"The Global Refugee Crisis: Australia's Response"
The Catherine McAuley Oration
MercyCare, Western Australia at the Parmelia Hilton, Perth 17th
Mark Raper SJ
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
It is customary at public functions to acknowledge the traditional
owners of the land on which we are standing. Given the topic of
tonight's talk, and the prevailing jingoism about national sovereignty,
it is specially appropriate. Is it not ridiculous to claim we have
a right to protect our borders when there is not yet a resolution
of our right to be here in the first place. So tonight I acknowledge,
not only the Noongar people, said to be the traditional owners of
this place, but also the indigenous peoples across this continent
who, over the past two hundred and more years, have welcomed to
their lands new waves of immigrants, often at such considerable
cost to themselves.
May I also acknowledge Catherine McAuley and her followers, the
Mercy Sisters. During the 1850s McAuley's nursing sisters served
in hospitals in the blood-sodden Crimean peninsular. Florence Nightingale
was there too: English, and a lady (important in Victorian eyes),
and she became a legend. But Nightingale became famous because of
the methods she had copied from this hard working band of Irish
nuns. Our principal debt is to those Irish women who by their careful
and faithful practice, pioneered and then institutionalised the
basic ground rules and concepts of modern nursing.
I have a personal debt of gratitude to Australian Mercy Sisters
who have served with Jesuit Refugee Service since it began in 1980.
In refugee camps across the world they are pioneering that same
approach of expertise, common sense, human understanding, and tradition
of Mercy that you now seek to institutionalise in this new lay Catholic
Tonight I intend to respond to these questions:
Why are there refugees today?, and
What can Australia, and we Australians, do or do better to assist
them and to protect their rights? In other words:
What are the elements for a fair, cost-effective and workable asylum
policy that will truly serve Australia's national interest?
Australian society has changed a lot in the 20 years that I have
spent abroad serving refugees. It will be presumptuous of me to
spell out for you the consequences of these social changes, since
MercyCare is in daily contact with many who are hurt by them. Nonetheless,
for a returning expatriate, certain features stand out in sharp
relief. Over recent years things appear to have been going well
for a majority of Australians. With economic growth steady at around
4% per annum, there have been constant promises of a higher quality
of life, of more café latte and endless wine tastings in
our burgeoning boutique vineyards. But economic globalisation has
also meant that Australia, along with most industrialised societies,
has been significantly restructured, leading to perceptions of social
breakdown. Urban centres may have benefited, but rural and regional
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 has grown for minor parties, in a focused way for
the Right, but in a more substantial yet fragmented way for those
to the Left.
Social change generates uncertainty. The arrival of new peoples
also changes society, particularly if they have different appearances,
different cultural ways, and different religions. In such situations
governments have two options: either they can show real leadership,
and manage the pace and effects of change, or on the other hand
they can blame an external threat, or blame the victims, and appeal
to fear. Regarding asylum policy, our government has constantly
and misleadingly portrayed itself as the protector of a generous
nation besieged by asylum seekers arriving with criminal intent.
Meanwhile the Labor Party, even now, has all but nothing of substance
or principle to say on the matter.
The contemporary politics and rhetoric about asylum seekers go
to the heart of Australian values. Following the bushfires in the
Eastern States last summer, Bryan Dunn of Centacare Newcastle/Maitland,
one of MercyCare's sister organisations, contrasted how politicians
and the media spoke about the bushfire victims, with the way they
speak of the people arriving at our shores seeking asylum. (1)
The response to families affected by the fires, he says, reflects
the best in the Australian community, where all feel one with them,
"and stand with them in spirit; we ask what we can do to help".
Yet in the case of the refugees and asylum seekers,
...we do not meet these people as individuals...They are
spoken about stereotypically. Our fears are evoked, not allayed...
Our politicians carefully crafted information about the centre
riots without reference to underlying causes, an approach reflected
in the media. Where is full disclosure of the facts, the personal
stories which could evoke our deeper understanding? The political
face is obdurate, and our leaders play upon our fears. A sense
of hopelessness can pervade those who are concerned in the community
because of the hardness of heart displayed.
A refugee story
May I tell you about one refugee whom I met in my time abroad.
The story has no happy outcome, indeed far from it. But it may help
you understand why I feel the way I do about what I now see in Australia.
