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I recently attended a speech by the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, in Kuala Lumpur and during the subsequent question time, the issue of asylum seekers came up. Her response was to roll out the usual party line, which is to justify Australia’s position on turning back the boats by linking it to the prevention of deaths at sea. Whilst applauding anybody’s wish to avoid such deaths it is my view that this is a political red herring designed to tap into the empathy that most Australian’s have for the suffering of others, but ultimately designed to take our minds off the real issues.

The real issues here include the fact that asylum seekers are fleeing their home country because they are suffering. It doesn’t matter what the reason for that suffering is, it only matters that they are desperate enough to risk their own lives and that of their families in order to reach a place where they believe they can live fulfilling lives without poverty or persecution. So the international community should be asking, “How do we stop this suffering?” Is it acceptable, for example, that in the name of sovereignty the international community allows countries like Myanmar to force a portion of their population into statelessness? If not, what is it that the nations of the world can jointly do to force such countries to stop these problems at their source – treat the disease not the symptoms. Must places like Australia and Europe indefinitely respond to the consequences of actions taken by irresponsible governments in their region and beyond?

Apart from joining the international community in seeking resolution of these issues, Australia should also focus less of it’s resources turning back boats and more on speeding up the processing of asylum seekers through the official channels. If the processing of asylum seekers by our Immigration Department was faster and more efficient (considerably more efficient) these people may not feel the need to jump the queue.

My personal experience of our Immigration Department relates to the processing of visas for Australian Government sponsored scholarship holders from Afghanistan who had been selected to undergo postgraduate studies in Australia. These people were entitled to be accompanied by their spouse and their visas had to be processed through the Australian immigration office in Islamabad, Pakistan. There were numerous instances of paperwork being lost and visa processing taking so long that the students concerned had almost completed their studies whilst their family’s visas were still in process. If this is the case with students who are sponsored by an arm of the Australian Government, what is the hope for often uneducated people who are seeking refugee status?

The fact that the Australia’s conservative Government with Tony Abbott at the helm ignores these issues and diverts attention to the “moral” cause of saving deaths at sea by turning back boatloads of people desperately seeking refuge does not surprise me. However, it is distressing when Australia’s political opposition chooses not to focus the eyes of the Australian public on the real underlying issues. In this regard, it is a failure on behalf of the Australian Labor Party to hold the incumbent government to account for what is an issue of human importance for everyone.

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Gary Andrews
Gary Andrews has had a long career in international business development and project management mostly in the field of international development assistance but also in Chamber of Commerce Management and in major infrastructure project development. He is currently based in Kuala Lumpur and working as a Business Development Director with the China Railway Engineering Corporation, the PRC's largest construction company. Gary is also studying for a Masters Degree in Technology (Project Management).