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Refugees Near and Far

Public Forum during Austcare Refugee Week

Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia

Sunday 13th October 2002

Talk by Mark Raper SJ

As we begin this public gathering, please acknowledge and give thanks to the traditional owners of this land, who for over 200 years, have welcomed new settlers, often at great cost to themselves. Does it seem ridiculous to you to protest so much our right to border protection, when our own right to be here in the first place is not yet resolved?

During the September 2000 Olympics you must have listened to the Australian Anthem many times. Returning to Australia early this year I heard, as if for the first time, its second verse:

"...For those who've come across the sea

we've boundless plains to share.

With courage let us all combine to

Advance Australia fair..."

Should we now, following our new border protection policy, take those words out from our national anthem? Or should we instead remain committed to an Australian society that welcomes the stranger as we and our parents and grandparents were welcomed here?

We had been making progress, I had thought. There was a slow movement towards reconciliation with the indigenous people, White Australia had been put to death, and engagement with Asia - where we now have 75% of our exports - had developed. A succession of Prime Ministers - Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating - had brought us out of parochialism. Yet now, for electoral advantage, we see a turn back: relations with Asia downplayed, reconciliation stalled and barriers erected in the name of border protection. A year ago the "Tampa solution" was proclaimed. While it has worked for border protection, this formula has been disastrous for our national interest, for our role as a global citizen, and for our cohesion as a multicultural society. The "Tampa solution" of interdiction on the high seas, removal of large numbers of people to mendicant Pacific states and go-it-alone approach to international cooperation and international instruments, has been ad-hoc, shoddy, temporary and hideously expensive, both in human and in pecuniary terms. In September, 13 months since the last boat landed in Australia, there were still 90 children in detention in Australia and more than 200 children on Manus and Nauru. It has been no solution.

Refugees demonstrate the worst in human society, and the best: the willingness to oppress others and the willingness to assist. The suffering of refugees is a 'shameful wound of our time', "a wound which typifies and reveals the imbalance and conflicts of the modern world", said John Paul II (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987, # 24). 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.

While most Australians do empathise with refugees in their camps abroad, many appear to find it difficult to extend this sympathy to the refugees who reach our shores. There is a strange national schizophrenia. Should those same objects of our pity and concern dare to crawl under the fence of their miserable camps and attempt to seek safety here, they are treated, as Ruud Lubbers (the current High Commissioner for Refugees) remarked, like a "modern version of the plague rat". This week, Austcare, Australia's expert refugee agency, invites us to overcome the dissonance between our views of refugees abroad at how we treat them here at home.

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.

Australia, because of its remoteness, its island character and natural boundaries, is arguably - except perhaps for New Zealand - the most protected against the contemporary mass forced displacement of people. Yet the experience of recent decades has shown us that even here, in addition to our planned humanitarian program, we are likely to continue to receive people landing directly by boat or by plane to seek safety. Since no boats have arrived for a year, now is the time to tone down the rhetoric and to seek to get the formula right.

The government of Malcolm Fraser got it right, I believe, when in the eighties it managed the direct arrival of 4,000 boat people with firmness and fairness. At that same time, Australia gave a lead in setting up a system for international collaboration to resolve the crisis created by the out-flow of half a million Vietnamese boat people through the Southeast Asia region. Last year, the government of John Howard got it wrong, I believe, mismanaging the latest boat arrivals with cunning and brutality. And at this same time the government has been cutting back its efforts at international collaboration, cutting in half our contribution to UNHCR, for example, and reneging on our observance of the instruments of international law.

Curiously this government cares much less for the plane arrivals than for the boat arrivals. Seven tenths of those who seek asylum in Australia come by plane and overstay unlawfully. Only 20% of these applicants are recognised as refugees, while of the boat-people, who represent only a small faction of the people unlawfully in Australia, over 90% are determined to be refugees. (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.) Yet they are granted only the Temporary Protection Visa whose conditions are punishing and contrary to our agreements under the UN Refugees Convention.

