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Asylum Seekers – a Contemporary Social Issues in Australian Society Essay

The Oxford English Dictionary defines asylum as the shelter afforded by a country to someone who has had to leave their country of origin due to danger from political or other reasons (Oxford English Dictionary 2012). Structuralism, according to Babbie (2006), is a theory supporting the establishment of communities of different cultures. This paper will discuss the concept of asylum seekers in Australia as part of multiculturalism within the global population flow and critically examine the roles and values of the Australian people towards “uninvited immigrants” and the policies in relation to the recent influx of asylum seekers.

Specifically, this paper will first give an overview of Australians and asylum seekers, then discuss the history of asylum seekers coming to Australia and review the effectiveness of current policies in addressing the issues surrounding admission of asylum seekers. The paper will also examine the arguments and issues surrounding the policies for, and attitudes towards asylum seekers, as viewed through the lens of structural functionalism. Finally the paper will conclude with an overview of Australia’s current multicultural strategy for asylum seekers and what the future holds as globalisation increases.

As the complex issues surrounding asylum seekers in Australia are increasingly challenged, constant changes due to globalisation and population flow affect Australia’s political, economical and social stance towards those seeking asylum (Jupp, 2007). The broader field of population flows and multiculturalism is the topic within which the issue of asylum seekers looking for entry into a multicultural Australia is contextualised. The Settlement Council of Australia (SOCA) is the main organisation nationally representing the settlement service division and has a close working relationship with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

SOCA states that a refugee is a victim of oppression who fits the description of a refugee as set out in the 1951 agreement concerning the Status of Refugees, of which Australia is a participant, whereas an asylum seeker has already sought protection from the government under international law and is awaiting a decision on their status. (SOCA, 2012). The current view of multiculturalism, and the approach to asylum seekers amongst Australians today, is still mixed (McMaster, 2001).

It is difficult for some to accept what they perceive as outsiders queue jumping in to the system to obtain status. Multiculturalism is a vital element of the settlement procedure, assisting in establishing the best environment for settlement to occur (SOCA, 2012). To understand the desperation faced by asylum seekers is hard, and we can only draw from media coverage or second-hand knowledge, if not personally experienced (Suter, 2001). Most will have fled from their homeland due to tyranny, warfare, or horrendous abuses of their human rights.

As argued by Suter (2001), Australia has reacted with obstinacy over recent years with the growing arrival of asylum seekers from countries, such as Afghanistan in 2001, where the refugees were refused entry to Australia forced to relocate to Indonesia as the boat had initially foundered in Indonesian waters. International condemnation did nothing to soften the government’s stance and interestingly, most Australians, according to surveys at the time, supported the government’s hard line. The fear of invasion still seems pervasive amongst many (Suter 2001).

The humanitarian element of protection is superseded by a fact that another person is attempting to get into the country and must be assessed. As SOCA states, the reinstatement of processing migrants off-shore will have a large impact psychologically on people who are vulnerable with a bleak and uncertain outlook surrounding their status in Australia. For those arriving by boat separation from their families is traumatic and the restoration of devastated families is a main element in settling successfully.

Asylum seekers will need continued support from the community during difficult times of change while establishing a safer and more protected life (SOCA, 2012). It is significant that multiculturalism is a policy that recognises, and endorses, cultural diversity, not non-racism (Van Krieken, Habibis, Smith, Hutchins, Haralambos, & Holborn 2006). Australia has received immigrants for many years, as Jupp (2007) discusses, emigrants from Europe arrived in 1788, opening the way for 160,000 convicts.

The Immigration Restriction Act, introduced in 1901 named the ‘White Australia Policy’, was to prevent the admission of non- Europeans into Australia. As the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship state, Australia assesses claims made by asylum seekers under the Migrations Act 1988 and Migration Regulations 1994. There is also an independent review process for people who arrive by sea know as “irregular maritime arrivals” and asylum is granted on individual circumstances after thorough background checks, which in some cases take years.

Whilst waiting for their status to be recognised, asylum seekers are required to remain in detention centres (Commonwealth, 2012). The statistics published by the Department of Immigration show that when the Refugees Convention was set up in 1951 around 1. 5 million immigrants existed worldwide. Towards the close of 2010 that figure had risen to 43. 7 million, comprising many refugees, some 15 million with over 838,000 seekers of asylum and 27million relocated from their country of origin (Commonwealth, 2012).

Whilst it is difficult to account for exactly why people are displaced, a large number may be foreign students and people looking for changes in lifestyle, due to globalisation and easier forms of transport (Xu, 2007). There are still many people from war torn countries escaping from oppressive and deadly regimes looking for an improved lifestyle for their relatives and loved ones. (Lusher & Haslam, 2007). Australia is a socially diverse country, which has grown to accept and embrace differing cultures.

Race and racism were a fundamental part of the national Australian community, as in the case of the Aboriginal Australians, to be rid of those considered racially disagreeable, those who were not “white”. As Lusher and Haslam (2007) discuss, historically up to the First World War, the admission of Europeans to Australia was virtually unobstructed, so there was no motive to assess immigrants entering due to persecution in their country of origin. The Second World War saw the admission of many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany with Australia assisting in an international aid scheme.

Following on from the ever-increasing influx of refugees, Australia was one of the first to sign the United Nations document on the Status of Refugees in 1951 (Jupp, 2007). From then on, Australia accepted some refugees, and rejected others. Australia’s policy on refugees has consistently formed part of its immigration policy. The first major modern controversy, which sets the scene for today’s issues, was in 1977 when a boat carrying Vietnamese refugees arrived off the coast of Darwin.

