Monday, 19 December 2011

Asylum seekers: please, stop the press releases!

The last few days have seen yet another terrible tragedy in Australia, as a boat of asylum seekers headed here from Indonesia sunk off Java, leaving 180 people missing missing feared dead.

A vicious cycle

This is far from the first such tragedy, with the first refugee shipwreck to hit the Australian consciousness, 'Siev X' occurred some ten years ago, in the middle of the infamous Tampa crisis. 

Sadly, the public debate on this issue has hardly moved on from those dark times ten years ago, when refugees were portrayed as so dangerous that it needed a team of SAS soldiers to board the Tampa and ensure they went where Australia wanted them to go.

Instead of being portrayed as poor and desperate people, our politicians denounced them as evil queue jumping terrorists who were willing to sacrifice even their children by throwing them into the sea in order to achieve their objectives. 
And as per usual, a stream of extremely unhelpful press releases has issued forth from Church officials, this time a call to increase Australia's Humanitarian intake of Refugees, from Fr Maurizio Pettenà of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office, and a call for offshore processing of refugees from Cardinal Pell.

Media manipulation

Ten years ago, the Tampa crisis was engineered to counteract the growing sympathy for refugees being held in detention so desperate that they embarked on long hunger strikes and sewed up their lips. 

The Howard Government carefully ensured that all reporting of the refugees at the time dehumanised them.

As each ship arrived, few details were ever given of who they were and what they were fleeing from. 

Instead they were labelled as "queue jumpers", or even 'economic refugees' seeking to bypass Australia's migration processes.

Instead of being portrayed as the desperate people they mostly really were, all the public was given was raw numbers of arrivals and (as it turned out utterly false) horror stories about them.

And those who came were quickly deported to places where the media was unable to access them like Nauru (does it have an actual government yet or still?) and that other bastion of democracy, Papua New Guinea.

Ten years on...

Ten years on, little has changed, except that the media has picked up Tony Abbott's line from where the Howard Government left off, doing its best to portray Australia's treatment of refugees as soft.  That's utter nonsense, as a recent Media Watch program clearly demonstrated.

In reality, Australia has completely failed in its duty of care of the refugees it insists on locking up, as witnessed by the constant stream of stories about the incompetence of the Department of Immigration and its contractors, with consequences in the deaths and serious harm to many refugees.

No surprise really, since despite a series of scathing reports on Immigration and claims that those responsible for past mistakes had been moved on, the same old faces keep on popping up over there.  Indeed its head was, until he went on extended 'study leave', a long time Immigration official and the Department's main representative on the Tampa Task Force ten years ago, Andrew Metcalfe.

Church officials: time to butt out?

In all of this, the Church has put out a steady stream of press releases - the vast majority of which can be characterised as at best naive, at worst utterly unhelpful.

Take the latest one from Fr Pettena of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office:

“This is a time to reflect on what we can all do better together to protect people in need. There is a great need for Australia to increase its humanitarian intake. It is important to understand that people who risk their lives at sea do so because  more secure avenues are denied to them”, he said.

Increasing the humanitarian programme will not help!

Unfortunately, Fr Pattena's proposal to increase the Humanitarian intake will have absolutely no impact on people getting onto rickety boats in order to get to Australia.  There are (at least) three reasons for that.

First, Australia's Humanitarian Program does not take any refugees to speak of from Indonesia, where they get onto the boats, at all!  That's a deliberate decision, to discourage refugees from going there.  So unless tht policy changes, any increase in our intake is not going to discourage the thousands already in third countries where they try and stage to Australia.

Secondly, they aren't the same refugees.  Most of those trying to get here by boat at the moment are from Iraq and Afghanistan.  By contrast, almost all of the refugees we take by choice in our humanitarian program are from Africa (70%; 25% of the total are from the Middle East, but that's only because we count boat arrivals in the numbers of the humanitarian program!). 

Thirdly, even if we doubled the humanitarian program from the current 13,000, its a drop in the ocean - as Fr Pettena's own press release points out, there are around 33 million refugees in the world.

What about offshore processing?

Cardinal Pell has spoken up today in the Australian, calling for both parties to work to allow offshore processing of refugees as a deterrent. 

It is unclear just what he means here.  Is he calling on Tony Abbott to support the 'Malaysian Solution' that would, whatever its drawbacks, at least have had a genuine deterrent effect, as it guaranteed that those who come to Australia will not end up settling here?

Or is he reversing his previous position, and asking Labor to support Tony Abbott's insistence on processing in Nauru? 

Given the Cardinal's usual politics the second position seems more likely.  Yet how can this help?

Back in 2001 he condemned the 'Pacific Solution' as 'mean and hard-hearted'.  He was right to do so.

Sending people to desperately depressed 'nations' of 10,000 people like Nauru - where the supply of fresh water was entirely dependent on a single unreliable desalination plant, getting in fresh food supplies was complicated by Nauru's own dire financial situation and unpaid bills (you might remember that the Australian Government ended up paying a lot of extra 'aid' to Nauru), abandoned houses were hastily brought up to some barely minimal standard of acceptability even as the navy ships as slowly as possible carried the refugees there, and lack of hospital facilities meant 40 people had to be airlifted to Australia - was a terrible thing to do.

Worse, the 'Nauru Solution' utterly failed, in that most of the refugees ultimately ended up on Australia anyway, after costing the taxpayer at least three times the (already high) cost of processing them onshore.

Changing hearts and minds?

Changing Government policy on this requires not press releases, but real work to change hearts and minds in the Australian population at large.

And to do that means addressing the outright failings and shortcomings of Australia's resettlement polices.

Australians will never be all that sympathetic to refugees when it becomes apparent from court cases and other events that so many of them come here not to enjoy Australia's free and open society, but to convert it into an Islamic extremist one.

