The ongoing backlash against asylum seekers is about votes, votes and more votes. Meanwhile, where do the rest of us go to seek asylum from our politicians?
George Negus Guardian/UK 29 July 2013
As the last federal election loomed in 2010, you might have just been able to get a cigarette paper between a muddled Julia Gillard and “turn-back” Tony Abbott on the nation’s embarrassing asylum seeker carry-on.
Name a solution, any solution – Nauru, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Pacific, poor old Christmas Island, whatever out-of-sight, out-of mind local location you could think of – and now, of course, the inhumane and unprecedented Manus Island PNG wing-and-a-prayer, buck-passing solution. Whether or not any of them make sense, they all meet the ultimate cop-out: the “not-in-my-bloody backyard solution.”
You don’t have to be a political genius to work out that this current bout of fear and loathing has precious little to do with individuals from some remote foreign starting point prepared to risk everything – including death – to get to our cherished continent.
It’s about votes, votes and more votes. And for the rest of us out here in voter-land, it’s an invidious choice between the lesser of evils.
At least we know Rudd and Abbott agree on one thing. Neither of them has an honourably workable clue how to get the nation out of the quagmire it’s been in for decades on this sorry issue. Motivated by domestic politics, they are battering each other to convince us that once elected, they will stop those nasty people smugglers and their leaky boats. As a result, fewer would-be refugees, will die and our borders will be more secure.
In other words, an over-night miracle achieved, that will be touted as Australia’s contribution to tackling the worsening humanitarian calamity of 45 million displaced men, women and children around the globe – as distinct from the measly half of one percent of them causing us political apoplexy here in Australia.
Meanwhile, the dragged out, politically amoral duck-shoving on the issue must surely have damaged this country’s reputation as a “good global citizen.” Or maybe that doesn’t bother us?
Don’t ask foreign minister, Bob Carr. Amazingly, Carr has decided to write off most asylum seekers as unacceptable economic refugees. As for Scott Morrison, Abbott’s shadow immigration spruiker, he spends his waking hours befuddling us with double-speak about pushing, towing or turning the boats back to somewhere – anywhere, so long as it’s not Australia!
Respected experts counsel that this country’s bi-partisan failure to implement widely-accepted international human rights standards on asylum seekers is at odds with its moral and legal obligations under theUN convention on the status of refugees, the very raison d’être for having a UN high commissioner for refugees, the law of the sea, let alone our own migration act.
James Hathaway, an expert on international refugee law and professorial fellow at Melbourne University, points out that Rudd’s PNG deal is without international precedent. “This plan is without question the most bizarre overreaction I have seen in more than 30 years of working on refugee law,” he recently told Radio National Breakfast:
It makes no sense. The only mandatory deportation to PNG is going to be so-called boat arrivals. Does the prime minister think that every refugee should arrive with a Qantas first class ticket in order to be real?
Hathaway says the UN convention decrees that a country cannot penalise refugees “for arriving without authorisation.” This, and the Rudd plan to dump them on PNG are both an illegal and discriminatory penalty.
Hathaway goes even further, asserting that Australia’s refugee crisis “doesn't really exist compared to other developed countries,” pointing out that our annual in-take of around 30,000 refugees is “a totally average, absolutely manageable number.”
What Hathaway found “striking” was that unlike any developed nation he had experienced, Australia has been attracting genuine refugees as boat arrivals almost exclusively. Yet it was these so-called “boat people” who have attracted Rudd and Abbott’s mutual ire. “It’s the most extraordinarily bizarre singling out of the very group that ought to be the one we should care about the most.”
Given Australia’s politically expedient bi-partisan obsession with so-called “boat people,” in the run-up to the 2010 Federal Election, the author interviewed Sydney University professor Mary Crock, an international migration law expert. Her take amounted to an intriguing “psycho-political” explanation.
“I think Australians have a deep historical fear of invasion by the sea,” she told me. “We’re not unique in that respect. Many countries around the world overreact when people come by boat to seek asylum.” I asked whether she was suggesting that because until quite recently countries were invaded by boats, Australians are more worried by refugees trying to get here by boat? “There are certainly historic precedents for that,” she said.
The salient fact is that most potential refugees come to Australia by plane, rather than by boat, claim refugee status, and more often than not, get it. “Yes, we don’t get concerned by that,” Crock told me. “People who come by plane are at least processed. They present their passports at the airport to get into the country, whereas people who come by boat often come without any documentation of any kind – no health or character checking at all.”
Hence, the government retains its tendency to view “boat people” as purely illegal immigrants who’ve jumped the queue. Nevertheless, as has been pointed out ad nauseum in an inconclusive debate, it is not illegal to seek asylum.
As I write, Rudd’s latest off-shore solution, Manus Island, has been condemned as a “hell-hole” and a “gulag” and Abbott’s spanking new Colonel Blimp plan is to turn the waters off the West Australian coast into a virtual war zone by sending in the troops.
Meanwhile, where do the rest of us go to seek asylum from Australian politicians?