You’ve made the difficult choice to flee your homeland. Perhaps your ancestors backed the wrong horse in a centuries-old religious split, or the blood-curdling whir of hovering death-robots was getting you down. Maybe you wanted to avoid selling your children to a criminal gang threatening to destroy your only source of food or water.
But do you look hot in a bikini?
Think hard about that last one. If you answered in the affirmative, Australia’s premier humanist periodical, Zoo Weekly magazine, may have thrown you a lifeline.
In its July 16 issue, Zoo launched a competition to find ‘Australia’s Hottest Asylum Seeker’, housed in a crass breakout in the corner of a spread full of bikini-clad women on yachts titled ‘Sexiest Boat People’. The offending paragraph is indistinguishable from satire:
The Racket tried the Zoo offices Friday, mainly to find out if the competition had yielded any entrants, but was met with an uptight, “We’re on deadline”. Zoo Weekly Australia founder Paul Merrill, though, told us to look on the bright side.
“After weeks on a dilapidated boat, there are worse things than being offered a photo shoot,” he said.
Ex-Chat editor Merrill left Zoo last year to work on a book, titled A Polar Bear Ate My Head: Misadventures in Magazines. His LinkedIn profile boasts:
I’ve run competitions to find Australia’s Randiest Nanna, Hottest Horse Dentist and Ugliest Baby, and offered prizes of a boob job, lesbian wedding, divorce, voluntary euthanasia for a loved one and time machine (a clock).
Merrill also claims to have published the only known topless shot of Dame Judi Dench, and to have recreated Osama Bin Laden’s killing with ‘hot babes’. He framed Zoo’s asylum seeker search in a political context.
“Given that we have a leader of the [Australian federal] opposition demonising all asylum seekers as potential terrorists and invaders, I think Zoo is to be applauded for finding a lighter side to the debate,” Merrill told The Racket.
He may have a point — Zoo’s profound study in tastelessness is far from the worst thing Australians have done to boat-borne asylum seekers in recent years. The island nation is not known for compassion when persecuted people undertake gruelling boat journeys to reach it. This is a perfect storm of historical irony and collective amnesia, given the country was built by ‘boat people’ who came from Britain only two centuries ago.
While the majority of Australian asylum seekers are from China and come by plane, a small but growing number come on boats, often from Indonesia. Many of those on the boats have fled overland from Iraq or Afghanistan.
You may have risked death several times, before cramming onto an unseaworthy vessel headed to Australia to seek refugee status (your right under international law). But once you board that boat, things get political — you are ‘boat people’. You are defined not by your claim to refugee status, or the distance you’ve traveled, but by the mode of transport in which you undertake the final leg of your journey.
The number of incoming ‘boat people’ has spiked in the past few years, averaging 5500 per year since 2010, up from 160 in 2008. Is the spike a response to global trends – i.e. the further destabilisation of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka – or to Australia being a ‘soft touch’? The nation’s politicians ponder the question endlessly.
For perspective, Australia accepts around 200,000 new permanent residents a year, and tolerates 50,000 visa over-stayers, many of whom are from Blighty.
Tragically, some boats sink, and can take hundreds of lives with them when they do. Since the turn of the century more than 1500 Australia-bound boat people have died at sea.
As a means of discouraging would-be boat people, successive Australian governments have elected to make life as difficult as possible for them after they arrive. Both major parties agree they should be ‘processed’ in privately-run offshore prisons (run, in fact, by Serco, which has come under criticism in the UK this month for failing to meet legal requirements on staffing levels and training in an out-of-hours GP service it runs for the NHS in Cornwall). But they can’t agree on where to put them.
Most Australian refugee policies feature the worrying syntactic construct: ‘The X Solution’. There was the ‘The Pacific Solution’, which involved detaining people on islands dotted around Australia, sometimes for years on end.
The Labor opposition spent years hounding the conservative government for their ‘inhumane’ policy of offshore processing. Now in power, Labor is trying to have them processed in Malaysia (‘The Malaysia Solution’) for reasons best surmised as “it’s not exactly what the conservatives did”. Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, one of the sticking points that has prevented the minority government from getting its policy up.
This month, conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott – a man who is essentially a box of slogans with a pair of ears stapled to it – repeated calls for the country to revisit the ’Turn Back the Boats’ rhetoric of the previous conservative government. Under the policy, asylum boats were turned back to Indonesia by a blockade of Australian naval ships.
Abbott was asked on radio if this was the Christian thing to do (the vocal Catholic has been christened the ‘mad monk’, and once told a magazine the virginity of his three daughters was a ‘gift’). He replied that it was “[not] a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door”, forgetting perhaps that many boat people are in fact Muslim, that many of their doors have been shot to pieces by coalition forces, and that Australia is an island, not a house.
A retired admiral who led the defence force under Howard criticised Abbott’s suggestion that boats should be turned back around, all but questioning its legality, and telling the ABC it would “drive people to very desperate measures”. Abbott responded, rather ominously, that the admiral “understands that the armed forces are under the direction of the government of the day”.
Ninety per cent of boat people that arrive in Australia are eventually found to be genuine refugees under international law.
There are currently no statistics on how many have bikini bodies.
July 22, 2012
australia, challenging-ones-own-prejudice, exile-as-a-boon