  Much of this is already happening – we are just slow to catch on and reap the benefits.

Central to this argument is a revaluation of people seeking asylum to our economy. However, the first step to any reinvention of the refugee debate in the 21st century is to stop seeing asylum seekers as costly threats, but to see them as people. Morally, and economically, people are valuable.

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