IN 1797, when Lieutenant John Shortland set sail from Sydney Town to what would become Newcastle in pursuit of a group of escaped convicts, was he chasing our first refugees seeking asylum from a brutal regime?
The experience of those convict runaways who fled the Sydney penal settlement in a stolen vessel has an interesting parallel with today’s ‘‘boat people’’.
The term has its origins in the refugees who arrived from Vietnam in the mid 1970s.
Since then, fewer than 60,000 people have sought asylum by arriving on the high seas.
In the same period our population has grown by more than 9million, which makes the boat people’s impact a drop in the ocean, really.
In 2011, 4565 asylum seekers arrived by boat, making less than 2per cent of Australia’s annual immigration intake.
This is significantly less than the number of asylum seekers arriving by plane, yet both political sides see their solution to this ‘‘crisis’’ as an election winner.
Both are shameless in their exploitation of the issue, turning it into an emotional furphy.
The ‘‘boat people’’ issue dominates political debate.
Both sides of federal parliament view proposed ‘‘solutions’’ as vote winners.
The Gillard government has adopted the policies of the past and has started processing boat arrivals offshore in Nauru, and will begin processing sometime soon in Papua New Guinea too.
This new ‘‘Pacific solution’’ is expected to cost almost $3billion over the next four years, but at this stage offshore processing is not the deterrent that had been hoped.
The boats, not surprisingly, are still coming.
News travels fast in our world, even in refugee camps.
The fact that people continue to undertake the dangerous crossing, despite the estimated 600-plus asylum seekers who have died at sea since October 2009, indicates the risks outweigh the consequences of staying under current regimes.
The ‘‘boat people’’ are often criticised for putting their children at risk, but that is exactly why they take the risks: to give their kids a new, safe life. Remember the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot for asking for a right to attend school? Sometimes people have to take risks to achieve basic freedoms.
But there is another solution, one that doesn’t involve excising Australia from itself.
Historically, nine out of every 10 asylum seekers who arrive by boat are eventually granted protection visas (even by the deliberately slow standards of the Australian government).
We should establish asylum-seeker development centres in various mainland locations, and I believe Newcastle would be a prime location for one of them.
Newcastle has the education system to help child and adult arrivals learn to speak English and go to school.
The university provides proven pathways into tertiary study for students from non-traditional educational backgrounds, supported by an English as a Second Language program.
This region also has a strong track record in trades training and, since the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers will stay in this country, it makes sense to assimilate them as soon as we can into all aspects of Australian life: education; work; political systems; and sports.
There is another benefit to establishing development centres in locations like Newcastle.
According to the 2011 Census, Newcastle is one of the least culturally diversified cities in Australia.
Having a processing and development centre in the Hunter would greatly assist in building a diversified and dynamic cultural mix in our region.
This compassionate model of support would significantly boost the local economy by channelling the billions being wasted on transporting and building refugee ‘‘housing’’ in places like Nauru.
The housing at present consists of tents ‘‘with wooden floors’’ and the women and children are ‘‘housed’’ on another part of the island.
Not only are these people stateless under our current laws, but they are also marginalised from what they care about most – their families.
It’s time to stop pretending these people have just woken up one morning and decided to take a holiday cruise to Australia.
We should process them quickly, effectively and humanely.
While this is happening, we could start to give them opportunities to become effective members of our society.
Processing and supporting asylum seekers in places like the Hunter would enhance the development of an expanded, skilled labour force and be culturally enriching for the communities in which the centres are developed.
It would be a compassionate and realistic solution for the 90per cent of asylum seekers who become Australians.
I wonder what processing system would have been preferred by the indigenous population of this land when the first boat people arrived in 1788?
Scott Holmes is pro vice-chancellor, research, and dean of graduate studies at the University of Newcastle. In lieu of payment for this fortnightly column, the Herald will make a donation to the Heal For Life Foundation.