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Ask any mother

An article for a special issue of Australian Compass

By Mark Raper SJ

At a recent refugee seminar in Brisbane, a Hazara youth was asked what he would say to Australian Prime Minister John Howard if he had that opportunity. 'Mr. Howard', said the young man without hesitation and to loud applause, 'you won the election last year because of us refugees. Now you owe us something'. A young mother of two, also a refugee from Afghanistan, was asked the same question. She took the microphone and pleaded, 'Ask any mother if she would throw her child into the sea to save her own life. How could anyone say the things that have been said about us? When will he apologise for this insult?'.

Refugees from wars in distant countries must be bewildered to find themselves a focal point of Australian domestic politics. They are dismayed that their lives and actions can be so misunderstood, misrepresented and manipulated. They are astonished that their misfortunes could make or break the fortunes of a democratically elected government in a stable prosperous country like Australia. As the year advances, more Australians realise that not only were the asylum seekers used for a domestic political advantage, but the voters, too, were deceived. During the heat of an election campaign, Australians were either misled or simply not informed about the real nature of the global refugee crisis, the reasons for the flight of the refugees, the extent of Australia's actual contribution, and the nature of the country's obligations under international law. How could this happen?

A crisis of leadership

In general, things have been going well for the majority of Australians over the last ten years. With economic growth at around 4 per cent per year, there have been constant promises of a higher quality of life. But the impact of economic globalisation has meant that Australian society, along with most industrialised societies, has also been significantly restructured, leading to perceptions of social breakdown. Rural communities have suffered and feel neglected, health and education systems are seen to be in crisis, urban crime is said to have grown out of control. The major political parties have been losing popularity, while support for minor parties, especially of the Right, has grown.

In these situations a government has two options: either show real leadership, or create an external threat and appeal to fear. Two events in the lead up to the November 10 election last year gave the Coalition government the opportunity to appear strong in the face of external threat. The request of the MV Tampa to berth at Christmas Island in late August, with over 400 asylum seekers rescued froma sinking Indonesian vessel, gave the government its first opportunity to appear strong and in control. The horrific suicidal attack on the World Trade Center towers on September 11 then reinforced the Australian people's generalised fears about threats from a hostile world. The government constantly portrayed itself as the protector of a generous nation besieged by asylum seekers arriving with criminal intent. Meanwhile, the Labor Party had nothing to say. In the frenzy of the election campaign, hasty and ill considered 'control measures' were introduced, such as the removal of asylum seekers to Pacific islands, the attempt to alter the territorial limits within which Australia's international obligations to asylum seekers apply, and increasingly unequal and punitive conditions for those accepted as refugees in Australia.

Following the election, new revelations began to emerge, including the falsehood of government claims that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard. Yet the rhetoric continues, as do the punitive policies. In the budget discussions there is high rhetoric about the necessary costs of 'border protection'. So it is worthwhile to evaluate Australia's refugee policy on factual, legal and ethical grounds.

Rhetorical language

Most commonly the asylum seekers are referred to as 'illegals' who have taken places of 'genuine refugees', and even of migrants who would otherwise be accepted for family reunion. They are said to have jumped a 'queue'. They are so numerous as to be an 'invasion' and a threat to 'security'. The disastrous ad hoc agreements with Pacific countries are described as a 'solution'. The crippling conditions of their sojourn in Australia are conferred under a 'protection' visa.

One could spend hours and days dissecting and correcting these falsehoods, half-truths and innuendos.(1) Little by little Australians are learning that it is legal to seek asylum; that overseas queues for these refugee applicants are a fiction; that Australia has undertaken to provide protection to those who seek asylum and is currently failing to do so; and that none of the boat people who reached Australia ever posed a real threat to our way of life. They learn that over 90 per cent of the Afghanis and Iraqis who seek asylum in Australia actually qualify, after strict examination, for refugee status.(2) Yet, even those found to be refugees are only granted a very conditional temporary visa, the 'Temporary Protection Visa', which leaves their lives in suspension. In reality then, they do not take a permanent place in Australia from anyone.

