Melbourne-based writer. Part-time journalist, radio funny-man and Crikey blogger. A Muppet of a man. Follow me on Twitter: @nightlightguy
Barely a week goes by when the problem of asylum seekers and boat people hits the headlines in some fashion. And it’s one that needs addressing, but what is hard to fathom is the scale of Australia’s interest.
The public fear, the reaction, and the amount of debate seems disproportionate to the amount of asylum seekers intercepted off Australian shores, especially given how much of an humanitarian issue it is.
In Europe it is likewise a hot topic, but perhaps more understandably so. Refugees fleeing areas of political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East either head across the Mediterranean in crowded boats, or head first to Greece and use that as a gateway to the rest of Europe. In 2010 alone the number in Greece was around 128,000.
Most pay a high entry price to increasingly crafty people smugglers – including a recently intercepted illegal immigrant who paid 6000 euro to be smuggled into Italy crammed up against a car engine.
Italy is one of a number of European countries that struggles with the problem of asylum seekers and illegal immigration – it’s easy to see why.
Florence, Milan and Rome in particular are crowded with illegal street vendors. On a recent holiday I had barely left the Florence train station when I saw my first pick-pocket attempt.
An African street vendor who was selling cheap art prints on the pavement attempted to lift the wallet out of an Italian man’s back pocket as he passed. He was swatted away, harshly spoken to, and sheepishly returned to hawking his prints. The Italian man continued to walk as if this was a common occurrence. From what I saw, it probably was.
Street vendors all sell the same hats, knock-off hand bags, art prints or (strangely) rubber splat balls. They keep their set-up portable, and have a young boy keeping look-out for them. When alerted that the police are near, they quickly pack up and walk a distance away through the crowd to set up again, to hawk their art prints.
Even more desperate are those that beg for money. Collectively referred to as ‘gypsies’ they’re encountered anywhere in public. Outside restaurants, while on the train, but mostly in areas crowded with tourists. Some will lie prostate on the sidewalk in the path of tourists, hands outstretched in plea. Others will come up to you, occasionally dressed in better clothes than you are, with a rattling can, a photo and a story. Some will even cradle an infant for extra sympathy points”.
It’s hard not to feel for them, but equally hard to know when to stop feeling. One pregnant lady outside the Florence Cathedral turned away with dejected resignation and hunted through a garbage bin. She was soon chased away by a group of other women who had been walking the square separately, begging for money. This well co-ordinated group of women clearly didn’t like someone else operating on their turf.
Later in Sicily, a hat seller had his entire stock confiscated by police. When he tried to sneak away with some of it, he was threatened with handcuffs. In all likelihood he got off lightly.
Australia’s problem doesn’t come close to those of Europe or America, and it’s a dismay that we fear something so much that affects us so little. In 2011, 4565 refugees arrived to Australia by boat, down from 6555 the year before. In May this year alone, 712 boat people arrived to the tiny island of Malta in the Mediterranean – a country of only 400,000.
Given our reaction, our problem is miniscule. We are not being inundated, nor are we being overrun. Most of those that brave the journey by Australia are classed as genuine refugees. Even if the numbers are more than the country could cope with on a humanitarian scale, surely they aren’t to the extent that they would justify the amount the government is spending on detention centres – $1.06bn last year alone, or around $125 per refugee per day. Money that could be put to far better use in education, health, or infrastructure.
By that comparison of what is happening in the countries of Europe, our problem is nothing.