Tag Archives: boat people

Australia’s PNG solution to refugees: A digest

This is a digest of news, opinions, comments and announcements concerning the recent agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to process asylum seekers and refugees. The so-called ‘PNG Solution’ will see all asylum seekers and refugees, who are travelling to Australia by boat, transferred to Manus Island for processing. Those determined to be refugees will be resettled not in Australia, but in PNG. The agreement is valid for 12 months.

Pre-19th July: Rumours & preparation

Australia, PNG ‘mindful’ of UN criticism on refugees – AFP, GlobalPost

‘Rudd said Australia and PNG were working together against “our common enemy — people smugglers”.’

Explainer: Australia’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention – Azadeh Dastyari, The Conversation

“It is important to note that the term “asylum seeker” does not exist under the convention but is a politically expedient label given to people who are seeking recognition of their refugee status. Many asylum seekers (90% of those who have come to Australia in recent years by boat) are in fact refugees and have rights under the convention, regardless of whether or not Australia has processed their claim or recognised their refugee status.”

Boats ‘our problem’ not the world’s: Tony Abbott – Judith Ireland, The Age

”’I say to Mr Rudd: stop making excuses, stop trying to say this is the world’s problem, it’s not. It’s our problem and we need to take the appropriate action in this country, by this country, for this country to stop the boats and we need to do it now,” Mr Abbott said.’

Labor to lean on Papua New Guinea for help – Paul Maley & Dennis Shanahan, The Australian

“It is understood Australia hopes to transfer failed Iranian asylum-seekers, considered by the government to be economic migrants, to PNG, creating an incentive for them to voluntarily return home.”

You’ve been misled on boat people: Here are the facts – Julian Burnside, The Age

19th July: Announcement

Mr Rudd goes to Moresby – Karl Claxton, The Strategist

“And he went to Moresby prepared to offer major concessions to O’Neill’s three priorities for the relationship: re-establishing an AFP presence in key centres; focusing AusAID support even more on Moresby’s four priority ‘pillars’ of health, education, infrastructure, and law and justice; and introducing symbolic measures to reduce irritation with our stringent visa requirements.”

Rudd announces deal to send all asylum boat arrivals to Papua New GuineaGuardian

“All asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement and none will be allowed to stay in the country, the prime minister has announced, as he sent out a draconian pre-election message that Australia’s borders are closed to refugees.”

Immigration department launches ad campaign to back asylum policy – Guardian

Credit: Joel Gibson. Notice the lack of asylum seekers on the boat (photoshop) and that fact that a 1300 number cannot be called from overseas.
Credit: Joel Gibson. Notice the lack of asylum seekers on the boat (photoshop) and that fact that a 1300 number cannot be called from overseas.

Christine Milne laments ‘Australia’s day of shame’ on asylum – Oliver Laughland, Guardian

‘Milne looked visibly moved as she continued: “The agreement that the prime minister has signed with the prime minister of PNG is ruthless and repugnant. It is in complete contravention with our moral obligations under the refugee convention.”’

Rudd’s masterstroke. All boat people now to go to PNG – Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun

“Kevin Rudd’s deal with PNG is undeniably impressive – even if the costs are yet to be explained. It neutralises Tony Abbott’s stop-the-boats attack.”

UNHCR statement on new asylum agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea – UNHCR

“UNHCR has not been involved in this agreement, and we are at present seeking further detail from the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea of its content.”

PNG move proves Australia is not special – Frank Brennan, Eureka Street

20th July: Indignation & prep for the Monday rush

Impotence – Jason Wilson, Detritus

“What it is not is a sign of a politicised racism among the Australian people. This specific policy is an artefact of political strategy, no more and no less.”

Does the PM really want refugees to love PNG? – Tom Iggulden, The Drum

Asylum seekers: Australia’s day of shame – Christine Milne, Guardian

“Far from “boundless plains to share”, Australia has sent a message to the world that we are a closed community willing to pay off anyone to get rid of an electoral problem. It’s Labor to the rotten core. It shames us all, because we are better than that.”

