Australia is not being swamped by illegal immigrants, nor have we lost control of our borders, says Australian Human Rights Commissioner Catherine Branson QC.
Speaking at the annual Brad Selway Memorial Lecture last Thursday (18 November), Branson applauded recent cultural changes within the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, as well as positive steps taken to address how immigration detainees are treated, but urged lawyers to help dispel myths surrounding asylum seekers.
"We all have a role to play in addressing some of the common myths about asylum seekers ... It is misleading to characterise people who arrive in Australia by boat as queue jumpers. For most, there was no orderly queue in which they could sit waiting their turn to travel to Australia," she said.
"Another common claim is that people who arrive in Australia by boat are illegal immigrants. This is not the case. All people have a human right to seek asylum - and under the Refugee Convention, Australia has obligations to people seeking asylum."
Branson also dismissed fears that Australia's immigration policies have become too lax, pointing out that it is in fact developing countries which take in the most asylum seekers each year.
"It is in Pakistan that the greatest number of displaced Afghanis is to be found; it is in India that the greatest number of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils is to be found. Australia receives only a tiny percentage of the world's asylum seekers," she said.
According to Branson, the key to solving many of Australia's current issues involving asylum seekers - especially in relation to locking up children - is to better engage the community and bolster understanding.
"We need to emphasise the human side of this story. Who are the people we have locked up in our detention facilities? They include babies, toddlers, young children, unaccompanied teenagers, pregnant women, parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents," she said.
"This is a critical time in the history of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers. I recognise, of course, that the political challenges in this area are great. I do not pretend to have all the answers to the issues that the Government must address.
"We must not lose sight of the fact that this debate is about human beings - nearly all of them vulnerable men, women and children fleeing from troubled regions of the world; many of them genuine refugees in need of protection from persecution."
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