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Wake up to the real refugee issue, Australia

The problem in this debate is not people smuggling.

The drowning of hundreds of Australia-bound asylum seekers in Indonesian waters this week has highlighted, once again, the pressing need for Australian to rethink its refugee policy. Instead, political discourse has quickly degenerated to finger-pointing and vilification of people smugglers.

Tragically, the fact that Julia Gillard's government and the Coalition have harnessed the large-scale loss of life not as a catalyst for the immediate overhaul of the country's punitive treatment of boat people, but merely as further fuel for a relentless blame game, is far from surprising: Australian politicians have been trotting out this trick for over a decade.

It is hard to forget the Howard government's appalling behaviour as the SIEV 4 went down near Christmas Island a decade ago; with an election looming, then-Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, and Defence Minister Peter Reith repeated publicly the lie that the desperate travellers onboard had thrown their children overboard. Just weeks thereafter, the SIEV X sunk near Java, claiming 353 lives. While a nearby Australian warship could have attended the site within five hours, Australia chose to do nothing; instead,survivors clung to wreckage for 20 hours before being picked up by Indonesian fishing boats.

Many Australian Labor Party sympathisers, including myself, held out earnest hope that Howard's successor Kevin Rudd would reframe the refugee debate in more humane and sensible terms. Depressingly, Rudd seemed mostly intent on demonising people smugglers as the "absolute scum of the earth", before imposing a shocking freeze on refugee claims by Sri Lankan and Afghans amid heavy criticism from the UNHCR.

Then, in mid-2010, it was the Gillard government's turn. Despite promising announcements late last year about moving children and families into community-based accommodation, many left-leaning Australians were disappointed again with its proposed Malaysia deal, which sought to "swap" asylum seekers for refugees and flouted Australia's international law obligations.

The rejection of the Malaysia plan by the High Court in August this year presented the Labor government with a choice: it could either harness the opportunity to turn away from the well-worn moral low road, or continue engaging in the shabby dog-whistle politics to which the nation has become accustomed since Howard. The Gillard government, sadly, seems to have chosen the latter.

As under Rudd's leadership, the fingers in the current asylum seeker debate are mostly pointed at people smugglers. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday described the current onshore processing arrangement as a signal to people smugglers that Australia was open for business; shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, not to be outdone, released a tirade against people-smuggling "criminals", who "seek to exploit vulnerable people for their own profit."

The fact is that desperate individuals, like the many Hazara refugees currently fleeing persecution at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will always choose to pack their family onto a boat bound for Australia rather than see them die at the hands of a tyrannical regime; moreover, there will always be a group of people willing to assist their passage. Australian politicians' tough talk and anti-smuggling legislation are less likely to reach the "big fish" behind these operations than they are the few Indonesian fishermen motivated to take an unsafe boat journey by their own desperation.

By framing the matter as a debate about people smuggling, Australian politicians are skirting the crux of the issue: the needs of the vulnerable people seeking protection from persecution. These people are asking for the nation's help. Australia needs to wake up to their grisly plight, and start facilitating adequate alternative pathways for their escape.