Gabriel, a six-foot-six Dinka, had arrived in Thailand after a
journey that rivalled Marco Polo's. Travelling by foot to escape
the fighting which had begun in 1983 in his home in Southern Sudan,
he had crossed into Egypt and on to Iran to study, but instead was
drafted to be a porter in the Iran-Iraq war. Escaping, he failed
to get passage westwards to Europe and so, heading east towards
Australia, was stopped in Singapore and diverted to Thailand. There
I found him, culturally disoriented, alone and desperate. He visited
me frequently, and with an officer from the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we searched everywhere for a
country to take him. Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Sweden,
none would even interview him. Finally he was offered three choices,
a trip home to the Sudan, or Kenya, or Liberia. In desperation he
accepted Liberia and departed in 1988. Several times he wrote to
me, his words dictated to a Scottish Salesian priest. A few years
later I was in my new position in Rome. Disturbed by the suffering
of the Liberian people, I went in 1991 to war-ravaged Monrovia to
see what could be done. While there I hunted for Gabriel. Visiting
the Salesians, I asked if they had known him. Sure enough, they
pointed me to a Scot, the one who had written Gabriel's letters.
He told me how Gabriel had died, mistaken for a Mandingo, waving
his long arms and showing his refugee card, trying to explain to
a drugged, over-armed Krahn follower of Charles Taylor, that he
was 'under the protection' of the United Nations. I wept for Gabriel
and the many victims of that senseless never ending war.
Perhaps there is no moral to draw from the story of Gabriel who
had traversed, mostly on foot, the geography of our world of conflict
and refugees: escaping the Sudan war he was caught in a middle Eastern
one, blocked when trying asylum routes west, east, south and north,
caught in the eddy of the Indochinese refugee tide, finally a target
in someone else's war. But try to imagine this. If all of the 143
countries which have signed the Refugee Convention were to follow
Australia's policy example, there would be nowhere in the world
for a refugee to go. Either those countries would send an official
in to where refugees suffer persecution, and open an office there
for people to stand in queue for the years it takes to process their
requests, or those victims have the choice of fleeing their persecution
and entering mandatory, unreviewable detention for a year or more.
The global refugee situation
Refugees are not new. For as long as intolerance and oppression
have been part of human history, there have been refugees. And there
will continue to be refugees as long as conflicts continue. In this
era of globalisation, it is ironic that although most wars are internal,
the forces of globalisation make refugees too a global matter. The
modern means of transportation and communication, as well as the
dramatic flows of capital and the shifting needs for labour forces,
all tend to globalise the refugee problem.
During the Cold War refugees were trophies. Now they are threats
to security. Rather than searching for ways to protect the rights
of asylum seekers, many States try by all means either to ignore
or to block them, introducing harsh legislation to protect States
against refugees and migrants. The new refugee crisis is this, that
the international set of agreements designed to offer protection
to refugees 50 years ago and consolidated only in recent decades,
is now at the time it is most needed, being dismantled piece by
piece by the very States that signed it into force. We have come
together tonight to try to understand this phenomenon, and to ask
why Australia, which helped to draft the Refugee Convention 50 years
ago which the government of Bob Menzies signed in 1954, is working
so hard, against the interests of refugees, and against the efforts
of many states, to find considered, compassionate, collaborative
Who are the refugees
Every continent and every region of the world is affected by forced
displacement of people. Over the past 20 years almost every country
in Africa, for example, has either produced or received refugees.
Generations of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have known
no other life than a refugee camp. Denied education, children lose
their hope in the future. Adults lose their roles, their skills
and their dignity. Communities become dependent and cultures are
atrophied. Lost generations linger in legal, social and political
limbo, often ignored by the international community. When not ignored,
the lives of refugees risk distortion in the media.
Refugees demonstrate the worst in human society, and the best:
the willingness to oppress others and the willingness to assist.
Refugees are drenched in human value. Only a society without values
will ignore refugees. It is in our national interest that Australia
treats refugees justly.
Why do they leave home?
In classic migration theory, three sets of factors influence human
movement: Push, Pull and Networks. Multiple
factors are at play when a person chooses to leave home. Studies
have revealed that the top ten reasons for asylum seekers coming
to Australia are 'push' factors.(2)
The principle imbalance in today's world is in the uneven distribution
of the world's resources. The contest for control of these resources
is a root cause of the conflicts that lead to forced displacement
of people today. Among 'push' factors then, obviously we
list conflict, as well as persecution or human rights abuse, and
loss of freedom. The weakening of the nation state contributes,
for example, when there is a breakdown of law and order, or collapse
of the local economy, or inadequate local services and porous frontiers.
