When I left off quoting my old Angelfire Diary for September 2001 I stopped on this sentence from 13 September: “In the background as I write the TV here in Sydney is still devoted to full coverage via CNN etc of the horrendous events of a few days back; rightly so. Perhaps later I will dare to say something.”
It is so ironic that the entry continued:
Meantime the bizarre events surrounding the Australian Government’s treatment of asylum seekers (mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan) continues. Being relatively sane, I do not advocate open borders, but the current saga is odd to say the least. I still smell electoral advantage as a motive: why even Pauline Hanson has complained that the Government has been stealing her policies (and her voters?) The level of public discussion–at least in pubs and on talkback radio–has often been frightening in its ignorance and, indeed, racism.
Asylum seekers are to the current government what "kicking the Communist can" was to Menzies in the 50s and 60s. The Labor Party has been uninspiring to say the least; it is high time they did spell out a few alternatives a tad more clearly.
I purchased today Peter Mares Borderline: Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (UNSW Press 2001), written before the current moral panic. The first chapter is an excellent summary of current legislation and practice. Skimming, I note he personalises the issues–preferable to abstracting them or demonising them. I have to confess that I entertained thoughts of a darkish nature about the post-Tiananmen "plane people" in late 89 and 90–until I spent a year teaching them and learned their stories. Some were villains, but the majority were and are an asset to this country. Would they still be here under the present government, had it been in power at that time? Most definitely not–not many of them.
Consider also this article by Robert Manne on the same subject, and mentioning Peter Mares’ book.
I will come back to this topic in time. It is an issue that saddens me, the way it has played out lately–weird deals with Nauru, for example.
Meantime my mind is still very much numbed by the events in New York.
All the internal links there will be rewarded!
The Bulletin in 2001:
A ghastly taste for the absurd has infected John Howard’s desire to be shot of the asylum-seekers he refused to allow onto Australia’s Indian Ocean phosphate-mining outpost of Christmas Island.
By the time you read this, the bulk of that human flotsam – more than 500 people, including those picked up near Ashmore Reef at the weekend – are likely to be sitting on the super-heated, ravaged environmental outrage that is pretty much all that is left of another phosphate island, this time in the Pacific: a place called Nauru.
It has the advantage for Howard’s government of not being administered by Australia, which withdrew even its diplomatic representation from the island four years ago. It is also about as far from anywhere that is possible to be while still having a name. But one is hard-pressed to name any more advantages: there are none for the asylum-seekers, and none for the average Nauruan, either. Nauru has the population of an Australian country town, but has been forced to watch as its already tiny habitable space has been reduced by mining by four-fifths. Judging from recent history, the likely winners from the coming of the asylum-seekers to Nauru will be middle-men and spivs.
The whole deal was done with astonishing speed…
Mares in 2001:
The question is how we respond to the challenge of people-smuggling without, at the same time, abandoning protection for refugees.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock presents the electorate with an all-or-nothing choice: If we do not have mandatory detention as it exists now, then we must sacrifice sovereignty and abandon any effort to control who enters the country. But these two extremes are not the only alternatives. There are a range of policy options in between.
Few people would question the policy of detention on arrival, so health checks and character assessments can be carried out. We could have a system, similar to that in Sweden, where continued detention is allowed when there are serious doubts about a person’s identity, or when there is strong reason to believe a person will pose a threat to society, or will abscond and try to disappear into the community if released.
There are also options for the conditional release of asylum seekers, which could include, for example, a requirement that they report weekly to the department or another authority, or a system of community sponsorship and support.
Remember that many of the people arriving on boats are refugees. They have an interest in staying within the system in order to have their status recognised.
Toughening our response to asylum seekers will only increase the level of conflict within the system; it will require higher, stronger fences, more tear gas, more water cannon, a deaf ear, a blind eye and a much harder heart. An approach that is mean and punitive, even when it is applied to non-citizens, ultimately weakens notions of tolerance, justice, fair play and openness in our own body politic.
The more we seek to deter asylum seekers and refugees through harsh treatment, the more Australia comes to resemble those repressive nations from which they flee.
Manne in 2001:
Ruddock’s speech centred on a distinction between what might be called deserving and undeserving refugees. Deserving refugees were the millions waiting patiently and hopelessly in the thousands of camps throughout the Third World. Undeserving refugees were the selfish "queue-jumpers", those rich enough to pay "people smugglers" for passage to a country in the prosperous First World.
Because of the recent arrival in Australia of thousands of undeserving Middle Eastern refugees, Ruddock had already, he told us, been forced to remove 3,000 of the 12,000 places set aside next year for humanitarian cases abroad. Yet the unwanted Iraqis and Afghanis were not merely stealing the places of those genuinely in need. In arriving uninvited on our shores they were, somehow, responsible for undermining the very foundation of our proud tradition of cultural diversity and tolerance.
