Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 7.02.21 PM

Image courtesy Zimbio

Me: Selvam, its house, not kaus

Selvam: kaus

Me: No, no Selvam House, say huh, huh

Selvam: Huh, Huh

Me: Good, now say H-ouse

Selvam: Kaus

Teaching Selvam (not his real name) even the rudiments of English pronunciation is not easy. He only completed his primary school and is now in his mid 40s. In the little town in Eastern Sri Lanka where he managed a small car repair shop or ‘garage’, repairing the cars of friends, neighbours and those who passed that way, he had no need for English. But not anymore. Having taken the precarious journey to Australia and now released into the community until his claims are processed, the need to acquire even a smattering of English has now suddenly become important. Hence his encounter with a ‘kaus’ in the English class we run for people like Selvam in suburban Melbourne.

I remember another man very much like Selvam. He was a plumber and the friend of an acquaintance of mine. Sometime in the 1990s when I was on holiday in Colombo my acquaintance brought him to me to explore the possibility of my sponsoring him. I had to tell them politely that not only was there no chance of a student sponsoring a prospective migrant but the plumber did not possess any of the basic requirements for applying for migration to Australia which had an established migration program with a range of criteria for different categories of people. This included some professional qualification or certification of a required skill and basic English proficiency. The plumber I am sure was a good tradesman but he had nothing on paper to show for it. And his English was non-existent.

If the plumber had made it into the present millennium his chances of migrating would have improved immensely. In the 1990s few if any boats arrived from Sri Lanka carrying asylum seekers. But not anymore. Almost every month at least one boat arrives from Sri Lanka and since 2012 more than 6000 Sri Lankans have reached Australia’s shores in them. The plumber may well have been among them, just like Selvam and his friends, making use of the opportunity offered by the emergence of people smuggling as a lucrative business to migrate by bypassing all the usual regulations. You simply sell your shop, borrow money and pay a smuggler to take you in a boat to Australia. The rest will depend on your story and how well you tell it.

In this sense, they can be called ‘illegal migrants’, people who avoid the legal requirements for migration by arriving as asylum seekers. But the phenomenon of asylum seekers is also not as simple as that, no matter how appealing it is to people in the Australian establishment and mainstream Australia. People like Selvam who come in boats in the new millenium, just like the plumber in the 1990s, are also very desperate people. In a sense their despair is greater than that of the plumber. The plumber and many others like him wished to leave the country at the time because they felt no future for them while the war raged. Selvam and many others like him have left because they see no hope in Sri Lanka even when the war has ended. The end of the war, which was expected to bring in prosperity and stability has only delivered hopelessness. For the Tamils, that hopelessness is made more devastating by the realisation that along with the LTTE, they are also now a truly beaten people, steadily marginalised and even dispossessed, made to feel in very obtrusive ways that they are living on the goodwill of the majority community. That I am sure is a terrible way to live. New roads and bridges and promises of more are not going to make any difference to that.

That makes them something more than mere ‘economic refugees.’ These are also people who feel prosecuted and prosecuted because of their ethnicity. But many unfortunately struggle to prove it according to the conventional requirements. How can Selvam prove that he sees no hope for himself or his children as a Tamil in Sri Lanka when he has a car repair shop and has never been assaulted or abused by the military and when the war that ravaged the country has been brought to a conclusion? How do you plumb the depths of despair with questions designed to skim the surface of reality?

For Australia, this is a bad combination, the arrival of the people smuggler at a time of growing despair among certain sections of the population in countries like Sri Lanka. It is producing waves of desperate but hardy and resilient people who are willing to risk their lives for a better future, making use of the opportunities offered by equally hardy entrepreneurs. Some die, others get through. Most are repatriated after cursory inquiries, but a few get to stay. Those few that get to stay become beacons of hope for others boarding the leaky boats. The cycle continues.

And they are steadily growing in number. Already scores of Sri Lankans and many more Afghans have been released in to the community from detention centres. The majority of the Afghans are Hazaras while most Sri Lankans are Tamils. They have no work rights and must subsist on about 80% of the usual unemployment benefit. Their accommodation is often substandard and overcrowding is endemic. One house is said to accommodate 18 men sharing one toilet between them. Many are without adequate warm clothing and some do not even have beds to sleep in. Charitable organisations and individuals are helping but that is hardly enough to meet the rising demand. As the numbers of cold, hungry and desperate souls grow there are concerns that they will soon pose a health and security risk to the community.

But Australia has been here before. The country was colonised by desperate and enterprising people who arrived by sea. Then, colonialism combined with despair among lower classes in the ‘mother country’ to propel thousands of people across the ocean to try their fortune in Australia. The woes and aspirations of many of them have much in common with the dreams of people like Selvam. Explained one migrant from England:

“I have had a strong inclination to go to some part of that fine country but I must confess I feel rather timid about starting, and leaving my native country for a strange one at so great a distance as Australia is from us.  I will inform you of my situation as clearly as I can…….I am a blacksmith in a country village and have been in business for myself for six years; I am single, 26 years of age, enjoy good health and with no encumbrance whatsoever, but more work and better payment for it is what I desire. Although wishful to marry and bring up my family respectably, there is, at present, no encouragement to do so. I have no desire to leave my native country, if there was any prospect of obtaining  living here comfortable….[1]

That was in 1848, long before the current wave of ‘economic migrants’ hit our shores. But they were welcome visitors then. Those who did not welcome them, the Aborigines, were powerless to stop them. The tide of White settlers was too great, their weapons and diseases – the security and health concerns of a different time and context – too powerful for the natives of terra nullius to withstand. ‘Border control’ then was as ineffective as a spear thrown in the night, a firebrand dropped on the roof of a sleepy hut, the tactics of intimidation and resistance of a people unused to organised violence and new diseases.

