The Tyranny of Distance is an expression used by the eminent Australian scholar, Geoffrey Blainey, as the title of a book he wrote some forty years ago and has since become a classic of Australia’s social history. The book argues that geographical isolation was a crucial factor in shaping the destiny of this country.
Its remoteness from the rest of the world and particularly from Britain and Europe encumbered for a long time its progress and the life of its people.
Today, as they say, the shoe is on the other foot. The distance has turned into a boon. Just imagine if Australia were located in the proximity of Africa. It would be flooded by an unstoppable flow of asylum seekers like it’s happening in Italy where hundreds of thousands of people arrive each year, driven by the dangers of wars, political oppression, religious persecution or simply by hunger.
Australia is not immune from this problem but the number of people who put out to sea to reach this country is relatively small compared to the throngs of refugees who are swarming the cost of Sicily. This does not depend on Australia being less attractive than Italy or Europe. The number is small because Australia is protected by its distance. The cost line of Indonesia where the boats of asylum seekers depart from is nearly a thousand kms away from Australia and the route is across an ocean and not a much less turbulent Mediterranean Sea.
Yet the arrival of these desperate people from the sea has been forged as one of the greatest threat to the national security. Despite the fact that, as certified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Australia receives only about three per cent of the total asylum claims made in industrialized countries around the world, both major parties have succeeded in whipping up a kind of hysteria in the Australian electorate. The narrative started by calling them “illegals” and “queue-jumpers”, then it assumed the tone of “smashing the people smugglers”, and lately evolved to the so-called “Operation Sovereign Borders” under the control of a military commander. From that point on, news about boat arrivals has fallen under the secrecy of “an operational matter”. The Abbott’s government promise to “stop the boats” has turned into stopping information about the boats.
Ironically all these emergency measures “to protect the Australian borders” do not apply to the asylum seekers who come by plane. Their number is not officially released but it is estimated in the thousands each year. They typically have a short-term visa (study, tourism, business) and after entering Australia legally, they apply for asylum. When their short-term visa expires they are allowed to remain in the community on a bridging visa while their asylum claim is resolved. Those who come by boat risking their life are instead put in detention centres or sent to refugees camps in Manus Island or Nauru and have to wait for years before knowing their fate. This, although boat people are not really “illegals”. Coming to Australia the way they do is not an offence against any law. To the contrary, seeking asylum is a right upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A document Australia helped create and undersigned, and today treats like waste paper.