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We should be proud to meet our obligations

October 17, 2009

Canberra Times : Refugees hit in whip of frenzy
Danielle Cronin, 16 October 2009

Debates about border protection bring out the ugly side of Australia’s character. Asylum- seekers are likened to natural disasters, with warnings Australia faces a ”flood of boatpeople”. Erroneous terms such as ”genuine refugees” are used. Asylum-seekers are either refugees or they’re not. Compassion and understanding are in a short supply when politicians bring out the dog whistle and compete to see who can blow the hardest.

Don Watson featured the term ”border protection” in his tome Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words. The former adviser and speechwriter to Paul Keating offered this definition: ”xenophobia, wedge politics, scare campaign, to incite fear and loathing”.

At the centre of this controversy are small groups of men, women and children who board boats of varying levels of seaworthiness and attempt to make the often-perilous journey from Indonesia to Australia.

Authorities have intercepted 32 boats, carrying 1711 people, in Australian waters so far this year.

The border-protection debate has intensified this week in the wake of a stand-off between 260 Sri Lankans and authorities. The asylum-seekers’ boat was intercepted en route to Australia after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for help. The boat is now moored at a port in western Java and journalists have been allowed to board the vessel and talk with the asylum-seekers.

Speaking on the ABC about their predicament, a Tamil man named Alex said, ”Ask yourselves one question: If you had no home to go to, if you had no country to live in, if you had no place to go, if you had no country of your own, what would you do and how long would you stay in a boat before you were promised to enter a country that will give you asylum?

”How long will you go? How desperate will you be? Take a look at the picture today, look at my people, we’re not only suffering back home, we’re suffering here. We have no choice, we have no country to go back to, we cannot go back to Sri Lanka.”

His insights are incomprehensible to someone born in the Lucky Country.

In Australia, the Federal Opposition is using the situation to attack the Government. As it rates poorly in opinion polls, is plagued by infighting over climate-change policy and struggles to gain traction in other lines of attack, the Opposition is trying its luck with a ”wedge” issue. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull argues that Australia is seeing the ”beginning of a flood” of boatpeople and the Government is to blame. He says Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has ”laid out the welcome mat” by ”softening” the border protection policies of the Howard government.

Rudd dismisses the criticism, saying he takes an ”unapologetic tough line on border security and a humane approach in dealing with people”. He blames the emerging challenge on ”violence in Afghanistan, violence in the Middle East [and] … recent civil war in Sri Lanka”.

The chest beating eclipses the facts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports Australia recorded about 4700 asylum claims in 2008 up 19 per cent on 2007. Despite the recent increase, the figures are far below those observed in 2000 and 2001 13,100 and 12,400 respectively. In 2008-09, 13,507 refugees and other people ”in the greatest humanitarian need” were granted visas.

There were more than 827,000 asylum claims pending worldwide by the end of 2008 and only 2159 of these were being processed in Australia.

A human rights group reports almost 97 per cent of asylum-seekers came to Australia on planes and the rest arrived on boats last year a trickle rather than a flood.

People who are persecuted in their home country have the right to seek asylum. People smugglers do prey on their desperation to make a buck. Rudd berates the ”vermin who are people smugglers” but the ranks include members of organised crime syndicates as well as so-called ”mum and dad” operators who smuggle people to supplement their income from fishing. It’s easier to ramp up the rhetoric casting people smugglers as the villains of this piece rather than explore factors that may have contributed to the trade.

It also goes against instinct to form an orderly queue when people are in desperate and dangerous situations. Australia might lift efforts to reach out to people who can no longer live safely in their home country and speed-up the processing of asylum claims. People with hope are unlikely to gamble their life savings on making an often precarious journey to reach Malaysia or Indonesia and board a boat to Australia.

Many of the current asylum- seekers come from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Rudd blames the civil war in Sri Lanka and huge political instability in Afghanistan for the situation that has prompted ”one of the most intense operations launched by an Australian Government abroad in peace time”.

He cites the investment in front- line border security through the Royal Australian Navy, Customs, intelligence officers, security services and police officers across the region.

Turnbull suggests Rudd is lily- livered, saying he has ”unpicked a very carefully constructed fabric of policy that enabled us to have protected borders and little or no illegal arrivals. We’re now facing what looks like being the beginning of a flood.”

It would be refreshing if our political leaders boycotted the tough- guy competition and discussed ways to improve immigration laws to ensure people in need are afforded protection. Australia should be proud to meet its international obligation to help people who need refuge after fleeing from situations unimaginable to those who were born here.

Instead, the asylum-seeker debate centres on ”weasel words” which Watson warned ”anaethetises both the user and the used. It poisons politics the politicians, the media, the public service and the voters”.

Danielle Cronin is Political Correspondent.

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