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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);
I apologise for the inadequacies of our country in relation to a tragedy like this
2) Professor Desmond Manderson (ANU);
3) Karen Maric (Refugee Action Committee).
On the well-being of our neighbours our own well-being rests
What we do for asylum seekers we do for ourselves but what we do to them we do to ourselves
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: