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We are all boat people

By Shira Sebban - posted Monday, 21 May 2012

We Australians are a caring lot. We are so worried about asylum-seekers risking their lives on leaky boats that we want to dissuade them from taking the dangerous ocean voyage in the first place.

If they actually make it to Australian waters, the Opposition wants to turn the boats around "when safe", while the Government's ideal would be to resurrect the Malaysia deal and send the "queue jumpers" to the back of the line.

Both parties agree that offshore processing should be resurrected as a deterrent to the ever-increasing "illegal" hordes encroaching on our shores. The only problem is they can't agree on precisely where that processing should occur.


Meanwhile, the true motives of boat people are questioned. Are they genuine refugees or merely economic migrants, daring to pick and choose where they would like to live? After all, they seem to be able to afford the exorbitant fees charged by the people smugglers.

Those who manage to reach our shores are routinely placed in mandatory detention, where they can languish for years – thereby hopefully discouraging their fellow countrymen from following their example. As for the relatively lucky few, who are now, if begrudgingly, being processed onshore and released into the community, how dare they get "preferential treatment", enjoying such luxuries as television and a microwave when Australian pensioners are so badly off? Not to mention the jobs they could eventually take away from Australian workers…

The more I read of how much we care, the more puzzled I become. Surely, the solution is obvious: Why not simply improve the efficacy of "legal" channels used by "genuine refugees" to reach Australia "legitimately"? As a start, we could increase the speed at which the 16 million or so refugees languishing in camps around the world are processed. After all, to quote the Coalition: surely we want "to give Australians the confidence that only those invited to come to our country will enjoy the safe haven of our nation"?

But what about those who can't seem to wait for an invitation and simply show up? Shh… don't tell anyone, but there actually isn't an orderly and polite line of refugees waiting patiently somewhere out there, preferably outside an Australian embassy or consulate.

The world according to refugees is chaotic and desperate, as it always has been. And usually it is only those with an urgent need to flee some immediate danger, who would be prepared to ignore any deterrent to make that dangerous journey on a leaky boat themselves or to send their children to freedom, an entire village scrounging around to pay for the "lucky" one or few … I should know: my family history is full of stories of boat people, as I'm sure, is yours.

My father's father was fortunate enough to be allowed to settle in Toronto, Canada, after escaping the pogroms of Ukraine, arriving on Ellis Island in 1913 as a teenager with his widowed sister and her three children. No one "invited" them to come. A few years earlier, his future wife and her family had docked in Halifax in Novia Scotia after fleeing the Polish township of Lodz. While they would struggle with poverty during the Great Depression and my father would have difficulty finding a job in the Toronto of the 1940s due to his foreign-sounding name, they grasped at the opportunity to make a better life for themselves – still the aim of the majority of boat people to this day.


In 1925, my mother's parents had the foresight to leave Poland for Palestine, thus avoiding the fate of much of the rest of the family, which was decimated by the Nazis some 15 years later. Then, on the eve of World War II, when my maternal grandfather was unable to find work to feed his young family, legend has it that he went down to the harbour in Tel Aviv where he found two ships, one destined for South America and the other for Australia. Fortunately, he boarded the ship bound for Melbourne where he settled in 1938, finding work as a laundryman. Today, he would be called an economic migrant, who left his home in search of a better life elsewhere. What shame is there in that? Isn't that how your family progressed too? How many non-indigenous Australians can say they have been here since time immemorial?

Australia may have proven to be a safe haven for my grandfather, but the society he encountered was very closed. The White Australia Policy was in full swing, and 1938 was the very year when Australia's Trade and Customs Minister Thomas White spoke against large-scale Jewish immigration at the Evian Conference, stating that "as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one".

After World War II, however, my grandfather, like many others, took advantage of the gradual opening of Australian society and the start of the waves of post-war immigration to bring out the other members of his family by boat, beginning with my mother in 1946.

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About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children's school.

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