Put away that whistle: addressing the issue of asylum seekers

Forty years ago the Labor government under Whitlam ended the White Australia policy once and for all when it passed laws to ensure that questions of race or colour would not come into question when considering immigration to Australia. Prior to this, the Liberal governments under Menzies and Holt also played their part in dismantling the racially discriminatory policies in place during a period of significant cultural stagnation for Australia. Also, in response to the humanitarian crisis following the Vietnam War, Australia accepted many thousands of Vietnamese refugees and continued to settle their families in Australia into the late 1980s[1]. Have we become a more racially intolerant society since then? I really hope not, but from the Howard era through to the current Rudd government and Abbot-led opposition, we have seen both the major parties put forward policies that fail threefold: in terms of basic requirements of humanity; Australia’s international commitment to tackling the global refugee crisis; and on a purely rational basis, sensible economic expenditure.

The most recent proposal that has been put forward is the most hardline we have seen and will settle any asylum seeker arriving by boat in Papua New Guinea. The newly-reinstated Prime Minister’s decision to tackle the refugee issue in such a way shows his desperation to win the coming election and, more broadly, the win-at-all-costs attitude that has come to dominate the Labor Party’s approach to policy making. As a member of the ALP I was upset to see the party that I belong to, once again, make a lurch to the right to shore up its support by appealing to members of the Australian public who have been seduced by dog-whistle politics propagated by the Howard government and allowed to pass the scrutiny of our major news providers. It is important that we fight against the possibility of having to endure a government lead by the likes of Tony Abbott and, yes, we should get down in the mud and fight to ensure that this doesn’t happen. But how will we ever be able to enact the sort of change that progressive governments are capable of making when we are so easily swayed on our most basic values?

This policy is a dud. It’s so obviously inhumane and impractical that it will take a lot for many of the hard working and enthusiastic members of the Labor Party who, like me, are offended by this policy, to campaign in the coming election with a straight face. Because they know that this is what the party is being shown to stand for – judging the merit of someone’s claim for asylum on the basis of how they travelled to the country, when in reality this contradicts the basic values of the party.

All this emotional blubbery aside, what are the facts of this issue? As of January 31 this year, 47 percent of asylum seekers in detention were Sri Lankans, 13 percent Iranians and 11 percent Afghanis[2]. The conflicts and political situations in these countries that have led to these people seeking asylum are well known to the Australian government and, in my opinion, the majority of these claims are founded in a reasonable fear of persecution. In the case of the high number of Sri Lankan refugees we have seen coming to Australia by boat, the recent end to the civil war left many ethnic Tamils displaced, and an unconfirmed number known to be interned following the cease of hostilities[3]. In the case of Afghani asylum seekers to Australia, the great majority are Hazara ethnics who are consistently targeted within Afghanistan due to race and religion. The recent withdrawal of large numbers of international military units would undoubtedly give Hazara reason to fear renewed harassment. In terms of the Iranians coming by boat, recently pigeon-holed as merely ‘economic migrants’ by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr among others, the political situation in Iran has often been fractious and persecution on grounds of religious belief, political opinion, sexual orientation etc, is a real threat. This being the case, it would seem to me that on the basis of basic compassion it is the responsibility of the Australian government and the Australian people to assist these asylum seekers in a time of trauma and upheaval. As has been said, ad infinitum, why would these people risk a perilous journey at the hands of predatory opportunists if they were not in dire need?

Finally, as a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951 it is also the legal and international obligation of Australia to accept refugees and to treat them humanely while doing so. The fact that we as a nation are able to accept this blatant disregard for international law is an embarrassment, and undoubtedly does our credibility overseas a fair bit of damage.

But people with wider reaching influence than I have said all this before and the opinions of those committed to – shudder – ‘stopping the boats’ have not changed. It is unfortunately the case that we have a situation where the political parties that can form government in this country are consistently held to account over ‘border protection’ and if the government of the day does not take a hardline stance they will undoubtedly come under pressure in the polls and at the electoral booth.

The Coalition is content to win elections by making this humanitarian crisis the issue of each and any election, and frame it to promote fear and hysteria. We have now seen that the Labor Party is prepared to respond to that misrepresentation of the issue with equally distasteful policies.

So who is to blame for this? We all are. Our highest levels of government and the most watched and read media platforms characterise this issue so erroneously that it is no wonder Australians who are not active politically and are the patrons of the tabloid press hold the views that they do. It should be the professional and ethical responsibility of government and the media to uphold the values that have existed in these professions for hundreds of years. Within the Labor Party and political parties in general it is easy to attack and blame your opponents, whether they be political associates or adversaries, but change starts at home. Whatever your political affiliation it is crucial that on issues of humanity we stand for what is right and honourable. Let us see this latest stance for the failure that it is – policy dictated by bigotry and ignorance, something never looked back on by history with fondness.

William Ellis.


[1] ABC news. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-20/timeline-of-vietnamese-immigration-to-australia/4080074

[2] SBS news. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1295782/Asylum-seekers-Where-Australia-stands

[3] SBS News. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1722996/Why-do-asylum-boats-keep-coming-from-Sri-Lanka

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