PNG deal – regional solution or co-dependency – Gerhard Hoffstaedter, Anthropolitics

“This creates a co-dependency that is based on substantial Australian financial aid (to be largely carried by the aid budget) for the acceptance of our refugees. This sets worrying precedents for how our aid budget is spent (already Australia is the third biggest recipient of Australian foreign aid after PNG and Indonesia) and how dependent we will be in regards to our refugee treaty obligations that will be effectively serviced by PNG.”

The PNG Solution and the ‘perspective of those who suffer’ – Jeff Sparrow, Overland

“Indeed, Rudd’s announcement draws attention to a topic about which liberal Australia scarcely likes to think: namely, Australia’s role as an imperial power in the Pacific, behaving in the region much as the US does throughout the world.”

Refugees one of PNG’s many problems – David Flitton, The Border Mail

“The murder rate in PNG is 13 times that in Australia – and closer to strife-torn Sierra Leone, according to most recent World Health Organisation figures.”

7 reasons K Rudd PNG “Plan” is Illegal – Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

21st July: One less detention centre

Nauru riot: 125 asylum seekers arrested – AP Canberra, Guardian

“The remaining 420 asylum seekers had been transferred to tents at a second detention camp under construction on another part of the tiny atoll, which is home to fewer than 10,000 people, the spokeswoman said.”

Media Release: JRS calls on the Australian government to reveal true cost of PNG policy and to strengthen safe pathways – Oliver White, JRS Australia

22nd July: The analysis begins

Rudd’s boat people deal does not say what Rudd promises – Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun

The PNG solution: as harsh as it is unprecedented – Maria O’Sullivan, The Age

“Of major concern is that Papua New Guinea is in fact a producer of refugee applicants. It is therefore puzzling that Australia would seek to transfer asylum seekers there for processing and protection. The Australian Refugee Review Tribunal has granted refugee status to people fleeing persecution from PNG in recent years, many of whom are women.”

PNG Cannot Afford This Policy – Kristian Lasslett New Matilda

“Did anyone in government consider the practicalities of resettling refugees in PNG? Approximately 85 per cent of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas. Their access to land – which is essential to livelihoods – is assured through a customary system of tenure that is organised along kinship lines. Land ownership in rural areas will thus be barred to refugees, because they have no connection with indigenous clans and lineages so vital to rural life in PNG.”

Rudd’s hard-line approach will be disastrous – Victoria Stead, The Age

“Rudd may or may not realise how ill thought out it is. With an election on the horizon, and with this smacking every bit of a cynical move to garner votes, he may or may not care.”

Asylum seekers to receive hostile reception in PNG: local governor – ABC News

‘The governor of Oro province, Gary Zuffa, has told 702 ABC Sydney the decision to settle refugees in Papua New Guinea could be very divisive. “Who’s going to finance that re-settlement? I’m assuming that Australia is,” he said. “If Australia is going to finance that re-settlement, then that’s going to create a bit of hostility from the local population because these people will be given funds to start a new business, start a new life.’

Papua New Guinea villagers the new refugee victims – Peter Michael, The Telegraph

“His shanty town, opposite the airport in Port Moresby, has been identified as a potential new site where genuine asylum seekers would be resettled in Papua New Guinea under the deal.”

Kevin Rudd’s boat plan starts to leak as rejected refugees left in limbo – David Crowe & Michael McKenna, The Australian

“With the Nauru centre destroyed and the Manus Island facility still a fraction of its planned capacity of 3000 people, the Rudd government must find more locations for people who are not considered genuine refugees.”

Boats, aid and the art of the possible – Gary Hogan, The Interpreter

“A cargo cult mentality is alive and well in PNG and this afforded the necessary levers for the Australian prime minister to pull so deftly in his game-changing policy statement, which will almost certainly stem boat arrivals in the near term, until people smugglers and Australian activists are able to find paths around the absolutist decree that even legitimate asylum-seekers will now not find sanctuary in Australia.”

Burke admits failed asylum seekers could be detained indefinitely in PNG – Lenore Taylor, Guardian

‘He said failed asylum seekers would have three options. “One, they remain in detention. Two, they return to their home country. Three, they get settled in another country where they have a right of residence.’

Captain Rudd steers Australia into new depths of shame – David Marr, Guardian

“That it’s brilliant politics is a mark of how debased the politics of the boats has become.”

