The majority of Australians think asylum seekers who arrive by boat are not genuine refugees, prompting Warrnambool humanitarian advocates to say fear has replaced the once-proud Australian tradition of standing up for the underdog.
A nationwide opinion poll has revealed a majority want the Abbott government to increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers and 59 per cent of people think most boat arrivals are not genuine refugees.
The poll, by UMR Research, shows some 59 per cent oppose refugees receiving government welfare assistance, while only 27 per cent believe refugees should get government support.
However, according to the Australian Parliamentary Library’s research service, between 70 per cent and 97 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat at different times have been found to be genuine refugees.
Warrnambool Uniting Church Reverend Geoff Barker said the federal government should be showing leadership by doing what is good instead of just following opinion polls.
He said a high proportion of boat arrivals were found to be genuine refugees.
“Just because most people think something, doesn’t make it right,” he said.
“The government should be showing leadership by doing what is good, not just following opinion polls. Instead it is promoting the lie that most are economic refugees.
“They are further abusing suffering people by using them for political advantage.”
Reverend Barker said asylum seekers came from situations of extreme hardship, war and terror.
“For our government to try to deter them by being more harsh than the situations they’re escaping from, is simply evil,” he said. “It creates further trauma for people who have already been traumatised.”
Reverend Barker said getting the right balance between refugees who have been accepted from refugee camps and those who come here by their own means was a complex matter.
“The government is prepared to spend a lot of money maintaining the harsh conditions for boat people,” he said.
“It would be much better spent on making it easier for refugees to apply to come here in the places they first escape to.”
Rural Australia for Refugees Warrnambool spokesman, Don Stewart, echoed Reverend Barker and said the results of the poll were cause for concern.
Mr Stewart said it was another indication that Australians had been hoodwinked into believing the hyperbole that politicians had been spinning for a decade.
He said sensationalist media reporting had encouraged an irrational fear of people in genuine need.
“Fear seems to have overtaken compassion for those in need and our once proud Australian tradition of standing up for the underdog,” Mr Stewart said.
He said a number of Warrnambool residents this week had been hosting people who fled Sri Lanka because of the persecution they suffered as members of the Tamil ethnic group.
“Some may think it’s strange, but neither I nor my family have experienced any fear in the presence of these people,” Mr Stewart said.
“They are the ones who have experienced fear in ways most of us can never imagine.
“Before judging these people, the least we can do is to try and understand what they have been through.”
with the Age