Australia Vs. Refugees

How did Australia get to where they are on refugees?

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Self-harm, suicide, rape, deplorable conditions and human suffering have all been frequently reported in the offshore processing facilities of Nauru and Manus Island, where refugees are transferred after arriving in Australia.

Refugees flee from terror only to find themselves subject to further cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Australian government.

These events are not a secret. Reports of various incidents have been presented in newspapers, on TV and in parliament. The UN Human Rights Committee, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International amongst others have condemned Australia’s immigration practices as not only morally wrong, but highly illegal and a breach of international law.

Australia was one of the first signatories of the UN Refugee Convention and has signed up to other international human rights instruments such as the Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Human Rights. Its refugee regime breaches all of these protocols.

Australia has never been very comfortable with the idea of immigration. The ‘White Australia’ policy incorporated a number of different methods to bar any immigrant who wasn’t white or English-speaking. The Immigration Restriction Act required potential migrants to prove they could speak a European language. Employment, education and social welfare were severely restricted for immigrant groups.

Australia has previously shown great humanity. WWII refugees and refugees from the Vietnam War resettled in Australia. Malcom Fraser allowed more 200,000 Indo-Chinese refugees to settle in Australia during his term as Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre 42,000 Chinese students were permitted to stay in Australia after the expiration of their visas.

However, since then both the Liberal Party and the Labour Party have been in a race to the bottom on immigration. Mandatory detention was introduced in the 1990s for everyone arriving without a valid visa, including asylum seekers.

In 2001, the Norwegian MV Tampa freighter carrying 438 refugees was refused entry into Australian waters. The refugees had been rescued from a fishing vessel which had sunk. It was during this affair that John Howard uttered the famous phrase “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Refugees were moved to offshore facilities on the island of Nauru, and to Manus Island. While Kevin Rudd started to reverse this policy during his time as Prime Minister, the number of boats carrying refugees rose. When Julia Gillard took over the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ was put back in place.

These decisions were backed up by a distinctly Australian narrative. On the one hand, there is the concern of moral hazard; that accepting refugees in Australia only gives people smugglers more incentive to squeeze huge numbers of people onto dangerously unsafe boats. On the other hand there is moral approbation for ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’, the so-called bogus asylum seekers who are attempting to get into Australia without having to wait for their claim to be processing in UN camps.

Malcolm Fraser argues “Such claims are wilful, designed to justify a policy of brutality, and reminiscent of the actions of tyrannical dictators, not of a democratic government in Australia.”

This also fails to recognise that, on average, more than 90% of those who seek asylum are proven to be genuine refugees. This is an incredibly high figure considering the comprehensive criteria that need to be proven; that there is persecution which is not general but due to discrimination; that their life or freedom is being threatened; that there is no protection available within the country; and that the persecution is so oppressive that it cannot reasonably be tolerated.

All of this is based on personal accounts and the credibility of the witness which is highly subjective and culturally based.

Immigration is an issue which is more likely to win votes than lose them, even when the policies implemented are cruel. Part of this is the still-pervasive fear that Australian is facing ‘invasion’ from foreign migrants.  This fear ranges from the relatively subtle backlash against Chinese Foreign Direct Investment, to the extreme cases of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne or the infamous Cronulla race riots on the coast of New South Wales.

Even One Nation, a political party which considers reducing immigration to be its number one priority, was able to weather the spectacular implosion of Rankin candidate Stephanie Banister to post some of their best election numbers in years. Banister became famous after she called Islam a country and said that halal food funds terrorism.

This subtle racism is partly due to a subconscious belief that Australia lacks a distinct culture of their own, and what culture they have will be drowned out by too many immigrants. The other part is a genuine fear that Australia could become a pressure valve for Indonesian overpopulation, or a mining colony for a rapidly expanding China.

Australia has long been able to control its borders as an island and this ability has become synonymous with sovereignty. A failure to ‘protect’ the country from outsiders is seen as a breach of this duty. The phrase ‘border protection’ is commonly used in discussions regarding refugees, implying that they are somehow a threat.

The fact is that when you’re desperate, when you and your family live in constant fear and are subject to persecution, you would do almost anything in order to escape it. As long as attempting to come to Australia represents a better option than the one they are escaping then they will continue to make these attempts.

Australia is now trying to make itself less appealing than escaping from genocide or torture. In essence, it is turning itself into one of these cruel regimes. That is a position no developed country should ever choose. These people are not threats, nor do they deserve to be treated with anything other than basic human decency.

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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