What refugee crisis?

History highlights periods in which there were far greater numbers of refugees than are found today. Immediately following the Second World War tens of millions of people were without homes, land or country. That crisis was met and dealt with in pragmatic yet humane ways. Indeed, Australia profited greatly from settling many refugees at that time. The international refugee regime was built from that experience. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is now 50 years old. The crisis today is not principally one of numbers. Today's crisis consists in this, that certain nation states do not carry their share of responsibilities to make the refugee regime work. The crisis today is that wealthy and prosperous states are unwilling to reach out to the refugees or to find solutions at the source of refugee flows. Moreover, the same states on which UNHCR relies to finance its humanitarian work are those very states that are eroding the protection principles on which its work is based.

In all, 143 States around the world have committed themselves to observe these provisions of international humanitarian law. In Asia and the Pacific, however, only China, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia have signed the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Rather than promoting these principles in our region, Australia has become outstanding by its disrespect for them.

Australia's Minister for Immigration has argued that the UNHCR Convention is outdated and that a new system is needed. The Convention, however, is not a magic formula that provides a solution to all problems. It is a set of principles that provide a working platform by which states can cooperate while sharing burdens and resolving humanitarian crises. With unbelievable short-sightedness, the Australian government has cut itself off from the search for cooperative approaches and has already spent an amount more than two thirds of the global annual budget of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on building 'fences'. These include coastal patrols by the defence forces, prisons for detaining asylum seekers both in Australia and in neighbouring Pacific countries, and aid packages to source countries to improve their surveillance of would-be refugees.

Global comparisons

We have been told by politicians of both major parties that Australia is one of the most generous countries in the number of refugees it takes, on a per capita basis. (3) But this claim is arrived at by comparing Australia with a handful of countries that decide ahead of time how many refugees they will resettle and submit this quota to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Australia appears third in that list, after the USA and Canada. We do not always fill this quota. By contrast, a researcher at the Australian National University, Thuy Do, has compiled statistical tables which reveal that Australia's contribution was less than average. (4) She found that in 2000 Australia ranked 32nd in the number of refugees it hosted, while on a per capita basis we ranked 39th. Armenia hosted 74 persons per thousand, Guinea 52 per thousand and Australia 3 per thousand. Among 31 industrialised countries, Australia ranked 8th. Sweden, Denmark and Germany topped the list. According to UNHCR statistics, of 29 industrialised countries that received asylum applications in the last three years, in 2001 Australia ranked 19th according to applicants per 1000 citizens - just behind Slovakia and just ahead of Bulgaria.(5)

Unregulated population movements in the Asian region

Australia has only recently awoken to the challenge of unregulated population movements worldwide. Through many centuries our neighbouring region was shaped by population movements. But in the last half century, while our Southeast Asian neighbours have been pre-occupied with nation-building, they have become more sensitive to the national security implications of refugee movements and migration. Receiving countries tend to regard immigrants as real or potential security threats, because of racial and religious differences and their capacity to import new conflicts or intensify local ethnic divisions. Others spring to the defence of the uprooted people, perceiving them as victims of an actual persecution, or of state policies, or of sheer poverty, and arguing that cross border migration is their only way to survive.

In recent decades, major movements of peoples have occurred that provide a context for what is happening now. After Deng Xiaoping's 1979 economic reforms, hundreds of thousands of Chinese were smuggled out to the West and to Asian destinations. After the Vietnam War there was a mass exodus of at least a million Vietnamese, many of whom were ultimately accepted for resettlement in third countries, but who transited through Southeast Asian host countries. Thailand hosts at least 700,000 Burmese refugees and unregistered migrant workers, along with at least the same number of Lao and Cambodians. Civil strife in the Moluccas and Aceh have resulted in the displacement of over one million Indonesians within their own country. At least half a million undocumented Indonesians work in plantations and as domestic servants in Malaysia, especially in Sarawak and Sabah. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese in Cambodia, mainly poor fisherman and street vendors, have never been registered. In Japan and Taiwan there are growing numbers of illegal migrants from the Philippines, the Middle East and even from Latin America. Singapore's economy relies heavily on foreign workers as domestic servants and on construction projects. Most come from China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Singapore, as a small island state, is proficient in controlling such movements. Malaysia allows free entry to nationals of Muslim countries, who can then travel easily by boat to Indonesia.

