Thursday, 22 April 2010

Fiddling while Rome burns: the bishops and refugees?

Although the Australian Bishops have yet to issue any statements on the abuse crisis, they have issued at least two condemning the Government's recent suspension of refugee processing for Sri Lankan and Afghanistan boat arrivals.

Now let me be clear.  I'm personally appalled by the Rudd Government's decision.  The media (and Opposition) beat-up on the boatpeople crisis is just that.  But really, is this what our bishops should be focusing on, particularly at the moment?

Refugees and the media frenzy

So far this year around 2000 people have arrived in Australia by boat. If past numbers hold true, 90% or more of them are genuine refugees and will eventually stay here. They will be found to be not economic refugees (the main problem in the US and to a lesser extent Europe), but genuinely fleeing from persecution.  The numbers involved though are tiny by world standards - even if the current flows keep up, the numbers can easily be absorbed within our paltry (13,700) humanitarian program.

And let's put the number further in perspective - we currently have around 60,000 visa overstayers in Australia, genuine illegals.  Where's the fuss about them? 

Moreover the number of refugees pales in the face of our massive immigration program, currently running at around 170,000 people a year.

One can easily debunk some of the Opposition and media stereotypes about refugees - Howard's claim that they are 'queue-jumpers' for example is ludicrous given that there are approximately 15 million refugees in the world (and probably more than double that if you include internally displaced people who haven't managed to flee their country), yet the UN manages to resettle only around 120,000 a year.  Some queue!

And I could go on.

I'm not saying that border integrity isn't worth defending.  It is. 

But there are other, more systematic ways of tackling the problem, and in my view compulsory long-term detention of already traumatised people is a very hard policy to see any merit in. 

And more immediately, suspending the claims processing of Afghan refugees when our troops are still over there fighting seems particularly indefensible. 

Rudd's measures don't seem to be working as a deterrent, and are costing him the support of his own base.  Good - that how democracy works.

The role of bishops....

But is this really the number one issue for the bishops?  Personally I think this is one of those prudential areas better left to the laity.  Particularly when all the bishops can come up with are some rather weak arguments.

Bishop Saunders for example in the latest press release says Australia will be judged as a world citizen on how it treats refugees.  Oh yes?  Judged worse than say France, where it is illegal to even assist a refugee?  Worse than the US, Italy and other countries (that the Howard and to a lesser extent Rudd Governments have attempted at times to imitate) that attempt to turn back boats, tow them away, or just leave them to sink?  That deny illegal immigrants access to medical and other services? And EU countries that have followed us in introducing compulsory detention?

This is certainly an issue on which real leadership is required to shift the terms of the public debate.  But this is one where the laity might be  better placed to take the lead.

So here's a creative suggestion - perhaps instead of issuing press releases, Cardinal Pell should be having one of his little chats to the mad monk (aka Opposition Leader Tony Abbott) on toning down the rhetoric on this issue?  After all, in between bike rides, Abbott has after all been doing some triple summersaults with a backflip of late (such as on introducing new taxes, and supporting paid maternity leave), and seems open at the moment to every 'interesting' idea going (such as abolishing unemployment benefits for under 30s and deporting them instead to Western Australia). 

Indeed, perhaps Mr Abbott might be amenable to a scheme where refugees could get out of detention early if they agreed to work (after suitable training) in WA's mines for a certain period, solving our labour shortage problems and detention accomodation crisis in one bold stroke....(and after all, it's not too different from some of the schemes that brought European displaced persons to Australia after WWII to work on schemes such as the Snowy is it)?!

No comments: