Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Protecting our borders or persecuting the persecuted?

I've hesitated to write on the terrible tragedy of the death of five would-be refugees and horrific injuries suffered by 29 more last week, the result of a desperate desire to get to Australia, for various reasons.

It is a complex issue. On the one hand, based on past history, most of these people are almost certainly genuine refugees, fleeing horrific situations. On the other, most of them come via third countries such as Indonesia where they are not being persecuted - but where the standard of living is not what they aspire to. Refugee status is supposed to be based on political or racial persecution, not economics, and accepted by the first country you reach - the only reason these asylum seekers have a claim on Australia if they manage to reach our shores is that Indonesia has not accepted its own international obligations in this regard, and acceded to the relevant UN treaties.

One can legitimately argue that Australia shouldn't be held hostage to extreme behaviour and threats, or blamed when those threats become reality. But all I can say is that the cost of maintaining Australia's border integrity is too high in its effect on human lives, as the tragedy last week, the loss at sea of 'SIEV X' , and the psychological effects on those detained in various places on behalf of Australia graphically illustrate.

And we keep making it worse. According to the SMH today, the "29 badly wounded survivors of the explosion will not be allowed to apply for immediate refugee status because they were taken to an oil rig in territory which is excised from Australia. But 13 of the less seriously injured - transferred directly to Darwin by sea - can apply for refugee status and appeal if their application is rejected."

Surely given the horrific injuries these people have suffered a special exemption should be made for them - they could for example be accepted under Australia's Humanitarian programme!

It has been evident throughout this affair that the Rudd Government learnt the wrong lesson from the Children Overboard Affair. In my view, Howard and his Ministers seized on a piece of news that could be milked politically (in the process reversing their whole media strategy of saying as little as possible about the boats arriving, and avoiding putting a human face on their desperation), then refused to correct the story when it became evident that it wasn't true. Rudd seems intent on not telling us anything, so he can't be called on what he does say. But the net impact of his approach amounts to a rerun of the mushroom principle.

We can only hope that the Rudd Government doesn't have to deal with a major public health epidemic, or some other major disaster. Because the best approach to managing events of this kind is almost always to tell what you do know - but make it clear what degree of uncertainty lies around the information, and quickly correct the story as things become clearer. If you don't tell, rumour and falsehoods rise up to fill the gap, and that is rarely healthy.

In the meantime, Australia needs to find some compassion, and work on serious solutions, not just politically expedient ones.


Son of Trypho said...

Terra - this is a sensitive topic however you should be honest and note that many of the refugees are not merely passing through Indonesia but through several countries where they could legitimately seek asylum.

This suggests these people are clearly economic refugees and they are coming to Australia because they perceive that they have the best chances of getting to an affluent nation which will permit them residence.

If you want to fix this problem the world needs to address the endemic problems that exist in the societies they are leaving. Until that is done, harsh measures need to be used to prevent significant numbers from arriving and dissuade them from attempting. Otherwise, expect a few more schools in Camden in the next couple of years.

Terra said...

Trypho - To take your last point first, it is not refugees arriving on boats who are driving the growth of the Islamic population in Australia but legitimate immigration. The number of arrivals by boat over the years has been tiny, nothing like the thousands of refugees who regularly arrive in the US or European countries.

Yes, they sometimes (but not always) go through a country or two before Indonesia. Although bear in mind that in fact quite a few boats have carried people directly to Australia (for example from Sri Lanka). But I have to say I think the economic motive is generally a consequence of treatment in those intermediary countries - Indonesia and other countries don't make it possible for them to earn a living, so they are forced to move on.

And yes, we do need systematic solutions in the refugee source countries. But in the meantime people are being persecuted, struggling to survive, and we are making it worse.

Son of Trypho said...


Sorry if that was not clear - I was not suggesting that the current Islamic population is made up of recently arrived refugees. As you seem to suggest yourself, the previous Govt's policies did an effective job of keeping those numbers down. What I'm saying is that if significant numbers start turning up and staying then you will see a growth.

Now with regards to locations - if they are from the ME/SW Asia then almost all of them are passing through several countries to reach Australia (including Indonesia at the minimum). Many of these countries host UN facilities suitable for refugees and indeed places like Syria, Iraq, Iran are all closer to Europe than Australia.

If the intermediary countries are treating them poorly it is because they have policies of using tactics to dissuade them from staying as well - and indeed, these would be worse practices (and policy) than those employed by our nation.

I have no problems with legitimate cases applying legally under the Humanitarian program/offshore applications etc but cannot agree with those illegally circumventing our laws.

Terra said...

My point about refugees and immigration is that because our border is sea not land, we will almost certianly never get huge numbers attempting this route. Not all boat people are muslims either. On the other hand we are letting in huge numbers of Muslims voluntarily through our excessively large immigration program (now fortuitously reduced by virtue of the recession). If our concern is maintaining Australian culture, it is our immigration policy, not our refugee policy, that needs to be examined.

Yes many (though not all) do transit through UN camps. The problem is that few countries have significant humanitarian programs (Australia is relatively rare in this regard), and there are millions living in squalor with no hope of ever getting out of it. Tht's why they turn to desperate measures.

As for the 'illegal' thing. By virtue of its treaty obligations Australia does have a duty to accept those found to be refugees if they make it to our shores. Our current laws go into all sorts of contortions to declare them illegals and try and claim that we aren't in breach of our obligations when we stick them on Christmas Island and so forth, but it is dodgy stuff.