Regional Settlement Arrangement with PNG – The Drum

“Below is a verbatim reproduction of the text signed by prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Peter O’Neill on Friday, July 19, 2013.”

First group of asylum seekers transferred to PNG under new government policy – Department of Immigration of Citizenship

Source: https://twitter.com/s_bridges/status/359157991997591552/photo/1
Source: https://twitter.com/s_bridges/status/359157991997591552/photo/1

Rudd’s PNG solution will work, but it isn’t right – Khalid Koser, The Interpreter

“Nevertheless, from a political and policy perspective, Mr Rudd has done things right. But has he done the right thing? I don’t think so.”

Australia’s deal with Papua New Guinea is vulture capitalism at its worst – Antony Loewenstein, Guardian

“The problem has never been that Australia gives too much aid; it’s that we’re throwing huge amounts of money to avoid a failed state on our doorstep by backing rapacious mining interests and overpaid consultants”.

Attentiveness and indifference – Klaus Neumann, Inside Story

“Two cases from Europe show that there are other ways of understanding irregular migrants”.

Blogger says Australia has neocolonial attitude to PNG – Radio Australia

23rd July: On closer inspection

Sydney Morning Herald cartoon. Source: https://twitter.com/cathywilcox1/status/359445452602613761/photo/1
Sydney Morning Herald cartoon. Source: https://twitter.com/cathywilcox1/status/359445452602613761/photo/1

Rampaging soldiers at the Moresby medical school: implications for Rudd’s PNG solution – Stephen Howes, Devpolicy

“But, whatever the legislative problems, the real weakness in PNG is implementation: getting things done.”

What would a truly regional asylum arrangement look like? – Maria O’Sullivan, The Conversation

“The EU asylum system shows it is possible for signatories to the refugee convention to transfer asylum seekers between one another. However, and it is a big “however”, certain regional standards and mechanisms must be in place for this to occur.”

What will happen to gay asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea? – Senthorun Raj, Guardian

“However, little has yet been said about another important question: how will lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers fare in a place where their identity is a cause for criminal sanction?”

Unapologetic Rudd anticipates legal challenge to new policy – Bianca Hall, The Age

“It comes as a legal expert described the policy as ”much more extreme” than the ill-fated Malaysia solution, which was thrown out by the High Court in 2011.”

The PNG Solution Won’t Stop Deaths At Sea – Ben Eltham, New Matilda

“Concentrate, just for a moment, on the overriding reason this Labor Government is advancing for Australia’s draconian new asylum seeker regime: deaths at sea.”

O’Neill brags of closer grip on aid after refugee deal – Rory Callinan & Daniel Flitton, Sydney Morning Herald

“Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, boasted on Monday that he had achieved a ”realignment” of the country’s aid program from Australia as part of the recently negotiated agreement.”

Kevin Rudd, you’re not a good friend of PNG – Martyn Namorong, The Interpreter

“It is not unusual for the tribe in Papua New Guinea to protect and assist a tribesman even though such decisions could have negative consequences. And Kevin Rudd is no ordinary member of the tribe, he is a Big Man – the Prime Minister of Australia.”

ACFID Statement on Asylum Deal with PNG – Australian Council for International Development

‘We are unconvinced of the ability of Australia to support adequate, expanded asylum claims processing managed in PNG,”

What life can a resettled refugee expect in PNG? – Andrea Babon, The Conversation

“But even skilled, experienced Papua New Guineans can’t find jobs, and most university graduates cannot find employment. PNG has a tiny formal economy – meaning that there are not that many formal, paid jobs such as being an accountant, hairdresser or bus driver.”

Source: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=36875#.Ue4irGQ-Jyx
Source: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=36875#.Ue4irGQ-Jyx


Source: http://www.kudelka.com.au/2013/07/boundless-plains-to-share/
Source: http://www.kudelka.com.au/2013/07/boundless-plains-to-share/


Source: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/photogallery/federal-politics/cartoons/david-pope-20120214-1t3j0.html
Source: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/photogallery/federal-politics/cartoons/david-pope-20120214-1t3j0.html


24th July – More details emerge

Rape and torture on Manus Island detention centre: whistleblower – SBS

‘A whistleblower who worked at the Manus Island refugee detention centre in Papua New Guinea has spoken out, condemning it as not even fit to “serve as a dog kennel”.’

