Australian Election : Blaming The Boat People

As Rudd and Abbott use asylum seekers as a political football…..
by Gordon Campbell

If Tony Abbott wins office on September 7, Australia will present an even uglier face to the world than it does now. When dealing with refugees arriving by sea, Abbott is promising to stop the boats by military force if necessary, turn them around and send them back to Indonesia or other points of origin. In addition, Abbott has been touting a bizarre “rupiahs for rowboats” scheme whereby Australia would put aside $A20 million to pay Indonesia villagers to keep a watch out for asylum seekers, and is even proposing to buy the villagers’ unseaworthy boats. Needless to say, the Indonesians have not been impressed but have tried to avoid any comment that would embroil them in Australia’s domestic politics.

Leaving aside the moral questions and the violation of the Refugee Convention involved… how could these policies possibly work in practice? Don’t ask. Regardless, Abbott has counted the theoretical (delusional?) gains into his plans to balance the Australian budget. In costings released on August 28, shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey estimated the Abbott government will save $1.3 billion over four years by cutting the humanitarian migrant intake by 6,250 people each year, or 25,000 people in all. No small number, when Australia’s overall refugee intake is circa 20,000 a year all up. In effect, Abbott is planning to cut Australia’s annual refugee intake by over a quarter.

He may not get away with it. Just as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may not succeed with his plan to process more ‘boat people” arrivals offshore in the likes of Papua New Guinea. Lawyers acting for an Iranian refugee sent for processing to Manus Island in PNG have filed a claim in the High Court that argues all forms of offshore processing – in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, wherever – are unconstitutional, and in breach of international legal commitments that Australia has signed up to, under the UN Refugee Convention. (Faced in future with these court proceedings, a Prime Minister Abbott could well decide to pull Australia out of the Refugee Convention altogether.)

The legalities aside, Australia’s attempts to unload its refugee problem onto its poorer neighbours – a scam it calls a “regional solution” – are open to challenge on moral grounds as well. Monash University associate professor Dr Deborah Zion [pictured left] – she is also chair of the research ethics committee at Victoria University at Melbourne – has been a prominent critic of Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers. Most asylum seekers in the region, she points out, are currently being hosted by countries poor in comparison with Australia. “Why should we expect such countries that have their own burdens, to look after asylum seekers when we in the wealthy countries who have signed the Refugee Convention and made an undertaking to accept refugees, are refusing to do it?”

For political reasons, the debate on boat people in both Australia and New Zealand has focused on demonizing the people smugglers. By building on the so-called Bali Process of 2002 – a regional pact against human trafficking – political leaders in Australia and New Zealand have conveniently presented the prevention of people smuggling as the topmost priority, rather than the needs of the people on the boats. Zion is unimpressed by the demonizing of people smugglers. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that they’re nice people. But they’re performing a much needed service. I’ve had people in my own extended family who were smuggled out of Europe, and they paid people smugglers. That’s how they managed to leave, to survive, and to have families. To demonise people who are shifting people out of danger – although they may have their own motives for doing do – is not an unambiguous thing to do in itself.”

There are successful recent precedents, she adds, for handling refugees arriving by boat. “We need only to look back at what happened to the Vietnamese boat people, where over a quarter of a million people were shifted over a very short period of time – to Australia, Canada and the States – through a genuine regional solution. We do have some kind of blueprint. But the situation in the hosting countries now is very toxic…
I don’t think there’s any plan that’s feasible politically anymore. The whole debate has been so poisoned that its got to the point where no-one will speak the truth about what’s going on.”

Currently, Indonesia is hosting some 10,000 refugees in transit, often in appalling conditions, as this scathing report points out. Indonesia and other poor and over-populated countries are struggling to meet the needs of their own populations, let alone taking on the needs of additional refugees that relatively wealthy nearby countries – such as Australia and New Zealand – refuse to accept. During the debate on asylum seekers, much has been made of PNG being an unsafe destination for refugees. which it is. Not only does the intended refugee processing centre at Manus Island lack reliable access to drinking water, but PNG is also a socially unsafe destination for gays – homosexuality is illegal – and the rates of rape and other forms of violence against women are astronomical. Yes, Zion agrees, PNG is an unsafe destination, and therefore does not meet Australia’s obligation (under the Refugee Convention) to provide a safe alternative option for those refugees that it refuses to accept itself.

Even so, she feels ambivalent on this point. “ Papua New Guinea also takes in refugees from Irian Jaya. So they have their own refugee burden, which nobody is really talking about here. They took in 10,000 people from Irian Jaya last year.” On that basis alone, it strikes her that PNG has already done its bit. “Look, its totally inappropriate to think that PNG should take refugees that Australia won’t take. I mean, what is this? Its a nonsense to think that they have obligations to refugees that we won’t take. One of the unfortunate things is that we have started to trash PNG and say it’s a terrible place. Well, it may be a terrible place, but its because it’s a poor place. Poor places have their own problems to deal with. Its not that it’s a morally backward place. I would say Australia has won that title.”

The real and potential influx of refugees and asylum seekers faced by Australia and New Zealand is a tiny trickle, by international comparison. On 2012 figures Australia’s intake by total number of refugees ranked 49th in the world ; when compared to population size per capita, the refugee intake put at 62nd in the world, and compared to national wealth per GDP, Australia’s refugee intake was 87th. Yet thanks to hysteria whipped up by politicians and the media, the public perception is one of a tsunami of asylum seekers threatening to overwhelm the nation. New Zealand, which has just passed its own draconian detention laws for the treatment of (as yet, imaginary) boat arrivals is in no position to sit in judgement.

Who are the boat people? Most of those intercepted heading for Australia have been fleeing persecution in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, in the ongoing persecution of Tamils there after the conclusion of the civil war. Interestingly for New Zealand, many (most?) of the Afghan refugees in question are from the Hazara minority – who comprise the bulk of the residents in Bamiyan, the Afghan province where for many years the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team was located. In other words, Afghan boat people to New Zealand – if any such boats do reach these shores sometime in the future – are possibly from the same persecuted minority that we supposedly sent our troops to Afghanistan to defend and assist.

Are most of the asylum seekers taking to the boats merely so called “economic” refugees looking for a better life? Leave aside the fact that such a term would accurately describe the people on the family tree of most New Zealanders, the available statistics on this point are quite compelling. In Australia, over 90% of applicants have been found to be genuine refugees who are fleeing persecution , as defined by the Refugee Convention. There is no reason to think that any boats that may – ultimately – make it to New Zealand in future will not contain a similar ratio of people fleeing for their lives, from greater dangers on shore.

The current situation in Australia? As of late August 2013, about 500 asylum seekers have been sent to Nauru for processing and 419 are currently on Manus Island, in PNG. A smaller group of 46 refugees have been deemed as security threats by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) spy agency and not permitted release. The ongoing detention of that last group of refugees – 42 Tamils from Sri Lanka, three Rohingya from Myanmar and a Kuwaiti – have all been detained for over two and half years. Their ongoing detention has just been denounced by the United Nations human rights committee as entailing ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading’ treatment that places Australia in breach of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

On July 19, the Rudd government announced plans to expand capacity on PNG to cover all who arrive by boat after that date, and has insisted that none of them will end up in Australia. Since that July 19 announcement, some 3026 people have arrived on 43 boats. While not a negligible number, this needs to be kept in perspective. Lebanon, a country with a similar population to New Zealand (ie just over four million people) on a territory one tenth the size of the North Island, is reportedly harbouring about one million refugees from the conflict in Syria. Chad, one of the poorest countries on earth, was – as of September 2012 – hosting some 288,700 refugees from Sudan, 56,700 from the Central African Republic, 90,000 internally displaced persons, 91,000 recently returned displaced persons and 550 other refugees and asylum-seekers. By comparison, the threat posed to Australia and New Zealand by asylum seekers arriving on boats pales into insignificance.

Finally, there is a question as to whether a more compassionate approach would reduce not only the suffering, but the flow of boats. If people knew that their claims to asylum would be handled fairly and humanely in a timely fashion would they be more – or less – inclined to take to the sea in ways that risk their lives and those of their children? Given the current political climate, we don’t currently know whether it would be a more moral response and a more efficient use of economic resources to put more funds into boosting the processing system rather than into futile attempts to stop the boats, and criminalise the people smugglers. For now, New Zealand seems terrified of being seen as a ‘soft touch” – which is an peculiar way of describing the commitments we voluntarily signed up to honour under the Refugee Convention.

Deborah Zion is convinced that it would be worth trying an alternative, more humane approach. “If the solution is seen to be working,” she believes, ” then fewer people will get on boats.” And that will be the litmus test. The first step down that path will require putting the plight of these desperate people at the centre of the debate, and not the profit motives of the people smugglers. “In the meantime if people get on boats,” she concludes, “ they get on boats. You can’t turn then back. You can’t punish people for being desperate. My belief is that if there was more sense that there was some hope and a feeling that their claims would be processed properly, then people would wait. But there’s been no real discussion about what a proper regional solution would look like.”