Why locking people up is bad

Some are trying to paint the “stop the boats” beat-up as being about reducing unnecessary deaths at sea (e.g., ‘Putting policy first in the border protection debate’, The Australian, 5/7/10). This is disingenuous. While the three hundred or so sea deaths over the last several years are tragic, they do not explain the political heat generated by boat arrivals.

Julia Gillard has given some succour to xenophobes with her carefully-worded recognition that electors are “anxious”, but is clear about the fact that refugee intake is not a significant contributor to population. The obvious conclusion: electors need to be educated to realize that their fears are unfounded.

Instead, we see more pandering to ignorance by imposing further cruelty on asylum seekers: more offshore and remote-area incarceration.

Imprisonment is a grave step which should only be taken when we are certain someone has committed a crime. The vast majority of asylum seekers are found to have genuine claims and therefore have been needlessly imprisoned. Even those whose claims are rejected have not thereby broken any law.

Using wrongful imprisonment as a deterrent to smuggling is as illogical as it is ineffective as it is immoral.

In Australia and every other democracy, prior to the current wave of xenophobia, refugees simply lived in the community, given the benefit of the doubt until their claims were assessed.

If we reintroduced this policy, on current figures about 200 applications for asylum would eventually be rejected. Even if every single one of these went on the lam and had to be apprehended, the impact and cost would be negligible compared to the expensive, ugly ethical quagmire we are now wallowing in. Importantly, we would no longer be locking up innocent people.

Both Ben Chifley and Malcolm Fraser had to go against popular prejudices to create their immigration programs, of Jewish and Indochinese refugees respectively. It’s time this government showed the same strength of leadership.

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