Asylum seekers go from nothing to zero under cruel policy.

Malcolm Fraser. The Age. 13/6/2011

Instead of offering protection, we force people into destitution.

AT 12 Batman Street, West Melbourne, about 10 minutes from my office in the heart of the central business district, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre rents rooms from St James Old Cathedral and assists more than 1000 destitute asylum seekers. It is extreme poverty at the heart of great affluence.

These are asylum seekers who came here by air and whom the policies of this and the previous federal government seek to punish for so doing. These asylum seekers are denied any access to welfare, to Centrelink, to social services, to government housing or to healthcare.

The resource centre, through a network of volunteers, seeks to fill that gap and relieve the total destitution of these forgotten people. They provide food, advice, legal aid, medical services, language training and general assistance of many kinds.

How many Australians realise that this destitution is a direct consequence of government policy begun in the Howard years and continued by the Labor government?

The people supported by the centre are a forgotten community – asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by plane seeking protection. We all too easily forget about this group of people, as our government has done.

In earlier years they were welcomed into the community and supported, as were those who came by boat undocumented. It is not illegal to seek asylum when arriving by plane (or boat), but the reception these people receive from our government now is driven by a desire to punish and deter rather than to respond humanely to the need for protection.

We should reflect on this fact: community-based asylum seekers are forced into a life of destitution and despair in our great country. While they may not be enclosed behind barbed-wire fences, they too face a form of imprisonment in poverty and limbo. From nothing to zero is what the asylum seekers tell me it is like to live this way. ”I start the day begging, I end my day begging,” they sigh. They are the ghosts of our country, out of sight and out of mind.

It is Australia’s obligation to provide people with a fair go and to not create a group of second-class citizens, as we are doing right now with asylum seekers. But instead of offering protection, we are deliberately, by government policy, forcing people into destitution within our society.

This is such a lost opportunity for Australia. Most asylum seekers living in the community, some 70 per cent, have skills that are in demand in Australia – yet they are unable to work. People who have the willingness, skills and capacity to contribute to Australia on arrival, are forced to wait for years to be processed. Many asylum seekers will be granted protection and become proud Australian citizens. Why make them wait?

These facts are rarely raised by the media or politicians. Instead of educating employers and voters on such issues, they have focused on whipping up a tsunami of fear.

Asylum seekers living in the community are up to 120 times more likely to be homeless and may be forced to move home three or four times in a given year. There is no safety net for community-based asylum seekers. Contrary to the popular myths of the ”good life”, none have access to Centrelink, public housing or even a healthcare card. There is no government support and no programs to help them settle and integrate into our community.

Rather, asylum seekers in the community are left to fend for themselves on the streets. Most families are forced to live on no income, reliant for their survival entirely on the goodwill of organisations that receive no federal government support – organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

People at the centre share dozens of stories of pregnant women appearing at the doorstep with nowhere to sleep for the night, of doctors who are not allowed to work and teachers whose skills are not recognised. The stories of lost potential and contribution to our country are endless.

With the popular debate revolving around queue jumpers, people smugglers, our ”asylum seeker problem” and boat people, we have lost focus on the real issues. There is no asylum seeker problem – the only problem is how we, as Australians, treat asylum seekers when they arrive.

We have chosen this ”problem”. We have chosen to leave people in limbo for years, languishing in detention centres or forced to live in poverty and uncertainty.

The choice we make as Australians to either punish or protect people fleeing for their lives has profound consequences for the strength of our national fabric. Punishment sends a message that we follow fear rather than a fair go. Protection embraces the potential that affirms us as Australians and shows that we don’t turn our backs on those in need.

We need to start a new conversation about how, as a country, we respond to what is a moral, not political issue. The hysteria about and fear towards asylum seekers is not only unfounded but should have no place in our country. We are better than this as Australians.

The push towards a renewed Pacific Solution or a people-swap with Malaysia demonstrates the absence of a moral compass when it comes to leadership on both sides of the political fence.

There is another way – a way tried and tested for more than 150 years in this country before the blight of mandatory detention and policies that seek to punish rather than protect came into force. Let’s reclaim that history right now.

Malcolm Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983.