Undocumented labour migration is a huge phenomenon in Asia and far exceeds the numbers displaced by conflict. Uncontrolled labour migration has the potential to upset the social and ethnic balance of multicultural states, and create political tensions between sending and receiving states. Nonetheless it is also a tool of economic development and brings benefits to both sending and receiving countries.

Obviously labour migration and refugee flight are diverse phenomena. Providing labour, even illegal labour, can be a business. There are agents who assist workers to travel across borders. If they do this illegally they are called smugglers. When refugees find borders closed to them, they naturally approach these same agents to help them find a safe haven. A coherent argument can be made that when governments abandon just refugee determination procedures, they encourage asylum seekers to look for assistance from 'people smugglers'.

Ethical considerations

Some policies spontaneously strike us as barbaric or immoral, but it is useful to analyse precisely why they offend our moral sensibilities.

During the 2001 national election, and later when the budget costings of border control were revealed, the Australian public was told that these measures were necessary in order to preserve our precious way of life. We were told that asylum seekers threaten this way of life. This is of course an emotive argument, impossible to support by rational argumentation. In fact there is good evidence that migrants and refugees contribute to an economy. But let us analyse this lifestyle argument in a world context. Australians form part of the one-fifth of the world's population that controls and consumes four-fifths of the world's resources. We are now being told that this position has to be defended by barbaric laws that punish and deprive of liberty any person or family that seeks our assistance, no matter how great their need.

To the commonly heard complaint, 'We cannot look after all the troubles and hungers of the world', we must answer, 'We cannot refuse solidarity with the rest of the world'.

Every person has a right to emigrate. This is not only a right, it is a natural and fruitful experience throughout human history. This right is based on two truths. First, each person is first and foremost a human being, before being a member of a particular country and state. Second, the earth's resources are given for all. They are universal. For these reasons, the right to close a nation's borders is not an absolute right. A balance must be struck with the right to emigrate and the right to seek asylum. The balance is usually calculated according to needs and according to agreed conventions. The UN Refugee Convention has been agreed between states because of the seriousness of the needs of refugees.

Australia has adopted a policy of mandatory detention for all who arrive without authorisation. So far no other country has adopted this practice. Is it justified? Normally one would argue that freedom is too precious a commodity for a state to take from those who have committed no crime. If administrative detention is to be judged legitimate, arguments for its necessity must be persuasive. A government should be able to give satisfactory answers to questions such as these: Are there no other means that could achieve the desired goal? Does mandatory detention in fact achieve its goal? Are the financial and social costs justified in relation to the individual, society as a whole and the taxpayer?

The costs to the individual detainees have been well documented. Every professional medical and psychiatric association in Australia has now studied and condemned the practice of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Bishop Eugene Hurley, in whose Port Pirie Diocese the Woomera detention facility is located, spoke eloquently on this topic, claiming that any policy which harms individuals and separates families as the Australian detention policy has done, is therefore immoral.

The costs to society are perhaps more difficult to evaluate. What is clear is that to preserve a state of law in any society, fundamental human rights must be respected and observed. Any drift in the treatment of human beings compromises the quality of society as a whole. Australia has been found to be in breach of a number of international conventions relating to human rights. (6)

In the end, the costs to the taxpayer may prove to be more effective than the moral arguments in bringing about changes in Australia's asylum seeker policy. The Refugee Council of Australia estimates that over a billion dollars has been spent on implementing this misguided policy. Most other industrial countries release asylum seekers to the community, and there are abundant examples of best practice. (7) In general, release into the community will cost one tenth or less of the current cost of detention in Australia.(8)

We should not forget that while direct on-shore boat arrivals are relatively new for Australia, we are better equipped than most states to handle this situation. We should make it publicly known that arrival by sea is one of the ways refugees seek safety. This is one of the 'queues' available to them.

