15 October 2009

Asylum seekers: all aboard the bad ship Bigotry

Today’s edition of The Age contains a very worthy editorial (here) under the title Politicians too ready to board the bad ship bigotry. It begins:

A refugee minority is once again the target of shameful political opportunism.

The knee-jerk reaction has kicked in. As soon as numbers of “boat people” became a trickle, the Opposition reverted to its despicable old form, warning of a threat created by a Labor Government “soft on border protection”. Various media have already rolled out the lazy descriptions of a flood or tide of arrivals. And Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, knowing how the issue has played out in the past, has begun to echo the language of his predecessor, John Howard, after asking Indonesia to stop a boat carrying 260 asylum seekers. “I make no apology whatsoever for working as closely as I need with our Indonesian friends and partners to get the results we all need in terms of illegal immigration,” he said.

For the record, my reactions to this new wave of hysteria are:

- This is not a flood; it is a micro-trickle. It is a small proportion of all applicants for asylum (most arrive by air), and less than one tenth of one percent of worldwide claims for asylum.

- The Government responds to charges of being soft on border protection by pointing out (correctly) the “push” factors in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka which are leading many more people to seek asylum somewhere, anywhere that will have them.

- The Government has enacted a number of measures that have ameliorated the plight of refugees, and those who are awaiting the determination of their refugee status, and that is to be welcomed. To the extent that these measures create a “pull” factor, or at least reduce the repellent aspects of the Howard regime, that is a price I am more than happy to pay.

- It is deeply cynical of the Prime Minister, who knows better, to use the term “illegal immigration” in relation to boat arrivals. People who have a well-founded fear of persecution have a legal right to seek asylum, and the overwhelming majority of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees.

- I am not impressed by tough talk directed at the people traffickers as a proxy for the asylum seekers themselves. If the asylum seekers are entitled to seek a safe haven, those who facilitate their access to it are not necessarily “scum”. To the extent that they deserve our condemnation, it is for putting people to sea in unseaworthy boats, and otherwise exploiting their vulnerability, rather than for the act of providing them with transport to a place where they have a right to lodge a claim. But it is easier media management for the Government to present its policy as one which is tough on traffickers than one which is tough on the people being trafficked.

- Also, I am not impressed by our collaboration with Indonesia, a state which has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Australia. That is politically comfortable for the Government, but it evades the issue that, until asylum seekers reach Australia, they have not found a safe haven. The only signatories to the UN Refugee Convention in our region are Australia, Cambodia, New Zealand and PNG. Cambodia and PNG cannot be expected to do much, and New Zealand is beyond Australia. This means that until asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific region reach our shores, they are not safe. They are liable to exploitation by corrupt local officials and/or return to their country of origin irrespective of how well founded might be their fear of persecution. If we really wanted some worthwhile cooperation from the ASEAN states to our north, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, we should be pressing them to sign the Convention and cooperate with us within its framework.

- Even less am I impressed by the phony concern of people like Alexander Downer and Sharman Stone who pretend that the danger of the sea voyage is a significant part of their attitude to the increased number of boat arrivals. If they had the slightest concern for the welfare of the asylum seekers they would not have been participants in the shamefully inhumane treatment of asylum seekers during the Howard Government, and they would not now be complaining about the amelioration of Howard Government policies by the present Government.

- Presumably the Prime Minister’s tough language is an exercise in media management. The Government’s policy is more humane, but it would prefer not to admit it to those who treasure this aspect of the “Howard legacy”.

- I do not want the Government to do the tough thing or the media savvy thing. I want it to do the right thing. I would like it to show the same political and moral courage that was shown by Malcolm Fraser in relation to Vietnamese boat arrivals in the 1970s, the message that this is not a big deal, and we are quite capable of managing it. I do not want the Government to be defensive about its more humane approach; I want it to explain it and be proud of it. I want it to lead popular opinion on this issue, not follow it.

Regrettably, one has to agree with the concluding lines of The Age’s editorial:

The emerging policy reeks of the worst kind of political opportunism, that would inflict the most punitive treatment on the most vulnerable of refugees. Those who stoop to this deserve the same condemnation as they did when they first tapped the deep, dark well of xenophobia.

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