Sheer poverty accentuates the crisis created by conflict. If people
are living close to the line, then it takes little extra push to
make them leave, no matter how profound and spiritual may be their
attachment to home and land and to the spirits of their ancestors.
As populations become more dense, environmental disasters such as
droughts, floods and earthquakes, also create massive displacements
of people. Another "push" factor is that, as economies
deteriorate, minority groups frequently become scapegoats and again
they move in order to escape victimisation.
'Pull' factors are reasonably obvious: family ties, the
decisions of community, ethnic or political leaders to move as a
group, the desire for education for oneself or one's children, the
future of the children in general, the likelihood of getting employment.
Sometimes the decision to leave is motivated by a long nurtured,
even erroneous dream, that "the streets of California are paved
with gold", and that it is worth sacrificing everything to
The basic networks are ethnic and family ties. So Kurdish
people leave home by the thousands to reach Germany where already
2 million Turkish people live, among whom is a sizeable Kurdish
population. Travel is often facilitated by other networks: organizations
of traffickers and smugglers. The distinction between traffickers
and smugglers is this, that traffickers exploit their victims, often
holding them and their families in bondage for years until a debt
is paid. Smugglers on the other hand provide a service, admittedly
an illegal one, but they are often the only agent who can provide
a refugee with a passage out of an even more dangerous situation.
Australia's asylum policy
We Australians see ourselves as a part of the global economy, we
favour a fair go for all, and we have one of the most successful
multicultural societies. 24% of Australians are foreign born. Still
tens of thousands of new settlers are welcomed here each year from
a host of countries and cultures, and a constant stream of Australians,
around 40,000, depart to live and work abroad. All the more surprising
then are the Australian fears at the arrival of a few thousand foreigners
seeking safety. Those who made the most difficult journeys to seek
safety here are greeted with compulsory and prolonged incarceration.
And foreign people in our communities are submitted to punishing
visa conditions that in the end diminish us all.
In this year's Federal Budget 2.8 billion Australian dollars was
allocated for 'Border Protection', an increase of $1.2 billion this
year, while the untied Australian government contribution to UNHCR
was cut from $14.3 million to $7.3 million. $2.8 billion is about
one and a half times the total annual global budget of UNHCR. And
the Australian untied contribution to UNHCR of $7.3 million is around
a quarter of the annual profit that the US company ACM makes for
managing the Australian detention facilities.
Is there not a better way?
A good asylum system must do two things. First, it must give protection
to those who leave their home because they fear persecution. Second,
it must preserve the integrity of the State which welcomes these
foreigners at risk. The asylum system holds in balance the State's
international cooperation and its sovereignty over its own territory.
Border control has to be reconciled with the asylum system's basic
purpose which is human rights protection.
Of all modern states, Australia, because of its island character,
remoteness, and natural boundaries, is arguably one of the least
threatened by the contemporary mass forced displacement of people.
But one year ago, Australia proclaimed the "Tampa solution". It
is a formula which worked. The boat people no longer come to Australia.
But while at tremendous pecuniary and human cost it worked for border
protection, it is nonetheless indecent for the protection of asylum
seekers. It puts the cart before the horse, in fact it is now a
cart that has no horse. It is unjust, inefficient, costly, and shoddy.
Instead of balancing the protection of refugees and border control,
the slogan has become exclusively "border protection".
The rights and needs of asylum seekers are thrown overboard.
Across its asylum policy, border control has been the determining
concern of government to the exclusion of protection. This includes
the costly, ad hoc arrangements with the Pacific countries (which
are anyhow to be abandoned, as inhumane, a diplomatic failure, and
an egregious waste of public money); the attempt to diminish the
territorial zone within which our international obligations apply
(which anyhow is morally meaningless, since our obligations under
the Refugee Convention, to provide protection to individuals who
arrive, continue to apply wherever Australia exercises jurisdiction);
the practice of interdiction at sea and forced removal of boats
from Australian waters (also being revealed as having tragic consequences);
the aid packages given to Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia; and the
punitive nature of the so-called Temporary Protection Visas which
are ultimately and grudgingly granted to refugees who have succeeded
in jumping through all the hoops.
