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Refugees: Lost People Living in Hope

Austcare Refugee Week 2002

Talk given at Shenton Park Community Centre

Why am I the one...?

Sometimes I ask myself; why am I the one who can only dream to have peace,

freedom, happiness and whose home is destroyed even if I didn't want it... Why am I the one who instead of Prince and Madonna must listen to the sounds of bombs and grenades and the one who on the street must take care not to be a sniper's target. Why am I the one who has to queue in the street for a tin and the one whose bed is a thin blanket on a cold floor? Why am I the one who gets always the same answer: "You are not the only one, a day will come, when peace will reign and when people will be together just as they used to be."

Majana Burazovic, 12 years old, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1995

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.

Seamus Heaney

The pain and peril which refugees and forcibly displaced people endure present one of the most poignant challenges to humanity today. All the world's religious leaders speak of this. John Paul II did not overstate the matter when he claimed: "Of all the human tragedies of our day, perhaps the greatest is that of the refugees..." (1) He called the suffering of refugees a 'shameful wound of our time', and again, "a wound which typifies and reveals the imbalance and conflicts of the modern world". (2)

Three dissonances: views of refugees abroad and those at home

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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees) remarked, like a "modern-day 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.

A refugee story

May I tell you about one refugee whom I met during the years I lived and worked 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.

A second dissonance - principle and pragmatism

My own direct involvement in the humanitarian field began in September and October 1975 in East Timor, before the invasion by Indonesia. Many Australians have learned important lessons from the Timorese people. We were a delegation of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, sent to assess humanitarian needs following the August 1975 civil disturbances consequent on the abrupt Portuguese withdrawal from their colony. That October the Australian journalists, Greg Shackleton and others, were killed at Balibo.

Portugal had given little attention to prepare the political future of remote East Timor. After all there was not the activism of its other colonies, Mozambique, Angola or Guinea-Bissau, nor the strategic location of Macau. But for Indonesia, a nation then barely 25 years old, whose obsession was stability, East Timor was an anomalous enclave squarely within its archipelago. It lay adjacent to a strategic strait, was an important coffee producer, and explorations for oil beneath its soil and shores were promising. Timor's other neighbour Australia resolved, apparently with US blessing, to let Indonesia quietly absorb the territory. A cable from the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta, sent in late 1975 said

[Australia's] policies should be based on disengaging ourselves as far as possible from the Timor question; getting Australians presently there out of Timor; leave events to take their course and if and when Indonesia does intervene, act in a way which would be designed to minimize the public impact in Australia and show privately understanding to Indonesia of their problems ... I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about.

This cable became infamous here in Australia. Even though later withdrawn from publication by court order, it became a symbol of one of the most unpopular, unprincipled and impractical foreign policy positions that our government has taken in recent decades. Only the totally unexpected decision of the temporary President of Indonesia to call for a plebiscite rescued Australia, 24 years later, from its mistaken pragmatism, and gave Timorese their first opportunity ever, other than by militant or passive resistance, to make their own choice.

Politics should be pragmatic. Politics is after all the 'art of the possible'. Yet pragmatism alone makes for poor governance. While for some politicians these concepts are antonyms, principle and pragmatism need not, and in fact should not, exclude one another. There should be no dissonance between them.

In its policies towards those who reach our shores by boat and who seek our protection, I believe that Australia has fallen once again into this false dichotomy between principle and pragmatism. Will we have to stick at it for 24 years of protest until truth and reason triumph? Possibly. But be sure of this, truth will triumph in the end. Consider this, the Commander-in-Chief of Australia's defence forces, himself a hero of the Vietnam War, has now 30 years later, acknowledged publicly that the Vietnam War was a mistake. His remarks were greeted with little fuss and accepted as common knowledge.

Clearly I approach asylum policy from a point of view: my experience of refugees abroad. For many people, politicians among them, the starting point is community attitudes. A change is not politically feasible, they argue, because of the resistance of the community. There we go again, it is principled, but it is not pragmatic.

A third dissonance: the gulf in the community over truths and values

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. (3) 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. 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. (4) Yet, despite this, those found to be refugees are granted only a temporary visa, the 'Temporary Protection Visa', the conditions of which go against our commitments under the Refugee Convention, and leave their lives in suspension. We learn that in reality, those who come by boat do not take a permanent place in Australia from anyone. In fact of the 13,474 who have come by boat in the 13 years since 1989, only 348 have ever been given a permanent visa. (5) And if all who did come by boat and who qualify as refugees were given a visa, it would amount to around 600 persons a year - hardly an invasion for a net migration country with an annual intake of over 100,000 persons.

Australians are learning that the disastrous, ad hoc agreements with mendicant 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.

They 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. 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 it's 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 last national election, and later when the budget costings of border control were revealed, 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.

To the commonly heard complaint, 'We cannot look after all the troubles and hungers of the world', we answer, 'Nor can we refuse solidarity with the rest of the world'. The refugee values of this government have appealed to the worst in our natures, not the best.


What can be done to overcome these dissonances?

  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. 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 2010. In order to attract immigrants, Australia will need to resume our former progress towards a genuinely multi-racial society.
  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, the 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 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 24 years for truth to triumph and for the principled way to be seen as the pragmatic way?

(1) To the refugees at Morong Camp, Philippines, February, 1981

(2) Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987, # 24

(3) 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.

(4) 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.

(5) See DIMIA Fact Sheet #74a, www.immi.gov.au

Mark Raper

11 October 2002