You have all, I am sure had the disturbing experience of suddenly finding yourself in a heated argument on this topic, even with people to whom you are close. All of a sudden you are arguing that these young Afghan men are not in fact rich, they did not in fact jump queues, and they are not really taking places from more needy refugees. It depresses you, not just because the facts are evident for anyone who wants to dig a bit, but because of the gulf in values that seems to be opening between you and those whom normally you respect.

We could spend hours and days dissecting and correcting these falsehoods, half-truths and innuendos. (1) But little by little more 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 or to our security.

Australians are learning that the disastrous agreements with Pacific states are in no way a 'solution'. We learn to our dismay that our navy fires artillery and machine gun fire across the bows of leaking boats carrying women and children. We learn that asylum seekers do not come here seeking a 'migration outcome', in fact few of them had ever heard of Australia when they made their decision to escape the terror at home.

These guests of ours are not kept in luxurious motel like conditions. All responsible observers of Woomera, including the government's own Immigration Detention Advisory Group, have recommended its closure. The United Nations specialist committee on detention has condemned the centres after a fact-finding mission. The Human Rights Commissioner, Sev Ozdowski, describing his visits to Woomera, told the joint Human Rights Sub-Committee he believed a three-month period was "as much as people can take" in detention. "... 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."

We also learn with relief that there are alternatives, in fact many countries that receive vastly more asylum seekers than Australia, have asylum systems that do not require incarceration, but that it is more effective, and about a tenth of the cost, for these people to live in the community while their status is being determined. Community release programs are a viable, cheaper and more humane alternative to detention. The other industrial countries show, by the ways they deal with the new arrivals, that humanity and justice need not be eliminated from a screening process that is efficient and firm.

The United Nations Convention is not designed to eliminate borders. The agreement's fundamental purpose is to both protect refugees and to protect States from an unmanageable and unpredictable mass movement of refugees. A good asylum policy balances respect for State sovereignty with its basic purpose, the protection of people who cannot find it in their own home country, because their country is unable or unwilling to give that protection. A good asylum policy does not simply let everyone in. It determines, as our officials are well qualified to do, and speedily, who has a need for protection and who would be safe back in their own country.

During the Federal Budget the cost of border control was revealed. The cost of border protection was increased by $1.2 billion to $2.8 billion. The Australian public was told that these expensive 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 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.

Conclusions

How can Australia better respond to the world refugee crisis as a good global citizen?

  1. Our obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention should be respected, not constantly evaded or disregarded. Those asylum seekers who are recognised as refugees should have permanent residence, the right to be re-united with their close family members, to get on with their lives, and to contribute to the community. Policies that are punitive and designed to send a deterrent message to potential asylum seekers should be abandoned.
  2. The most effective way to reduce the numbers of undocumented arrivals to Australia is to improve the international system of protection for refugees. Australia should work towards multilateral rather than unilateral solutions to the refugee crises and to the problems of people smuggling, in close cooperation with our regional neighbours, as we did with great success during the Vietnamese exodus.
  3. Our approach should be forward looking: anticipating an even more globalised world of the years to come. In order to attract immigrants, Australia will need to resume our former progress towards a genuinely multi-racial society. We will need to cease the demonising, scapegoating and negative rhetoric about asylum seekers and refugees.
  4. In the coming months the deportation of TPV holders, whose three year period of stay has expired, will become a hot issue. The numbers are not at all large, so a humanitarian rather than legalistic stance is possible.
  5. In order to change attitudes, positive experiences need to be documented and the stories told: the success of Australian communities; the harmonious way in which Muslim communities have integrated; the welcome zones, employment and resettlement opportunities being eagerly offered in regional and country areas around the country.

The community has paid an exorbitant moral price for the political gains of this government. Shoddy, unfair, costly refugee policies have been put in place at the expense of other national values that we cherish. Do we have to wait years for truth to triumph and for the principled way to be seen as the pragmatic way? We can build the Australia of the for the 21st Century through policies which express the values of a common humanity and which speak the language of generosity contained in our national anthem:

"...For those who've come across the sea

we've boundless plains to share.

With courage let us all combine to

Advance Australia fair..."


 

(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.