These measures waste the honour of Australia's defence forces,
the esteem of its neighbours, the trust of its citizens, and billions
of dollars of its taxpayers' currency. They also abuse the integrity
and professional competence of our immigration officials who have
a high reputation abroad.
It is legal to seek asylum
An asylum seeker has rights. It is misleading to call them 'illegal'.
Listen to the formal judgement of Justice Merkel in the Federal
Court on August 15th this year in the case of a Palestinian,
Al Masri. (3)
61. The Refugees Convention is a part of conventional international
law that has been given legislative effect in Australia: see ss 36
and 65 of the
Act. It has always been fundamental to the operation of the
Refugees Convention that many applicants for refugee status will,
of necessity, have left their countries of nationality unlawfully
and therefore, of necessity, will have entered the country in which
they seek asylum unlawfully. Jews seeking refuge from war-torn Europe,
Tutsis seeking refuge from Rwanda, Kurds seeking refuge from Iraq,
Hazaras seeking refuge from the Taliban in Afghanistan and many
others, may also be called "unlawful non-citizens" in the countries
in which they seek asylum. Such a description, however, conceals,
rather than reveals, their lawful entitlement under conventional
international law since the early 1950's (which has been enacted
into Australian law) to claim refugee status as persons who are
"unlawfully" in the country in which the asylum application is made.
Actually when that Al Masri decision was given last month, the
government immediately appealed. It lost the appeal of course, whereupon
Mr. Akram Al Masri was marched to the gate of Woomera, there on
the edge of the desert, and simply released. But several weeks earlier,
the government was ready to charter a small plane to take the Bhaktiari
boys to Woomera so that they would not be able to meet their father
who had travelled overnight to see them. And we are to believe that
the government's detention policies are not punitive and not for
All responsible observers of Woomera including the government's
own Immigration Detention Advisory Group have recommended its closure.
You may have read the statements by the Human Rights Commissioner,
Sev Ozdowski a few weeks ago, describing his visits to Woomera.
Dr Ozdowski told the joint Human Rights Sub-Committee he believed
a three-month period was "as much as people can take" in detention.
"But when I interviewed people after four months in detention,
almost every second one of them cried," he said. "Conditions are
not that crucial if [detention is] for a reasonable period of time.
When it goes longer it's a totally different ball game."
Dr Ozdowski said if Australia continued with its current detention
policy, an independent inspector should be appointed to investigate
Mr. Ruddock claims that his department has been working with the
State governments to ensure that the best interests of children
in detention centres are being met. However, on the 9th
August, Premier Rann has revealed that the children in Woomera have
been kept from ready access by the Department of Human Services,
and that if these children would be under State care under those
conditions, then the State would be in breach of the law.
Alternatives to detention
There are many alternatives to detention centres. Most countries
can do the initial screening for health and security within 7 to
30 days. Then asylum seekers can be released into the community
on bail or kept in open reception centres. This is how it is done
in most other countries which receive vastly more asylum seekers
Most Afghans and Iraqis are refugees
An examination of the statistics of applications for asylum by
Afghans and Iraqis reveals that anyhow, under the strictest examination,
most do in fact qualify for refugee status. The Department itself
has pointed out that 82% of all Afghan and Iraqi applicants are
found to be refugees by the primary decision makers (7,330 out of
8,965 applicants over the last three years).
Nonetheless even when they did reject any Afghan or Iraqi claim,
these same primary decision makers very often get it wrong. During
this last financial year (1 July 2001 - 30 June 2002), the Refugee
Review Tribunal (RRT) set aside (that is overturned) 62% of all
Afghan decisions appealed and 87% of all Iraqi decisions appealed.
So in total almost 95% of the Afghans and Iraqis who reached Australia
over the last three years have been found to be refugees! Meanwhile
the RRT set aside only 7.9% of decisions appealed by members of
other ethnic groups. Moreover in the last financial year, the RRT
finalised 855 detention cases of which 377 were set aside. This
is a 44% set aside rate in detention cases.
