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The Global Refugee Crisis and Australia's Response

Talk for the Official Opening of AUSTCARE Refugee Week 2002

Kings Park Function Centre, 5th October 2002

Given our topic, and the prevailing jingoism about national sovereignty, it is appropriate to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are standing. 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? We acknowledge, not only the Noongar people, 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.

At a recent public meeting at which I was speaking, one of the panelists, a Hazara youth, was asked by a person from the audience what he would say to Australian Prime Minister John Howard if he had that opportunity. 'Mr. Howard', said the young man without hesitation, 'you won the election last year because of us refugees. We helped you, now you owe us'. A young mother of two, also a refugee from Afghanistan, took the microphone to answer the same question. She 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 surely be astonished that their misfortunes could make or break the fortunes of a democratically elected government in a stable, prosperous country like Australia. Returning to Australia this last February after 20 some years serving refugees abroad, I too am quite surprised by Australia's refugee and asylum practice.

The contemporary politics and rhetoric about asylum seekers go to the heart of Australian values. Look at the sympathetic reporting of the victims of drought today, and remember the bushfires in the Eastern States last summer. Contrast how politicians and the media speak about the bushfire or drought victims, with the way they speak of the people arriving at our shores seeking asylum. The response to families affected by the fires reflects the best in the Australian community. All feel one with them, and stand with them in spirit. We ask ourselves what we can do to help. Yet in the case of the refugees and asylum seekers, how can we meet them as individuals? They are known only as stereotypes. Fears are evoked, not allayed. There is not full disclosure of the facts, nor of the personal stories which could evoke our deeper understanding. The political face is obdurate, and our leaders play upon fears. This hardness of heart creates a sense of hopelessness.

This week Austcare, as expert in refugees, matches its knowledge and experience of refugees abroad with the challenge faced by Australia today. 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. Austcare helps us to put into practice that useful maxim: "Think globally, act locally".

The new refugee crisis is this, that the international set of agreements designed to offer protection to refugees, is now at the time it is most needed, being dismantled piece by piece by the very States that signed it into force. The new refugee crisis for Australia is that our government, which helped to draft the Refugee Convention 50 years ago, and which the government of Bob Menzies signed in 1954, is working so hard, against the interests of refugees, and against the efforts of those many States that are seeking to find considered, compassionate, collaborative solutions.

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". The formula worked. The boat people no longer come to Australia. At tremendous pecuniary and human cost it worked for border protection. Yet it is 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.

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?

There is. 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 than Australia.

This week, thanks to the energy of the many Austcare co-workers, the people of Western Australia will have opportunities to learn more of the facts about refugees and asylum seekers.

We will learn not just the numbers, of the 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world or of the causes, of poverty, conflict, intolerance and oppression.

We will learn:

That boat people are not queue jumpers;

That it is not illegal to seek asylum;

That Australia has relatively few people seeking asylum here (we are not in fact at risk of being swamped) and that we take very few refugees;

That 82% of Afghan and Iraqis who have come to Australia over the last 3 years have gained refugee status at the primary decision making stage, and that a total of near 95% have been given it after reviews by RRT;

That asylum seekers are not 'rich or cashed up';

That there are workable, efficient, cost-effective and human alternatives to mandatory, unreviewable detention;

That after screening by Australian security forces, not one asylum seeker had been found to be a security risk;

That Australia is not a soft touch;

That asylum seekers are not ungrateful and do not behave badly;

That detention centres are not better than the conditions they have left behind;

That sending boat people to Pacific countries is no solution at all;

That it is not easier to get refugee status in Australia than in other countries;

That the United Nations is just not a group of bureaucrats sitting in Geneva, but an international forum for collaboration for peace which Australia has helped to build...


The only antidote to falsehood is the truth. This week Austcare will help us to salvage the values of our country by seeking the truth. What a falsehood it is to see persons from other countries simply as rivals to your welfare or as potential criminals or as aggressors, simply because they are different. The sum of mediocrities will never lead to excellence, but the sum of values will lead to a better Australian society and to a better world.

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. Criminal syndicates are willing to cash in on the market for assisted passage. As states become more rigid on border control they drive desperate people into the hands of smugglers. 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.

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. In this way it is arguing that the end justifies the means. This argument is the antithesis of morality.

Moreover, our government chooses to send its message to the world through punishment of innocent people and through denial of human rights. Is it in our national interest to send out such a message about Australia?

Seek leadership from our politicians. Napoleon III is reputed to have said: "I will follow where my people go, because I am their leader". Is it leadership to govern simply by polls, creating a fear by untruths and then appearing to respond to that fear?

Over the past 25 years I have had the privilege to live and work in many countries, such as 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.

Mark Raper SJ

5 October 2002