Certainly there is no call to appear strong by attacking the most vulnerable people on earth. Moreover, those who honour the Bible know that the strength of any society is apparent in the way it protects the weak. Australia was built by refugees and migrants. They are our history. They may for a time appear weak, but in the long term they are the strength of our nation.

For now it is appropriate to ask: Are the authorities pursuing a legitimate aim? Are the means they are using proportionate? Is what they are doing efficient? Are there other means to achieve the same end without the same costs to the fundamental rights of the persons concerned?

Conclusion

Control is one thing. Deterrence is another. A government can also show strength and control by the manner in which it extends hospitality. A strong-arm policy that is ostentatiously firm against unauthorised arrivals fosters a xenophobic attitude towards Australian nationals of foreign origin, and to other persons whose appearance gives rise to suspicion. As a multicultural society, Australia is particularly blessed not only in its richness of cultures but also in its ability to converse and trade with other countries and cultures. In a world of globalisation, we can ill afford to cut ourselves off from the world. Timely initiatives that result in better cooperation with other states to alleviate the sufferings of humanity will better serve Australia in its region and in the world.

For a host of reasons, the young Hazara man was right. Australia owes him, and its own citizens too, something better than deterrence and detention.

Compass - A Review of Topical Theology, Vol. 36 No. 1 (Autumn 2002).


(1) The Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education has prepared some useful analysis of these stereotypes in Debunking the Myths about Asylum Seekers, www.erc.org.au. See also:

Refugee Council of Australia, Fact Sheet 3: Refugees and Migrants, www.refugeecouncil.org.au and

The Truth Hurts, Facts and Stories about 'Boat People' and Asylum Seekers, Centre for Refugee Research, the University of New South Wales, 2001, see www.crr.unsw.edu.au.

(2) Mary Crock and Ben Saul, The Future Seekers, Federation Press, 2002, point out that 'unlike the earlier boat people from Cambodia and China, over 90 per cent of the arrivals since 1998 have gained recognition as refugees. In the year ending 30 June 1999, almost all of the Iraqi (97 per cent) and Afghan (92 per cent) arrivals were recognised as refugees.

(3) Mr. Howard stated that Australia will 'retain a generous approach' to refugee intake by continuing 'on a per capita basis to take more refugees than any country in the world except Canada'. See transcript of the Prime Minister, the Hon. John Howard MP, Superannuation and Savings Policy Launch, Sheraton Hotel, Brisbane, 5 November 2001, p.3, www.pm.gov.au/news/speeches/2001/speech1322.htm. See also Kim Beazley, National Press Club Address, November 7, 2001: 'We maintain a policy of generosity towards the entry of refugees into Australia. If you look at the UNHCR's list of those who are engaged in this process, I think we run second...'

(4) Refugees and the Myth of the Borderless World, edited by Christian Reus-Smit, Canberra, 2002, see http://rspas.anu.edu.au/ir/

(5) See www.unhcr.ch under Statistics.

(6) As highlighted by Chris Sidoti in Refugee policy: is there a way out of this mess?, Racial Respect Seminar, February 2002, Australia has breached international obligations to asylum seekers under article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which prohibit arbitrary detention; article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which require that detained persons be treated with humanity and respect for human dignity; article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which prohibits the detention of children except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognise the right to take legal proceedings to challenge detention; article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which prohibit all discrimination on the basis of status in the enjoyment of human rights; article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and article 18 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which protect the right of parents to found a family, the right of families to state care and support, and the right of children to the care of their parents; article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which requires the state to provide appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance to refugee and asylum seeker children, especially in relation to family reunion; articles 13 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognise children's right to education.

(7) See Detention Watch Network Newsletter, www.lirs.org

(8) See Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) 'Policy proposal for adjustments to Australia's asylum seekers process, 13 June 2001, para 3.8.1