Last Sunday was World Refugee and Migrants Day - I had been meaning to write something, but I'm afraid I missed the date, but, I've been prompted on this again, as the Australian Bishops' facebook page has just posted the Pope's message for the occasion.
And this post is by way of a plea for rationality to prevail over emotion.
On both sides.
Refugees - towards a more sensible approach?
The Government recently made at least some changes to the arrangements (albeit largely forced to do so by the High Court's ruling that claims processed 'offshore' are appealable) that are at least a step in the right direction. But we still have an Opposition leader complaining that this 'won't stop the boats'.
Well no, it won't. But as Kate Gauthier has recently argued, most refugee claimants don't actually arrive here by boat, but by plane!
And the numbers remain tiny - in total for example a whole 4300 people have arrived from Afghanistan by boat since 2008. The UK has been getting around that number of applications each year from Afghans. And in March 2009, there were still over 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan!
So why not redirect the extraordinary levels of resources we currently waste patrolling the area around Christmas Island towards actually deterring people from getting on a plane...
And more importantly, let's try persuading our political leaders to shift their rhetoric a little, and try selling Australia's obligation and duty to protect those who genuinely need our protection. As the Pope says in his message:
"The situation of refugees and of the other forced migrants, who are an important part of the migration phenomenon, should be specifically considered in the light of the theme "One human family". For these people who flee from violence and persecution the International Community has taken on precise commitments. Respect of their rights, as well as the legitimate concern for security and social coherence, foster a stable and harmonious coexistence."
But those who aren't refugees
Of course one of the barriers to politicians actually doing this is the inability of the refugee lobby to distinguish between the cause of genuine refugees and those who actually aren't. The reason Australia's detention centres are overflowing is not just the new arrivals - but our inability to send home, both for domestic political reasons and more fundamentally the state of our relations with the country of origin, those who actually don't pass the test.
On Monday the Government announced a deal with the Afghanistan Government for the forced repatriation of Afghans who fail the test. We should welcome this.
One can certainly understand the concerns of those who worry about the situation in Afghanistan given the continued war there. But the fact that one's country is in a state of war does not of itself justify a refugee claim - otherwsie every single perosn there would flee. More, the evidence is that things actually are getting better, albeit slowly.
And in the past, where there was no avenue of appeal on administrative decisions, there were legitimate concerns about the process. But that has now changed.
The Australian reported of the 4300 Afghans had arrived in Australia by boat, 2700 remain in detention. Of those, 723 had their initial refugee claims refused, with 49 rejected on appeal.
The Minister for Immigration was quoted as saying that; "With the option of judicial review now open to failed asylum-seekers following last year's High Court ruling, he said, "we're not going to see returns tomorrow, we're not going to see returns the day after tomorrow".
Multiculturalism, integration and social cohesion
Underlying the public rhetoric on this issue of course, and the real source of much of the tension, is a much broader issue of what Australians expect from those who come to this country, whether as refugees or voluntary migrants. And on this subject, the Pope had this to say:
"At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity. "The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life".
Perhaps those within the Church currently preoccupied by advocacy in this area might consider redirecting their efforts to practical assistance with this objective.