PNG deal may be expanded to other countries – Mark Kenny, The Age

“Immigration Minister Tony Burke has revealed the PNG asylum seeker deal could be replicated for other South Pacific countries heavily reliant on Australian aid money.”

Tony Burke to inspect Manus after whistleblower’s ‘horrific’ rape and torture claims – ABC News

“Mr Burke says the allegations are appalling, but says the Government still intends to massively expand the Manus Island facility.”

RUDD’S BLUFF USES THE PACIFIC AGAIN – Ben Bohane, Pacific Institute of Public Policy

“The decision to send all boat people for processing and resettlement in PNG is a huge bluff – Rudd is calculating that asylum seekers will no longer want to come to Australia now, if they know that there is no hope for resettlement and instead they will wind up permanently in PNG.”

What has Australia done to Nauru? – Nic Maclellan, Guardian

“Most reporting on Nauru ignores Australia’s historic role as the administering power before independence in 1968.”

Asylum deal a nightmare for PNG and Australia – Deni ToKunai, The Interpreter

“Prime Minister O’Neill has made it no secret since his election in 2012 that he wanted to see a total re-alignment of the Australia’s half-a billion dollar a year aid program to support his government’s priorities.”

What is a persecuted Iranian to do? – Mary Crock and Daniel Ghezelbash, The Drum

25th July – It gets worse

Rudd plan in tatters as camps labelled ‘gulags’ – Bianca Hall & Michael Gordon, SMH

“Mr Fraser branded the camps on Manus Island and Nauru ”Australian gulags”, with conditions as bad as at the worst forced-labour camps of the Soviet Union. His comments came as an inquest in Perth heard criticism of searchers over the loss at sea of more than 100 asylum seekers last year.”

Sinking survivors say they will try again – Adrian Lowe, David Wroe and Daniel Hurst, The Age

”’But for me any country in the world is better than going back to Sri Lanka. I can’t go back to Sri Lanka,” the 28-year-old said, adding that he did not think the Australian government’s new policy would change anything.’

Colonialism, sovereignty and aid: what refugees mean for PNG – Jonathan Ritchie, The Conversation

Operation Sovereign Borders – Tony Abbott

“A Coalition government will establish a military-led response to combat people smuggling and to protect our borders – Operation Sovereign Borders.”

Source: http://newmatilda.com/2013/07/24/top-work-labor
Source: http://newmatilda.com/2013/07/24/top-work-labor


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As long as the razor wire exists: Voices of refugees

Stepping off the plane, Mohsen Soltany was confused – he didn’t think the weather in the United Kingdom would be this hot. Baffled, he questioned the immigration officer.

“UK?”. No – not the UK. He was in Perth. Perth, Australia.

Soltany arrived in Australia in 1999 via Malaysia – or Singapore, he’s not sure – on a journey which started in Iran and traced through Turkey. A people smuggling network arranged his flight to Perth, a city Soltany had no knowledge of before his arrival.

Not that he would get the opportunity to acquaint himself: after declaring himself a refugee, Soltany was transported directly to Perth Detention Centre. His next four years were spent behind the razor wire in various Australian immigration detention centres.

Staying in Iran wasn’t an option. Soltany loves his country, but firmly believes he faced certain death after trying to expose government corruption.

Through his work, Soltany – then a politically active man in his late twenties – was exposed to the corrupt dealings of the government, and was also privy to information about Iran’s infamous chain murders. After penning an anonymous letter to a newspaper condemning the government, Soltany’s house was searched by officials. Although not home at the time, he says “I knew I had to leave”.

While Soltany’s unplanned arrival in Australia is symbolic of the vulnerability of asylum seekers, it is perhaps also illustrative of how government policy – however strict – cannot deter people from fleeing danger and seeking refuge here. Most of those people, like Soltany, will arrive by plane. And many will spend months, even years, in detention centres.

