Australia’s Treatment Of Refugees And Asylum-Seekers Has Been Shameful
Australia was once proud of its international reputation as the Land of the "Fair Go For All" but this has taken a battering in recent years due to our government's treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees.
Introduction to a Complex Issue
There have been times, in recent years, when I have had cause to feel ashamed of my country and its government, especially about some attitudes to, and treatment of, asylum-seekers and refugees.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees –UNHCR- estimates that more than 20 million people, world-wide, are seeking refuge from wars, famines, droughts, floods and other natural disasters, and from ethnic, religious and political persecution. Many are forced to congregate in ever-more-crowded makeshift camps, often in unsanitary conditions, with inadequate food and shelter, where they may linger for years until some are settled in more affluent countries.
Most refugees do not wish to leave their homelands, with their family, community and cultural ties, to uproot themselves from their familiar surroundings and be forced to learn another language and a whole new set of customs.
Yet many Australians –stirred up by right-wing politicians, shock-jocks and openly racist organisations- worry that a few thousand people each year arrive on our shores in leaky boats, seeking new lives in this prosperous and peaceful land.
Our mainstream media breathlessly announce the arrival of each boatload of families as though Australia was being invaded by an army of brown-skinned terrorists, intent on changing our way of life forever.
The fact is that more than 95 per cent of “illegal non-citizens” in Australia come here by plane. Most of them are young, single, white-skinned and from the United States and the United Kingdom. They arrive on tourist visas and then work illegally, often for years after their visas expire. But of this ‘invasion’ the media say nothing.
Until 2001, my country had a proud reputation as a compassionate and responsible global citizen, willing to welcome those in need of help whatever their ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds. This reputation was shattered in August of that year when a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, obeyed the age-old law of the sea and rescued 438 Afghanis whose boat had sunk nearby.
The Tampa’s Captain, Arne Rinnan, later received a humanitarian award from the Norwegian Government for his actions, but the Australian Government portrayed him as a pariah because of his insistence on transporting the rescued people to the nearest port, Australia’s Christmas Island, in accordance with international maritime law.
Our then Prime Minister, John Howard, slammed his fist on his bully pulpit and spluttered: “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”
Howard also ordered a unit of Australia’s elite Special Air Services Regiment to board the Tampa and take control –arguably, an act of piracy on the high seas- and to steer the ship away from our coastline.
Thankfully, the more humane New Zealand government accepted the 438 asylum-seekers and resettled them in that country.
Since then, conservative politicians have used the arrival of “suspected illegal entry vessels” (SIEVs) as opportunities for political ‘dog-whistling’, appealing to the base racism and the fear of cultural change inherent in some sectors of Australian society. They have implied that some ‘boat people’ could be terrorists, or carriers of exotic diseases.
Howard and his Defence Minister, Peter Reith, told outright lies on the eve of an election, accusing parents of having thrown their children into the ocean so that they would have to be rescued by ships of the Royal Australian Navy. The RAN denied that this had occurred, but the denial received little media coverage, and the damage had already been done. This became known as the “Children Overboard” affair; it should have been called “Truth Overboard.”
The ‘lucky’ few who have since made it to Australia’s shores have been locked up behind razor wire in detention centres, mostly sited in some of Australia’s more remote and inhospitable desert regions, often for years at a time.
Under the stress of overcrowding, isolation, bureaucratic insouciance and uncertainty about their futures, many of these vulnerable, traumatised people –including children- harmed themselves in various ways; some even killed themselves. Many others –again, including children- suffered irreparable psychological trauma as a result of their experiences.
Politicians of all stripes have since sought to make political capital out of the sufferings of desperate people. But one thing is clear: as a signatory to the UNHCR’s convention on refugees, Australia has a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to treat these people in a humane and compassionate manner, rather than exacerbating their traumas.
Australians with a sense of these responsibilities are still waiting for true leadership on this issue, and hoping our government will find a way to deal fairly and justly with refugees and asylum-seekers.
I understand that this is a complex issue, involving matters of national security, community health and welfare, international legal obligations and the participation of ‘people-smugglers’, and I will write more about these aspects in further posts.