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,
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
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
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
That it is not easier to get refugee status in Australia than in
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
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
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
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