The Temporary Protection Visa
When you can meet someone on a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV)
you begin to understand its human costs. This conditional and controlling
visa, granted to those who are finally accepted as refugees, is
intended as a deterrent to unauthorised arrival. The logic of using
punishment as a deterrent is that in order to make the deterrent
work better, the punishment is made more harsh. So we have men living
in our community who are told they may stay but if so they will
never again see their wives and children, there are women who do
not get medical treatment for serious illnesses, there are children
who are kept from school because of their parents cannot work to
meet the expense. The TPV conditions trap its holder into poverty
and dependence, since he or she may not ever receive a permanent
It is worth noting the Labor Party's policy differs from the government
on this one point of the conditions of the temporary protection
visa. It would accord a TPV holder with the same rights as other
residents, although Labor's policy does not yet allowed for family
reunion, an essential element of the UNHCR Convention (article 28)
to which Australia is a signatory.
All first world countries are searching for a contemporary refugee
policy which is workable, decent, affordable and efficient. By December
2002, EU interior ministers must adopt proposals from the European
Commission revising the Dublin Convention. The Dublin Convention
broadly stipulates that the state where an asylum seeker first sets
foot on EU soil is responsible for handling any asylum application.
By June 2003, they must agree a definition of people in need of
protection, including who is a refugee. By the end of 2003, they
must set minimum standards for asylum procedures.
The Australian solution of high sea interdiction, excision of migration
zones, Pacific solution, mandatory detention, restrictive visas
and punitive, populist policy is becoming attractive to other first
world countries, especially those with center right governments
eager for an electoral advantage. Its deficiencies must be highlighted
and a more decent and more workable model proposed.
Australia may be the end of the earth, but it is no longer inaccessible.
Unauthorised movement from the third world to the first world, from
insecurity to security, from persecution to protection is to be
expected. Entrepreneurs, including criminal syndicates, are willing
to cash in on the market for assisted passage. Australia can and
should engage constructively and collaboratively at the root source
of the conflicts that create refugees, it should cooperate in a
more multilateral way with other States in easing the burdens of
refugees in flight and of the countries that host them.
Mr. Ruddock has stated the government's objective: "to resettle
some 12,000 persons each year who are in greatest need and to prioritise
those who are in need of assistance - those who are at risk if they
remain where they are and have no other means of escape other than
resettlement to a third country." (5) We can approve
of that objective. Yet some of those persons in greatest need have
come to Australia by boat without a visa and we have treated them
appallingly. There is no reason why the government objective cannot
be achieved together with the objective of treating asylum seekers
within our territory firmly but decently. It should be seen simply
as a management challenge.
The goal of current Australian asylum policy appears to be that
no unvisa-ed person will land in Australia, or if they do, will
want to stay. In order to achieve this goal, the judiciary is silenced,
liberty is taken from innocent persons and excessive amounts of
public money is wasted. The government argues that the correctness
of such a goal justifies these measures. Is it in our national interest
that our government should send a message to the world about Australia
through punishment of innocent people and the denial of human rights?
In this way it is arguing that the end justifies the means. This
argument is the antithesis of morality. This is the crassest form
I have worked in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Colombia...in humanitarian
disasters that were created by generations of malice and misfortune
and will take generations to undo. The barbarities towards asylum
seekers we now witness in our society were created, and can be undone,
by common sense planning and management by the Department of Immigration,
by a straightforward motion in Parliament, and by appealing to the
sense of fairness of Australian people.
Certainly there is no call to appear strong by attacking the most
vulnerable people on earth. Moreover, the strength of any society
is apparent in the way it protects the weak. It is precisely the
vulnerable who make the world safe for humanity. Australia was built
by refugees and migrants. They are our history and they are the
strength of our nation.
(1) "Clear cut parallels clouded by fear and
racism", in Catholic Welfare Australia NEWS, Volume 2 Issue
1, February 2002, p. 6
(2) Kerry Murphy, "Refugees in Australia:
Unwanted Strangers?" Jesuit Refugee Service Australia,
Occasional Paper No 3, September 2002.
(3) FEDERAL COURT OF AUSTRALIA in the case of Al
Masri v Minister for Immigration & Multicultural & Indigenous
Affairs  FCA 1009, August 15, 2002.
(4) TPV holders may work, but are denied access
to crucial services such as English lessons, and assistance to find
work and housing. Medical assistance is limited. The most punitive
provision is that the TPV holder will may never be re-united with
family members abroad, even with wife and children. A TPV holder
is denied the right to travel out of and then return to Australia.
Family reunion and travel are two rights specifically affirmed in
the UN Convention.
(5) P. Ruddock, Second reading Speech, Migration
Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill
2002, 1 July 2002
Mark Raper SJ