Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte is an international development professional, zen student, writer, mentor and aid heretic. Her new blog “Inside Out Development” launches next week, where she will publish a longer version of this article. For more info email her at email@example.com and she will excitedly add you to her blog list.
In Australia we are in caretaker period, the lull before the federal election storm. The hysteria over where to send “illegal refugees” who arrive in Australia, or who die trying, has reached fever pitch. It’s all ending in tears. It’s time for me for me to dry mine, buckle up my boots, and wade into the policy arena.
This epidemic of nastiness toward refugees took on a new strain in August 2013. The incumbent government, trailing in the polls, outdid itself by promising to send Australian-bound “boat people” to neighbouring Papua New Guinea, a highly underdeveloped country largely unable to care for its own population, for processing and yes, resettlement. To me this seems remarkably like a f*** off refugees policy.
It is worth noting that that under the current system, almost 90% of asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status have been ultimately accepted under Australian migration law, meaning they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country.
These people include the Hazaras, a case demonstrating one small piece of DoubleThink that I can’t get past. Many “boat people” are Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, where oddly enough our own troops and aid workers, are standing up to the Taliban because they randomly persecute people (like Hazaras).
Do forgive me but I can’t make out the logic here. We endanger our soldiers and aid workers to protect the lives of Hazaras in Afghanistan and we would also send Hazara boat people to Papua New Guinea because they are “illegal queue jumpers” and because “we will decide” who comes to Australia.
How did Hazaras go from being worthy of protection to being worthy of demonization and abandonment? Might it be because they fled the country in which they were being persecuted and had the gall to seek asylum in Australia? I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d be doing if I were Hazara.
There is plenty of information in the public domain to refute the slogans that the major parties are propagating in their demonization of refugees, such as the fact that all refugees were asylum seekers at some point, and that it isn’t illegal to seek asylum.
There has also been some serious policy work done which points to the need for a bi-partisan, regional solution that isn’t just about buying off the neighbouring country that can least refuse.
But this isn’t going to excite the voting public, at least not in the way a great piece of self-aggrandising bastardry does. To be frank: I’m holding out for a hero from among the major parties and all I’m getting are lies lies and not even any damn statistics to back them up.
Soon, one of the main two political parties will be in power, and neither has a credible refugee policy. I am fairly resigned now to this, and am flirting with the idea of a donkey vote, or even abstaining altogether. But try as I might, I just can’t seem to disengage.
In an effort to be the change I want to see in the world, last week I wrote an impassioned letter telling our Dear Leader that sending refugees to Papua New Guinea is not only craven but is also in breach of our international legal obligations. I didn’t mention the stash of cash taken from the aid budget ostensibly to fund periods of prolonged detention offshore for asylum seekers.
Here is the letter’s high point, if I may say:
Finally, please could you provide me with the costing estimates of this “PNG solution”, in particular the fees being earned by the private security company to whom you have entrusted responsibility for the success of this policy. Please note I plan to withhold from further tax payments my portion of funds that would fund your PNG asylum seeker policy.
Striving for politeness and decorum, I signed the letter Sincerely. I took some deep breaths to calm myself down having worked myself up in service of humanity. I followed Amnesty International’s campaign instructions and sent it to both the PM’s office and to the office of the Minister for Immigration. I have sought Divine Guidance – specifically from Joan of Arc – and now rise, phoenix-like from these policy ashes.
Here are the responses I received (Amnesty take note):
From the PM’s proxy people:
“If you wish to contact Prime Minister Rudd during this (caretaker) period, please direct your enquiries through the Labor Party website.”
There is nowhere on the website to submit letters.
From Tony Burke MP’s proxy people:
“Please note that this is Tony’s email address for electorate…matters. If you are writing to Tony in his capacity as (Immigration) Minister…please email firstname.lastname@example.org”.
It’s true. I wrote to the Minister and he said I had to write to the Minister.
How is one to make meaning of all this? I’ve heard it said that good and evil oppose each other, contain each other, and this is the nature of things. Perhaps we in Australia are given this refugee rejection business as an opportunity to show our better selves: our tolerance, our irreverence for authority, our love of the underdog.
I am not hopeful that this election will produce a fair outcome for refugees but something good has come of it for me. I have connected with a community of practitioners using its considerable skills and integrity to help refugees seeking asylum in Australia. They are fearless and determined, and I feel only admiration and relief when I hear of their efforts.
Perhaps its time I joined them.
Learn more about the work of the Refugee Council of Australia.