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.
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
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
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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,
(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.
Refugee Council of Australia, Fact Sheet 3: Refugees and Migrants,
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
11 October 2002