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Where is the humanity and compassion?

October 19, 2009

The Age : How quickly the PM has forgotten
After compromising on climate change, Kevin Rudd has a chance to deliver on his promise to show compassion to asylum seekers.

ON THE way to attaining power in November 2007, Kevin Rudd assured us that climate change was “the great moral challenge of our generation”.

The dictates of political pragmatism (not least a waning economy, a hostile Senate and more than a smattering of global warming scepticism on his front bench) soon compromised his initially ambitious greenhouse targets and timetable for the introduction of a carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Underscoring your policies – and your political approach – with morality can be risky in public life. It leaves you open to allegations of hypocrisy when politics compromises your stated aims and serves only to further disillusion the voters who’ll inevitably level the charge that you’re “just the same as the last bloke”. More

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  1. Australians for Tamil Justice permalink*
    October 19, 2009 12:18 am

    The Age : How quickly the PM has forgotten

    After compromising on climate change, Kevin Rudd has a chance to deliver on his promise to show compassion to asylum seekers.

    ON THE way to attaining power in November 2007, Kevin Rudd assured us that climate change was “the great moral challenge of our generation”.

    The dictates of political pragmatism (not least a waning economy, a hostile Senate and more than a smattering of global warming scepticism on his front bench) soon compromised his initially ambitious greenhouse targets and timetable for the introduction of a carbon pollution reduction scheme.

    Underscoring your policies – and your political approach – with morality can be risky in public life. It leaves you open to allegations of hypocrisy when politics compromises your stated aims and serves only to further disillusion the voters who’ll inevitably level the charge that you’re “just the same as the last bloke”.

    As it is with climate change, so it promises to be with asylum seekers or “illegal immigrants”, as the Right Reverend now likes to refer to them (just like, it must be said, the bloke before him).

    For implicit in all Rudd’s utterances and, indeed, in Labor’s policy at the last election, was the understanding that a Labor Government’s approach to asylum seekers would be significantly more compassionate and decent than the previous Coalition government’s.

    Yes, we eventually saw a departure from the Howard government’s Pacific Solution for offshore processing, and the ditching of temporary protection visas.

    But two years into the Rudd Government and barely a year after the new processes were introduced, at the first reactionary cries that Australia faces a new asylum seeker crisis because more boats are arriving, the Rudd Government shows us what it’s really made of.

    It ain’t pretty at all.

    Last week, just a couple of days after the Prime Minister called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a request for Jakarta’s navy to intercept a boat carrying 260 mainly Sri Lankan asylum seekers heading to Australia, he began talking tough on “illegal immigrants”.

    “I make no apology whatsoever for adopting a hard-line approach when it comes to illegal immigration activity,” he vowed. “And I make no apology whatsoever having a hard-line and humane approach to dealing with asylum seekers.”

    As photographs in the daily papers showed, there is little humane about what is happening to those people, mostly Tamils, who were fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. They will be processed in Indonesia where they will live in harsh conditions and where their claims for refugee status will not be afforded the same weight as they would be in Australia.

    John Howard managed to spare Australian sensibilities such disturbing images of pregnant women, toddlers and men lying on deck – by ensuring that asylum seekers were quickly sent to participating Pacific countries for processing away from Australian media.

    But this is Rudd’s “crisis”. Or is it a crisis?

    By global standards, not really.

    So far this year about 1700 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat, compared with 161 in total last year. While the proportion of asylum seekers arriving by boat is certainly much higher this year, thousands will also come here by air.

    There is likely to be an overall increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Australia this year. It is instructive, however, that the vast majority are Tamils or Afghans.

    Australia knows from its increasingly parlous military operations in Afghanistan that the Taliban continues to intimidate ordinary Afghans and make any semblance of a normal life near impossible in many regions. Sri Lanka’s intimidation of Tamils is, meanwhile, well-documented.

    If there is a single factor that makes these people willing to put their lives and those of their families on the line to get here, it could be the fact that Australia is one of the few countries in the region where would-be refugees can expect to be processed under the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

    Indonesia is not a signatory.

    Why then, if you were fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, would you want to go there? You wouldn’t.

    Why does a country such as Australia, which is a signatory and therefore purports to treat its would-be refugees with compassion and humanity, ensure that they go to Indonesia for processing instead?

    The answer, of course, is politics.

    Surely there is a better way to do things. The authorities are already making emergency arrangements at the Christmas Island detention centre in anticipation of more boats. And when Christmas Island reaches its capacity, military bases will be able to accommodate still more asylum seekers.

    Undoubtedly, still many more will be intercepted by the Indonesian authorities.

    If Rudd, having partly buckled to the weight of politics on climate change, wants to pursue the regional – if not the global – lead on another great moral challenge of our times, he now has a golden opportunity to do so on asylum seekers.

    He might look back to the 1970s, when Malcolm Fraser faced his own refugee crisis after the Vietnam War.
    In the years immediately after the communist takeover of Vietnam, about a million Vietnamese fled abroad, some by boat. The first of about 2000 of them arrived in Darwin by boat on April 26, 1976, sparking a fear in some sections of Australia about the arrival of yellow hordes.

    Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees languished in terrible conditions in camps in Thailand and Indonesia, waiting to have their applications for asylum in other countries – including Australia – processed. Many died there.

    In 1977 the Fraser government formally adopted a policy in recognition of “a humanitarian commitment to admit refugees for re-settlement”. By 1979 Australia had accepted 48,000 Vietnamese refugees and by the 1980s, about 90,000 had been welcomed here.

    Fraser was criticised for his willingness to allow so many Vietnamese to languish in those refugee camps while their status was determined. But at least there was a chance that making it to the camps held the promise that they might one day get to Australia.

    Tamils languishing in Indonesia have no such hope. Where’s the humanity and compassion?

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