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Asylum debate

Nick Bryant | 09:20 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

I have written a long piece here about the Christmas Island shipwreck and its possible impact on the Australian asylum seeker debate. But I wonder whether it is worth opening up its first few paragraphs especially for comment:

Australia's asylum seeker debate is often conducted as if the people heading for its shores are an abstraction, with the term "boat people" almost shorn of its human meaning. With such harrowing images from Christmas Island broadcast on early evening news shows millions of Australians would have seen the anguished faces of those seeking to reach its shores, and witnessed the lengths they would go to get there. Put simply, it was shockingly real.

Tabloid sensationalism in Australia is normally turned against the asylum seekers, who head here from countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq. They are often regarded as "queue jumpers," unwilling to go through the normal channels to seek asylum. Asylum seekers arriving by plane do not attract the same attention, nor what refugee groups would call the same paranoiac reaction. In July this year, Sydney's tabloid Daily Telegraph reported that up to 800 asylum seekers could arrive in Australian waters during the election campaign. It published the report under the headline "INVASION." The banner headline today offers a more sympathetic take. "HELPLESS."

Refugee groups here complain that Australian politicians regard the asylum seeker issue primarily as a political issue rather than a policy issue, and that the debate is not animated by a great deal of compassion towards the boat people themselves.

So a simple question: will this awful disaster alter the character of the debate?

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