In 1969, when I first travelled overseas to Bangkok, my earliest reflection was that life in Asia didn’t seem to matter as infant toddlers who had yet to walk confidently, looked hauntingly into my eyes with their skinny, almost skeletal hands outstretched into my face pleading for some money. It was an all too common streetscape in the busy thoroughfares of the city with their mothers lolling on the grassy strips separating the chaotic traffic and calling it home. Poverty and heartache glared at my naivety; was life here so cheap, so insignificant that even babes were hustling for spare change to buy sustenance for their empty (albeit swollen) bellies? In Australia at that time, I hadn’t previously witnessed people living on the streets or begging; I believed we were a reasonably affluent society who could house and feed our growing populace where human life counted for something!

But as the boats of asylum seeking refugees keep shipping to our shores, it now seems not only that life in Asia doesn’t matter, but also here in our Promised Land, albeit in a very different way to more than 40 years ago. Political debate now rages in our Parliament over what to do about these people; on shore or off shore processing, Malaysia or Nauru (or both as the government now has it), temporary protection visas or permanent status? There seems no consensus other than we MUST stop the boats as they capsize close to our borders and men, women and children drown in the waters around them. Such compassion for their fate is indeed reassuring (pardon the sarcasm!) but how genuine is this supposed care for human life when we lock them away in mandatory detention where they are persecuted once again for the crime of seeking freedom and a safer and more secure life? With their mental health deteriorating on a daily basis, with self-harm, suicide and attempted suicides all too commonplace, I can only surmise that we don’t really care at all. Their lives are worthless, insignificant and irrelevant- after all, they are NOT white, they are not Anglo-Saxon and they don’t even speak English! I too once felt like a refugee when I returned to Australia after seven years living abroad; not because I felt persecuted, but because I came back with nothing – no money, no job and carrying just a suitcase of a few clothes and personal belongings. Moreover, I couldn’t even get a job in my own country! I was white, spoke English and wasn’t even 30 years old, but my OWN country rejected all my international work experience and subjected me to the dole and a life of poverty at that time.

It’s a million times worse for the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Burmese, the Pakistanis, the Sri Lankans et al fleeing their homelands in search of a better way. No one, or at least few people, willingly want to leave their families and friends if they had a choice; but the tragic albeit horrifying reality for more than three million people around this world is they have only ONE choice – to stay alive as best they can. And that means risking that life by getting on a boat to seek refuge in Australia. They are desperate people engaged in a desperate act; sitting incarcerated in a camp or detention centre is not a solution for them. Yes, they are jumping the queues of millions of other refugees waiting for official approval to come here, but I don’t blame them as that is their only chance to get out from behind the bars and enjoy the freedoms we here take for granted. Can we even begin to empathise with their suffering and their pain, can we know, let alone understand the depth of their anguish and agony in their own countries? There is scant justice for these people as they sit it out in camps alienated and isolated from a life they believe they deserve as we continue to deprive them of a life worth living. We tell them to be patient, to wait like the others do, to put up with the pain and we will get to them when we can. But what price, life? And what does life really mean when you are a prisoner alone in another country?

The arguments about stopping the boats miss the point entirely; it is not about stopping the boats at all but allowing many of these people around the world to come here legally and safely as genuine refugees. Australia is a big country, most of our 21 million people enjoy a reasonably prosperous, comfortable and SAFE lifestyle and we could easily accommodate many more thousands of refugees than we presently do. Up the ante to 20,000 the politicians are now saying; but we could take many, many more so people don’t need to risk their lives by jumping on boats in desperation. It’s not about on shore or off shore processing; it’s certainly not about even more mandatory detention in whatever country- indeed, it’s about acknowledging not only OUR humanity but THEIR humanity too by allowing them to live a full and secure human existence in peace and without persecution for their principles in Australia.

Their predicaments are not of their own making (unless standing up for human rights and freedom is a crime?) – they are victims in their own countries where war, torture and imprisonment pervade their lives with ever increasing risks. To risk their lives in a boat, however dilapidated and unsafe it might seem, is worth every dollar they invest. We should be investing in THEIR lives by abandoning the pretense that we care and really doing something to allow them to live a life worth living. Glib adherence to their cause is simply not good enough, indeed, it’s morally and ethically reprehensible and moreover, humanely unacceptable. It’s time to jettison all the hyperbole about boats, processing and people smugglers and instead, adopt a policy of humane justice by opening our doors to these people, without qualification and without reprisal. I am totally dispirited by the debate in Parliament from all sides of the political spectrum; it’s time to bring the thousands here and bequeath to them a life of peace, harmony and well-being. They are human beings and as such, we MUST accord them the dignity and respect they deserve! Lest we become as cruel and heartless as the countries they are fleeing from (if we’re not already)!