Politicians repeatedly urge us to hate, and punish, and mistreat people who come here as boat people.  Their anti-boat-people policies and laws are said to be justified as a deterrent, so that people will not risk drowning.

Let’s test that.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Hazara from Afghanistan. (About 99% of Hazaras are assessed as refugees: they are the equivalent of Jews fleeing Germany in the 1930s).

You have fled your country and you have come down the northwest corridor through Malaysia and Indonesia; countries that give you a one month visa on arrival. While you are in Indonesia you can go to the UNHCR office in Jakarta and apply for refugee status.  If you are a Hazara from Afghanistan, you will almost certainly be assessed as a refugee. But when your one month visa expires, you have to hide because if you are found by the police, they will jail you. You cannot work or send your children to school, because if you are found they will jail you. If the UNHCR has assessed you as a refugee, you can wait in the shadows until some country offers to resettle you. That may take 20 or 30 years.

Now, for just one minute, imagine you are that person. Will you wait in the shadows for 20 or 30 years or will you take your courage in both hands and get on a boat?  I have never met an Australian who would not get on the boat.

It’s a very strange thing that we criticize, revile and punish those who do precisely what we would do if we were in their shoes.

And do we really think we are saving lives by our harsh policies?

Stopping refugee boats arriving is not a self-evident good.  It might stop people drowning inconveniently in view of Australians at Christmas Island.  But if they do not get on a boat and are, instead, killed by the Taliban, they are just as dead as if they drowned.  If they head towards Europe and drown in the Mediterranean, or suffocate in the back of a truck, they are just as dead as if they drowned.

The real difference is that our conscience is not troubled by their un-noted death somewhere else.

Reza Berati was murdered on Manus, by a person whose wages were paid by Australian taxpayers; Hamid Khazaie died because of medical negligence in Australia’s Immigration Department;  Omid Massoumali died on Nauru when he set himself alight in despair, after having been found to be a refugee, but faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life on Nauru.

Reza Berati, Hamid Khazaie and Omid Massoumali are just as dead as if they had drowned.

It is worth remembering that boat people are, by definition, people with enough initiative to take steps to escape persecution, and enough courage to risk their lives at sea.  And they are fleeing the same extremists we are fighting in the Middle East.  So what’s not to like about them?  Stopping the boats prevents our society from receiving people who are brave and determined.