Australians will never be all that sympathetic if it seems that many who claim to be refugees can in reality go backwards and forwards between Australia and their home countries.

Or if it seems that their reasons for coming are more economic than political.

What can be done?

So here is my, admittedly fairly radical, suggestion: first, have Church leaders of all denominations join with our bishops in calling on the Government to give priority in both the Humanitarian Program, and in processing those who arrive by boat or plane, to Christians suffering from persecution in their home countries.

Ask the Government to give Christians faster processing, and fast tracking into the community, on the basis that church groups will even more actively assist in their resettlement process in future.

And link that up to a more intensive education campaign for non-Christian refugees in particular, on Australian values before letting them into the community.  In fact, perhaps all refugees could be asked to sign a commitment to respect Australian laws and values before being let into the community...

Then actively publicize that policy at home and abroad.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to launch a sophisticated campaign, using both the catholic media, the media more generally, and through public events and charity efforts, to engage ordinary Australians in interacting with and helping refugees so that they become real individuals.

I'm not saying, of course, that we should only care about Christians.  But with 33 million refugees, we can afford to pick and choose our priorities, and focusing our efforts in this area could serve several purposes (including highlighting and showing solidarity with the real problems of those suffering over there, as well as generating useful new recruits here, as the recent appointment of a former boat person as bishop testifies!).

And frankly, why should we be the ones lumbered with the results of endless warring between Muslim factions in the Middle East?
Of course, we would still get some boat people.

But it would interesting to see what a campaign portraying Australia as a Christian country determined to remain that way would do by way of deterrence!

Of course, that would require our Church leaders to be actually committed to the concept of Australia as a Christian country...they say the words New Evangelization - but do they really mean them?!


A Canberra Observer said...

If I read your analysis correctly, it would seem that the Church in Australia is not well served by good 'staffers' who can actually do proper and sensible analysis.
I suppose with the current financial climate of the church, and the lack of clergy or religious, this is to be expected.

But is it good enough? Or is this indeed an area where the Church could be truly seeking expert lay involvement, instead of the sheltered workshop type media responses that come from the ACBC et al.

Nick S said...

With the Middle East continuing to be a hostile environment for Christians I think it would be prudent to give preference to Middle Eastern Christian refugees.

Most of the asylum seekers boating over here from Indonesia are muslims, so it would be sensible that they would settle in better in a muslim majority nation like Indonesia rather than a Christian one like Australia. I also doubt the efficacy of education programs and citizen ship tests, I highly doubt that rote learned answers are going to change a migrant's world view.

There are many people around the world looking for a safe haven. I think it would be well within our rights as a nation to select the refugees who would integrate the most easily into the Australian culture.

A Canberra Observer said...

I agree Nick but of course the problem is that Australia espouses a culture of all cultures and hence ends up with, officially, none. Yet the western christian culture is still the substrate on which the rest of the country's laws etc is built, even though we continue to apply things that hide and erode the substrate.

Maybe this is part of the ACBC and Catholic 'left' weakness on this issue too - the salvation of souls (and therefore their conversion to the one true religion) is not the highest goal but rather a lesser humanist goal (perhaps expressed in terms of all created by God (true) but actually being more humanist than christian). The higher goal does not preclude the acts of mercy that should ensue.

pps I note Terra made comment on +Perth and a media adviser. Well in the case of +Sydney I have long held the view that His Eminence should never be let within 50 feet of a microphone without a battalion of minders ... Don't get me wrong, I think he is a good bishop but I sometimes wish he would have a little more nuance and choose his (media) battles better.

Kate said...

Hmm, in the case of the good Cardinal I might be prepared to make an exception from my position that bishops don't need media advisors! Then again, I'm not entirely convinced if it wouldn't be better if he just didn't go within 50 feet of a microphone most of the time...

In terms of the assorted Church proposals to 'solve' the asylum seeker problem, I think the problem is not so much lack of analytical skills as ideologically driven positions seeking opportunities to be advanced.

Fr Pattena for example has previously advocated a large increase in the humanitarian intake on the basis that Australia has the capacity to do more.

That is a perfectly legitimate position to take (though as I've previously suggested, personally I think we'd be better putting the dollars elsewhere, such as money to persuade Indonesia either not to let refugees attempting to transit to Australia into their country in the first place, in line with what Singapore and others do; stopping the people smugglers; and/or improving the conditions for refugees in Indonesia so they stay there).

The problem is opportunitistic attempts to push these agendas under the guise of responding to this latest tragedy.

That said, I do think this is one of a number of areas which might be better left to the laity. Instead of setting up new commissions to support 'lay ministry' and the like, perhaps the ACBC could direct its funding to seeding a small (lay) catholic think tank of experts on this issue, or similar? Vatican II after all, reinforced by Blessed JPII's Christifidelis laici, suggested that the laity's role was in the public square, not in pseudo-ministry!

A Canberra Observer said...

and yes, what of Indonesia ...
See no evil ...

Anonymous said...

Of course, the first step towards a solution to the problem of middle eastern strife is to dismantle the state of Israel.

+ Wolsey

Chris R said...

I get the impression many in the Church Hierarchy have given up totally on trying to envagelise Australians and see the future life of the Catholic Church in this country as coming solely from migrants. Hence their support for mass migration (notwithstanding Catholics will only make a minority of these migrants).

This attitude is short sighted not least because Catholic migrants (and certainly the children of migrants) will probably rapidly acquire the hedonistic agnosticism that pervades Australian culture given the current state of most Catholic parishes and schools.

But many senior bishops and priests seems to think it easier to import a congregation rather than try to envagelise the millions of nominal Catholics and others already here.