The underlying premise of Ruddock’s speech – that for every boat refugee the Government accepts it has no alternative but to reduce by a similar number its humanitarian program abroad – is self-evidently absurd.
Australia’s immigration program is not written in the heavens. It is decided by Cabinet. If the minister was really determined to help truly needy refugees, as he claims to be, he could argue for a decoupling of the onshore and offshore strands of the humanitarian intake and for a return to the situation which prevailed during the Labor years.
Or again, if he was genuinely concerned with saving the lives of those whose needs are greatest, he could argue in Cabinet for special provision to help those refugees who are old and ill. At present it is almost impossible for refugees to gain entry to Australia if they are not fit and well.
Ruddock’s recent championship of the wretched of the Earth is, then, little more than moral cant; a debater’s argument with the "bleeding heart" liberals he has come to despise…
I do not think Australians generally appreciate how swiftly and how thoroughly we have, under Ruddock, transformed our refugee regime. Let me try to illustrate what has happened the following way.
Imagine that in the next few months political conditions in Zimbabwe forced hundreds of white farmers and their families to flee their country without papers or passports. Imagine that the farmers left their wives and children in camps in a neighbouring African country and flew to Australia unlawfully. Imagine that on arrival they were detained, dispatched at once to the detention centres at Port Hedland and Woomera, kept ignorant of their legal rights and not granted access to a lawyer, and were required to remain in the centres for very many months, uncertain of their fate. Imagine, finally, that they were eventually released, granted a temporary protection visa, refused access to services available to first-class refugees, informed that they had stolen places from people more genuinely in need and forbidden from applying for reunion with, or even visiting, the wives and children they had left behind in the squalid setting of an African refugee camp.
Everyone knows that if an Australian government was even to begin to treat Zimbabwean "kith and kin" like this, it would face overwhelming national outrage. Why then is precisely equivalent treatment of exotic and swarthy strangers from the Middle East, fleeing from even more desperate political circumstances, opposed only by those who the Minister for Immigration describes – contemptuously, but also probably accurately – as a tiny and noisy minority?
I do not wish to be misunderstood. No-one can deny that a more compassionate treatment of Middle Eastern boat people would make Australia a more attractive destination for those who organise the contemporary trade in refugees. There can be no doubt that Ruddock’s punitive regime does act, to some extent, as a deterrent.
Yet equally, in my opinion, no-one who has followed what has happened in Australia over the past two years should be blind to the fact that we have thrown away, as if it were of no account, a noble postwar reputation for humane and decent treatment of political refugees.
And so to 2011.
Notice how the current stock images of Julia in the Herald are acting as editorial…
A MAJORITY of voters believe asylum seekers should be processed onshore, defying the policies of the government and the opposition which are fighting over which offshore destination to send boat arrivals.
The latest Herald/Nielsen poll finds 54 per cent of voters believe asylum seekers arriving by boat should be allowed to land in Australia to be assessed.
Just 25 per cent say they should be sent to another country to be assessed while 16 per cent believe the boats should be ”sent back” and 4 per cent don’t know.
The phone poll of 1400 people was taken from Thursday night to Saturday night and shows attitudes against offshore processing have hardened in the wake of the August 31 High Court decision which ruled the Malaysia plan unlawful and cast a legal cloud over the ”Pacific solution” locations of Nauru and Manus Island.
When the question was asked a month ago, 28 per cent favoured offshore processing and 53 per cent onshore processing….
But bugger that for a joke, Julia may have said.
The result: Labor has gone down the path of out-Ruddocking Ruddock. I am with Andrew Bartlett on this.
In the past I’d write an angry blog post on refugee rights. Now I just tweet that the ALP & Coalition both suck big time on refugee rights.
(and then post the tweet on my blog)
Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the comment thread contains statements that are little more than a carbon copy of comments posted here on this topic literally hundreds of times on this site over the 7+ years since it started, ignoring the facts and corrections that have repeatedly been provided.
See also Detention Insanity.
At least there are still people like Doug Cameron in the government, even if they have now caved in – not that it will be the government for very much longer. At Home With Julia may be very offensive to some, if not to me, but at least it is merely comic and in a strange way affectionate. However, I’m afraid the real one has become just too tragic to think of for too long without weeping for the lost opportunities and the lost integrity.
And speaking of comedy: scriptwriters in the field of political satire couldn’t have invented a scenario funnier than the latest Nielsen poll!
Dreadful though the headline figures are for Labor, the latest monthly Nielsen poll might have offered them cause for relief, with no change to the Coalition’s two-party lead of 58-42. Labor is down a point on the primary vote to 27 per cent, with the Coalition steady on 48 per cent and the Greens up one to 13 per cent.
However, the poll offers new torment for Julia Gillard by finding Labor would be ahead 52-48 if it were led by Kevin Rudd.
One can only roll one’s eyes!