strivetoengage

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What’s wrong with Abbott’s refugee policy?

According to a recent report by the UNHCR:

More people are refugees or internally displaced than at any time since 1994.

As of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries.

One issue has repeatedly won elections for the conservative Liberal Party in Australia since 2001 and that’s the issue of processing asylum seekers. The Liberal Party, with the help of the mainstream media, have successfully frightened Australians out of treating asylum seekers with decency since the Tampa incident. In August 2001, the Howard Government of Australia refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 rescued refugees (predominantly Hazaras of Afghanistan from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters) to enter Australian waters. At that time Australia was internationally criticised by several countries, particularly Norway, who accused it of evading its human rights responsibilities. In the meantime the Liberal Party campaigned on the issue and won the ensuing federal election (helped by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA). Since that time Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers have included such awful concepts as  mandatory detention of children and temporary protection visas which deny the right to work.

Last week Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison decreed that from now on, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are to be deemed in all official correspondence as “illegal maritime arrivals”. According to David Marr in the Guardian: Australians have been tossing the word around ever since that first refugee boat appeared in Darwin Harbour in 1976. Before that the British in the 1930s called Jews trying to get into Palestine “illegals” and hunted them down.

Professor of Law Jane McAdam, director of the Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of NSW, said:

What we have happening in the political space is an attempt to demonise and criminalise asylum seekers so that the general public sees them as a problem, as a threat, and as criminals, rather than as people who are in need of protection and have a right to seek it. Asylum seekers aren’t doing something that is illegal by a matter of international law.

Australia has voluntarily signed-up to the treaties which say we will not send people back to face persecution and other forms of serious harm. If we make it impossible for people to access that protection, then we are actually not living up to our own obligations

This week I attended a public forum ‘What’s wrong with Abbott’s refugee policy?’ and was delighted by the quality of the speakers. I have summarised some of their main points here:

1) Senator Sarah Hanson-Young (Australian Greens party);

  • When the boat disaster near the island of Lampedusa, Italy claimed the lives of 296 asylum seekers and migrants, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta visited the island, ordered a state funeral and said:

I apologise for the inadequacies of our country in relation to a tragedy like this

  • By contrast when a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison took 48 hours to make any comments at all.
  • It is difficult to know the total cost of the current programs but the Liberal party when in opposition gave an estimate of $8billion AUD. The cost of expanding the off-shore processing facilities on Manus Island and Nauru is estimated to be another $2billion AUD; making a total cost of $10billion AUD. By comparison the cost of the Australian presence in Afghanistan since 2001 has been more than $7.5billion AUD.

2) Professor Desmond Manderson (ANU);

  • Australian people are tolerant but not particularly generous and the government uses refugees as a wedge issue.
  • Malaysia generously hosts (with the help of UNHCR) over 200,000 refugees, forced migrants and asylum seekers. Only less than 0.1% of these asylum seekers are processed per year, meaning that the ‘queue’ that Australians love to refer to is 1,000 years long.
  • In the early 2000’s John Howard introduced the Family Reunion Policy. Until then young men were sent to Australia to seek refuge in the hope that the rest of the family could join the young man at a later date.  The policy put an end to that and instead whole families took the treacherous sea journeys together to seek refuge in Australia. For example when the SIEV X disaster occurred more than 3/4 of those 353 asylum seekers who died were women and children.
  • Naive magical realism in Australian government policies on refugees.
  • Temporary Protection Visas mean that the asylum seekers can’t work but everyone must work to survive, therefore this leads to dangerous working conditions, poor pay and criminalisation.
  • There is no evidence that the Mandatory Detention Policy has stopped anyone from coming to Australia but it has had huge negative psychological effects on detainees.
  • Zero tolerance strategies don’t work but harm reduction policies might work.
  • We need more information, communication and images if we are to influence public opinion and ultimately government policy to favour asylum seekers.
  • Refugees are not illegal.
  • We are not being flooded by asylum seekers.
  • The journey to Australia from desperate home, to refugee camp, to boat journey with people smugglers is horrendous.

3) Karen Maric (Refugee Action Committee).

  • Australians are being asked by Abbott’s policies to forget:

On the well-being of our neighbours our own well-being rests

  • Karen shared a moving story of her husband’s flight from a village in the former Yugoslavia in 1996 and his ultimate acceptance to Australia as a refugee.

What we do for asylum seekers we do for ourselves but what we do to them we do to ourselves

  • The second verse of the Australian National Anthem states:

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share

If you feel impassioned why don’t you join us for a Rally for Refugees:

  • Monday 18th November;
  • 11am;
  • Parliament House
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8 comments on “What’s wrong with Abbott’s refugee policy?

  1. William Filgo
    November 6, 2013

    In nineteen seventy-two, I tried to emigrate to Australia. My best friend qualified for your program to entice emigrants from a restricted list of countries by giving them transportation and helping them to integrate into your population. I couldn’t get released from my obligation in the California National Guard, it is like the Army reserve. I had dual citizenship with Great Britain, because of my mother having been a natural born citizen of Great Britain. I would have been embraced as one of you.
    We also have an immigration problem in the United States and we have also demonized the victims to assuage our fear of the future. As the son of an immigrant and as a potential immigrant, I feel that but for the grace of god there go I. As every person on this earth has immigrants in his not too distant past, I ask, “How dare you?” The quality of mercy is not strained–follow your heart and not your fears.
    In the end, politics will win. You vote for a party and that organization will ignore these problems that can only hurt them so that they may stay in office. The Democrats in my country knew they could not help the African-Americans to true equality in the administrations of Wilson (1912-1920) and Roosevelt (1932-1945), without losing their voter base. They turned their back on justice for a greater good, the pacification of the majority. They were right, when Johnson (1963-1968) passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voters’ Rights Act, the Democrats lost the deep south and all hope of being a force in politics for the next fifty years. The majority does greater harm to society in their fear of the minority, than the minority could ever do. They spend their lives in dread of what might happen, while the minority live that life that the majority dread. They live it and they do not flail about in their fear and hurt the very principles that bring us all the blessings of peace. Peace brings us a better economy, a better environment, education, hope and much more. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.
    If you live your life engaged, then you do not fear your neighbor. Be engaged, vote for the most humane person on the ballot, do not vote for a party.

  2. strivetoengage
    November 6, 2013

    Thanks William for your considered comments. I agree with your sentiments. What I should have mentioned in my post is that the (current) opposition (recent government) had similarly xenophobic policies to asylum seekers and too many refugees suffered as a result. It is difficult not to be disheartened living in Australia, except for shining lights like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Australian Greens party who is brave enough to speak against current policies at a public forum.

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2013 by in Giving and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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