The media then used labels, such as “queue jumpers” and “Boat people”, names that hold to this day (Jupp, 2007). Historical incidents such as this give a background to the treatment of asylum seekers today and what some might see as Australia’s contemptuous and cold-hearted management towards them. The numbers of refugees and asylum seekers is growing annually, as statistics from the Refugee Council of Australia show: five people arrived by boat during 1975 to 1976 compared to 4,730 on 89 boats during 2010 to 2011 (Refugee Council, 2012).

Yon (2000) asserts that many Australians of “old” – or white – descent still do not identify with the multiculturalism’s view of the “new” Australia. These fundamental ideas not only marginalise ethnic cultures, but also are destructive as they produce a situation whereby “old” Australians position themselves as being on the outside of a multicultural Australia. To assert that the legitimacy of the current Australian policy on asylum seekers is being questioned is understandable when viewed from a structural functionalism perspective.

People with different cultural beliefs and values come together, particularly in the strained circumstances of asylum seeking; one party running for fear of their lives and Australian Immigration viewing this flight as another invasion (McMaster, 2001). Many, according to Tepperman and Blain (2006), believe that Australia’s multicultural policy should be restructured to accommodate the rapid advances in globalisation bringing together more ethnic cultures and be in line with assimilation of ethnic cultures whilst working towards a common goal.

Current policies in Australia to assist asylum seekers are not effective in this age of globalisation, and should be focused on as a matter of urgency (Lusher & Haslam 2007). On July 21, 2012 in The Australian, Cameron Stewart discusses that the government’s current policy on refugees and asylum seekers which has, until recently, been the one of the basic key stones of Australia’s commitment to human rights and is now in danger of collapse. The ineffectiveness of the current policy is highlighted by the inability of the government to prevent people smugglers bringing more boats to Australian shores, hence more and more people are arriving.

But, the government continued to maintain a policy, initiated in 1996 by the Howard government, which set a cap on the intake allowed each year and which is currently much lower than the influx of new refugees to these shores (Stewart, 2012). The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Article 13) declares people should be able to leave their place of origin with a right to decent health care, food, housing and a right to the safekeeping in areas of welfare such as unemployment, illness of death of a family member (Article 25).

The UDHR also states (Article 2) that no one should be discriminated against based on of his or her viewpoint politically, or his or her status internationally (UDHR 2012, cited Xu, Q 2007). The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) advised Australia in April 2010 to seek out better options than the detention of asylum seekers who arrive by boat. The UNHRC is still in discussion with the Australian government on the best way to reduce the deferment of the mounting claims for asylum and compulsory detention, whilst concentrating on the wellbeing and health of asylum seekers in Australia (UNHRC, 2012).

The theory of structural functionalism, argues that each of us is born, into set communal structures that have fixed behavioural expectations, which people generally do not contravene (Van Krieken et al, 2006). Social issues are approached scientifically assessing changes in urban growth, population flow to explain the structures underpinning society. As Bessant and Watts (2007) assert, structural functionalists focus on statistics of given situations, which are then used to describe the progress of and structure of social development and may help to create the basis of a policy on multiculturalism.

Babbie (2010) posits that it is pertinent to understand how a person who once fitted in to a different society with different roles and functions may have difficulties initially, or if ever, adapting to the structure and function which makes up Australian contemporary society. It is therefore useful using the structural perspective, to assess the asylum seekers who may appear disruptive when placed for months in detention centres, as people who are displaced from their “norm” and are reacting against that displacement.

Structural functionalism would be looking to understand why problems are occurring and what could be done to effectively integrate the asylum seekers into the Australian larger society, taking into account the adjustments that would be needed for those people to assimilate (Babbie 2010). According to Xu (2007), using the welfare benefit system is crucial for helping the acculturation and settlement of all immigrants.

Yet as Xu (2007) notes, resentment amongst many Australian citizens is building towards asylum seekers as they often take low-paid jobs, out of necessity, which contributes to employment issues and a sense of insecurity for many indigenous and natural born workers. As a result, over the last 20 years Australia has moved its policy on immigration to focus more on assimilating asylum seekers and refugees with discussions about multiculturalism, and how that affects the native Australians, and less on the welfare of the immigrants arriving, sometimes under dire circumstances (Xu, 2007).

In conclusion the analysis in this paper of the social issue of asylum seekers admitted into Australia suggest that many factors may disrupt feelings amongst native Australians, and unless handled sensitively the deep rooted fear of invasion, which still endures for many, will not go away (Jupp, 2007). Multiculturalism does not have the legitimacy it was trying to assume and marginalisation of asylum seekers still exists.

As Bessant and Watts (2007) show when viewed through the paradigm of the structural functionalism theory, the current Australian policies on the treatment of asylum seekers create maladaptation and malignancies. An irrefutable fact exists, asserts Jupp (2007), which is globalisation. More people daily are coming to and from Australia and continually communicating with other countries and cultures. The frenetic pace of globalisation and the ensuing and inevitable cultural change in the form of assimilation is inevitable (Xu, 2007).

The emphasis, according to Xu (2007) should be on a tactical approach that creates a long-term solution to prioritise the management and protection of asylum seekers across Australia, and adapting current policies on immigration to ensure that migrants skirting around current arrangements make no gain. The focus therefore should be on Australian observance of its international responsibilities concentrating on an improved policy for immigration, encouraging a reasonable and managed humanitarian programme which minimises fear and anxiety across all sectors yet creates an adhesive force for change.


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