In some ways present day Australia is facing a similar problem. The asylum seekers are brought here by forces Australia is not equipped to handle. The entrepreneurship that motivates the people smugglers and the despair that drives the asylum seekers into their hands are more powerful forces than what Australia can muster to stop them.  Like the Aboriginals who stole cattle and speared the odd settler to intimidate the hordes of colonists encroaching on their territory the Australian government can only make weak threats and gestures that will do precious little to scare people who have not been scared to take on an arduous journey in the first place. Like the early settlers they are willing to endure, survive and are determined to prosper in the new country because “there is, at present, no encouragement to do so” in the old country.

That is bad news for those Australians who fear an influx of hordes of Sri Lankans and Afghans. But this is simply an overreaction. The boats may be hard to stop but present day Australia is not half as helpless as Aboriginal Australia in the face of newcomers from across the sea. The asylum seekers represent only a small proportion of the number of ‘illegal immigrants’ to the country, the majority still coming by plane and many of them from Europe and New Zealand. Unlike the White settlers who dispossessed the Aborigines the asylum seekers do not have the patronage of the government and if anything, the government is trying its best to discourage them. And they come here begging for the ‘natives’’ generosity, not denying their very existence and prepared to use force if resisted. The Afghans and Sri Lankans are tough customers but there is certainly no threat of Australia being overwhelmed by an aggressive ‘brown tide’.

But this is not stopping Australia from panicking, treating this like a major invasion. This is understandable. Yes, there are many more people from western countries who overstay their visas than the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the country but the apprehension of asylum seekers springs partly from the appreciation of Australia as an island – albeit a large one. Those who cross the sea to enter Australia are more visible and make Australians feel more vulnerable than those who land by plane and melt into the community. And if those who cross the ocean are also people of colour, well, then that is even scarier to a nation that still sees itself as predominantly white. That is sufficient to fuel a lengthy and divisive debate about the legitimacy of asylum seekers that usually ends with appeals to some of the worst prejudices in this society.

Expecting any Australian government to simply let the boats through is wishful thinking. Even if one grants that the asylum seekers are mostly desperate people and that they represent only a small portion of the refugees accepted by other countries such acknowledgements have to struggle against over two centuries of prejudice that views outsiders, especially those of colour with fear and even loathing. A country that found it hard to accept a white woman as Prime Minister is not likely to welcome dark-skinned boat people with open arms. The struggle between reason/compassion and prejudice is likely to end with victory for the latter. In a parliamentary democracy it is only a suicidal politician who will try to swim against popular prejudice. And those who are aspiring to rule the country seem to be only interested in pandering to these prejudices, not in challenging them.

But trying to stop the boats by diverting them to offshore locations or by subjecting those who are allowed to enter the community to harsh and demeaning conditions is equally silly. The people who board the boats driven by despair but armed with hope, not to mention resilience and resourcefulness are unlikely to be deterred by tent hovels on Manus Island or wintry nights in Melbourne or Sydney without blankets. They will come, as long as the conditions that propel them to Australia continue in their places of origin. Short of blowing them off the sea or repatriating everybody who arrive by boat Australia is not going to ‘stop the boats’.

Neither of these options is desirable nor likely. Instead Australia is focussing on being mean to those who arrive and trying to work with the Sri Lankan government to prevent asylum seekers from getting on the boats. These options are also doomed to failure. As explained above, harsh treatment is unlikely to deter people whose idea of harshness or brutality is very different from that of the Australian officials and politicians who make decisions about them. And dealing with the most rapacious and unscrupulous set of rulers to ruin Sri Lanka since Independence is also not likely to deliver much either.

It is hard to say when Australia will find a humane and practical way to deal with the influx of asylum seekers. If the rhetoric coming from the government and the Opposition is anything to go by we will have a very long wait and the asylum seekers a long winter. But hopefully mainstream Australia that influences the decisions of Australian politicians will soon realise that they have more to gain than lose by treating people like Selvam with humanity and empathy. This has been said many times before but it needs to be said again: people who can get on leaking, overcrowded boats and sail thousands of miles braving the whims of the ocean and the weather must have something to offer Australia that cannot be quantified by professional qualifications alone. It is an unlucky country that misses out on the resilience and courage of people who have not given up trying. They are not here to dispossess anyone or to rape, pillage and murder. If Selvam and his friends are any indication the only thing they are likely to massacre is the English language. And that can be fixed far more easily than the devastation visited upon the Aboriginal civilization by previous waves of economic refugees and asylum seekers.

[1] Sidney’s Emigrant Journal, vol.3, no.3, 19 October 1848, pp.21-2.