CANBERRA, Australia — The asylum seekers who head to Australia in rickety fishing boats are just a trickle in the global flow of refugees. But given the top-tier debate they have ignited in Australia, they might as well be an invading armada.
Only one in five refugees reach Australian shores by boat. Most apply for asylum overseas and land in scheduled flights.
But the several thousand people who short-circuit the process by arriving illegally in boats have become a hot button issue that challenges Australia's egalitarian ethos of "a fair go" for all and provides an outlet for xenophobia and resentment over urban overcrowding.
"If I had my way, I'd have a navy ship bomb the bastards out of the water," said Warren Icely, a 59-year-old earth moving contractor from Canberra.
The issue has taken on exaggerated importance in Australia, partly because of a sense of vulnerability over a sparsely populated coast and partly because political parties cater to a minority of hard-line, often-xenophobic voters in poorer urban "swing seat" districts that often decide national races.
Despite the hostility, Australia is the world's most generous country in opening its doors to refugees.
A population of almost 23 million plans to resettle 13,750 refugees this year, which on a per capita basis betters the United States and Canada, which both welcome large numbers of refugees.
But Australia's humanitarian record has its critics, mostly over its harsh treatment of boat people. U.N. agencies and Amnesty International have condemned as punitive Australia's 20-year-old policy of using prison-like camps to detain boat arrivals — many of them vulnerable refugees fleeing persecution.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been forced to relax that mandatory detention policy and allow more asylum seekers to live in cities outside the razor wire because the increasing pace of new arrivals is making the detention camps dangerously overcrowded.
The boats are coming in larger numbers because the High Court scuttled her plan to deter them by deporting future arrivals to Malaysia where many of the sea voyages to Australia begin.
The issue could even bring down Gillard's government. Opinion polls suggest the conservative opposition will likely win elections due in 2013 partly because it is regarded as better able to stop the boats.
The opposition has faulted Gillard's center-left Labor Party for relaxing mandatory detention, accusing it of throwing in the towel to people smuggling syndicates that traffic asylum seekers from ports in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In 2011, 4,565 arrived by boat — more than one third of those in November and December alone.
The danger of their voyages and the ruthlessness of the people smugglers were highlighted in December when a fishing boat overloaded with asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey and heading to Australia capsized off Indonesia with 200 losing their lives.
Refugee advocates say that even once they arrive in Australia, the refugees are denied a fair chance because they are scapegoated for government failures to provide adequate infrastructure, including public housing and transportation, in parts of Sydney and other major cities.
Polls show that many Australians erroneously lump together the issue of uninvited asylum seekers with regulated immigration and have exaggerated perceptions of the numbers of new settlers who arrive without permission by boat.
A common complaint among Australians is that boat arrivals are "queue jumpers" who buy themselves an unfair advantage over refugees languishing in squalid camps overseas by paying criminal syndicates $10,000 or more for passage in crowded vessels to Australia.
"As far as I'm concerned, the ones who come in on the boats, send them back, let them come in the proper way, take their chances like the rest of them," said disabled Canberra pensioner Tony Yardley, 57.
"Jumping the queue, they're risking their lives, their kids lives — it's not on," he added.
Prof. Andrew Markus, a Monash University sociologist and historian, said the dread of people arriving by boat is part of the Australian national character rooted in its history as a tiny British outpost tucked under the Asian continent.
"While the United States is born in freedom, Australia is born in terms of insecurity because there was this perception throughout the 19th century that we were a very small country on the border of Asia," Markus said.
When a collection of British colonies federated to become Australia in 1901, the White Australia Policy ensured that British immigrants received preference for decades and those from Asia were largely blocked.
That discriminatory policy was lifted in the 1970s, but Markus said border security remains "a national obsession."
This is despite Australians sharing a land border with no one.
Undocumented immigrants living in Australia are only estimated to number 60,000, while the U.S. has more than 10 million within its borders.
Markus, who studies Australian attitudes toward asylum seekers, said only 6 percent regard unauthorized boat arrivals as a major issue. That percentage nearly doubles when you include those who regard asylum seekers and immigration as the same issue.
However, the more extreme attitudes attract a large share of media and political attention.
"Maybe 10 percent of the Australian population is intolerant, bigoted or whatever, but that's 1.5 million adults, so even though as a percent it's actually just a small number, it generates a lot of attention and this is a very emotive issue," Markus said.
"The (political) parties have got a lot of potential to stir this issue up because the amount of money that actually goes into this area is huge," Markus added.
Mandatory detention costs $1 billion a year.
The hostility is especially prevalent in the outer metropolitan "swing seat" districts, where the attitudes are fed by talk radio hosts who inflame audiences by exaggerating taxpayer-funded benefits that refugees receive.
Sydney-based Afghan refugee and freelance writer Abdul Karim Hemat, 30, said he hasn't encountered community hostility toward refugees in the decade since he arrived in Australia in a boat from Malaysia.
"The hostility is actually from the government and the media that gives a very negative portrayal of refugees," Hekmat said.
Swing-seat districts end up having more than their share of influence with the country's mainstream political parties, including Gillard's Labor Party, said Nick Economou, a Monash University political scientist. "Labor strategists feel that whatever they do, they just can't be seen to be weak on border security," he said.
Paul Power, of the Refugee Council of Australia advocacy group, said the prominence of the asylum seeker debate is difficult to rationalize.
The increased boat arrivals to Australia will be offset by a reduction of refugees accepted through resettlement, so — in any case — Australia's cap of 13,750 refugees this year will remain the same.
He noted that Australia, the United States and New Zealand were the only countries in the world who accept most of their refugees through ordered resettlement programs as opposed to having them mostly cross borders uninvited.
"Australia is a country which has been built on migration but it is also a country which has always controlled migration fairly carefully in terms of numbers and, in the past, in terms of region and race," Power said.
"The concepts of asylum and an orderly settlement process unfortunately never sit comfortably side by side," he added.