Ian Rintoul first knew Soltany as a name in Villawood Detention Centre. Rintoul makes it his business to know who is behind the razor wire: he is spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, the group at the epicentre of Sydney’s refugee campaign. His involvement in refugee issues stretches back to the early 1990s, but he pinpoints the Howard era and rise of Pauline Hanson as pivotal to his participation in the movement. When he claims that in recent years government policies on asylum seekers have both “improved and worsened”, his laugh reveals the irony is not lost on him.

“While superficial characteristics and administrative things have changed, the fundamental underpinnings of the refugee issues in Australia haven’t changed”, Rintoul declares. He believes that Gillard government strategies – such as mandatory detention, “stopping the boats”, and regional processing centres – mean “we’re back with all the essentials of the policies we had under the Howard government”.

Rintoul considers the “absolute punitive quality” of detention as one of the worst aspects of asylum seeker policy. Nearly 4,500 people are currently held in Australian immigration detention facilities, with a further 1,300 under residence determination in the community. Rintoul cites overcrowding, a lack of services, and social isolation as instrumental to the self-harm and mental health problems within the detention centres.

Amnesty International has also criticised the conditions in detention centres, deeming them “unacceptable”. The organisation inspected several Australian detention centres and reported that detainees are “at grave risk of self-harm and mental illness”. It claims that morale is deteriorating and attempted suicides are on the rise. Of particular concern are conditions at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, where stays are lengthy and the incidence of self-harm is increasing.

28-year-old Rachel Connor* has been to Christmas Island. As a volunteer English teacher at the detention centre for six weeks in 2010, she witnessed the fragile mental state of many of the detainees.

“The truth is that almost all of the refugees suffered from some form of mental disturbance from being in the centres, as well as the complex history of trauma they carry from previous experience”, reports Connor. She outlines some of the restrictions placed on the detained asylum seekers, such as “timed and monitored” recreation time. She says that detainees are not free to come and go, and that parts of the facility seem “like a prison”.

Nevertheless, Connor believes her English classes had a direct benefit on the asylum seekers, as she says the routine task of practicing the language gave them a focus, “in a context where every day feels the same without progress. Myself and many of the other teachers knew that a lot of our students would not wake up in the morning if it weren’t for our classes”.

Connor’s students told her it was the only thing they looked forward to in the day.

Soltany’s four years in detention were spent divided between Perth, Port Hedland and Villawood detention centres. Sipping tea in his inner-city lounge room crammed with musical instruments, the now 40-year-old musician and poet contemplates the years he lost. Soltany wavers between calm reflection and palpable anger. At times his rage spills over and projects him off his seat. His brow furrows as his voice rises, and his gaze fixes on a point somewhere else – somewhere beyond the room.

“I went very mental”, he admits. “They’re not respecting very basic human rights in detention”. Contacting the media and attempting to speak out about the conditions became a constant undertaking for Soltany. “Any channel that we could get the numbers, I would tell them – this is happening, we are on hunger strike, people here stitched their lips. I told them what was happening”, he says.

He witnessed and experienced physical violence and was also placed in isolation. Released from detention in 2003, Soltany now possesses permanent residency. He is in regular contact with many detainees in the centres, and says the conditions are “still bad”. But Soltany is adamant that the worst feature of detention is the uncertainty.

“You don’t know what will happen, that is the worst part. And you don’t know any day they can come to deport you – that is when people get stressed”, he says. “All the people going to the top of the roof and doing all this stuff, because they think maybe tomorrow… That makes them stressed”.

Rintoul agrees that the indefinite aspect of detention deeply affects asylum seekers. And so does the terminology often used to refer to them.

According to those who work with refugees, and to refugees themselves, terms such as “boat people” and “illegals” are not only misleading but also have a directly harmful effect. Nevertheless, these terms are common in the public domain – despite the fact that over 95% of asylum seekers travel to Australia by plane, and as Connor points out, “there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum”.

Research shows that the terminology does have an effect on public opinion: most people believe that the majority of asylum seekers arrive via boat.

Gode Mfashingabo works at refugee support centre the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). The refugee youth worker believes that these terms have become common as they are “much easier and more provocative to use than any other words”. Mfashingabo says that the media and politicians will use “whatever words necessary to destabilise and drive their point across”.

Soltany says that this terminology “absolutely” has a direct effect on refugees, and that it “hurts deeply – a lot”. He explains that as an asylum seeker he was variously referred to as an “illegal immigrant”, “queue jumper” and even a “terrorist”.

“Where is the queue? You run away for your life – hello, they wanna kill me! There is no queue”, Soltany says. He vigorously rejects the likelihood that the public accurately understands refugee issues. Soltany refers to his poem The Only Hope After God:

“We were the fan for the political fire, Now we find ourselves in the flames”. His poem describes being stuck in a “quagmire of prejudice”.

Mfashingabo, himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), agrees that the public perception of refugees is fundamentally flawed. “What they have is pretty much propaganda that is spun through the media”, he claims. “The public has been misinformed incredibly”. Mfashingabo lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for three years after his ethnic group was stripped of its citizenship rights. He cannot return to the DRC as he believes it would “amount to suicide”. He says that some people’s only option is to seek refuge in another country, but what drives that decision is rarely mentioned in the media.

“Nothing serious is being discussed. Out of sight, out of mind”, Mfashingabo says, lamenting an often trivial media which features stories about shopping addiction and skateboarding dogs.

Rintoul strongly believes the public perception is “coloured” by the way refugees and asylum seekers are presented by the media and politicians. He claims that the language is deliberate.

“It’s to create a picture, to create an attitude, to invite a particular way of looking at refugees”, Rintoul says. “When the media do it, it’s not an accident. I mean, there have been Press Council findings that asylum seekers are not illegal and the boats are not illegal and should not be referred to in that way. They are constantly referred to in that way”.

In Rintoul’s eyes, this language and the detention of asylum seekers are techniques of delegitimising them.


Soltany yells into the loudspeaker. His voice reverberates throughout Sydney’s Town Hall courtyard, and is then echoed by 150 protestors. Fijian man Josefa Rauluni died after jumping off a roof at Villawood Detention Centre a few days earlier, and the protest was organised hastily to condemn the government’s policy of mandatory detention. Two of Soltany’s years in detention were spent at Villawood, and he says he was stressed and shocked upon hearing the news of Rauluni’s death. He reveals that he witnessed several suicides during his years in detention.

The suicide of a young Afghan man at Curtin Detention Centre last March was the fifth suicide in Australian immigration detention within a seven-month period. Several months later, a Tamil refugee poisoned himself and died at Villawood Detention Centre. These deaths highlight an intensifying and pervading sense of hopelessness amongst detainees.

Soltany wrote poetry in detention to help express his feelings of despair – “as a companion to my mind”. His poems were dark, prompting his roommate to urge him, “Please write something about hope!”. But Soltany says he couldn’t: “I couldn’t find hope”. He kept writing throughout his time in detention, and in 2010 he released a book of his poetry, Inside Out. His poetry has received wide acclaim, and he has even collaborated on a book with writer Tom Keneally, whom he considers a good friend.

Post-detention, becoming a refugee advocate was a natural step for Soltany. He has also taken on a case worker role for many asylum seekers to assist with their claims. Despite his distressing experiences in detention, he loves Australia and has started to recover from his mental trauma. Music was central to Soltany’s healing process, and is something he is actively pursuing with his band. He hopes that his book of poetry will help people to understand the suffering of those in detention, a place he says crushed his spirit.

Rintoul is in it for the long haul – he always knew it would be a long-term campaign. He says that although the campaign “always” faces opposition from the government, he is boosted by the small successes. He retrieves a piece of paper from his desk – “a little list of unfinished business”. He counts and laughs: there are 16 points on the list, and he says “I think there are two of them that we’ve won”.

Rintoul believes the razor wire is emblematic: that it “cuts” Australian society by embedding a discrimination which impacts on the wider community.

“That razor wire also imprisons us, as long as we allow its existence”.


*Not her real name

Offshore processing is dead, courtesy of politics, not conscience.

As of yesterday, the Australian Labor Party has indicated that offshore processing of asylum seekers is dead. For now. But does this indicate a new era of clean conscience for our government? A born-again Machine Gun Preacher-like about face towards a more humane approach to those who need our help? Will it mean that Labor will start representing those on the left who originally stood tall with them, and desist from playing bare hairy-chested politics with the Opposition, who will stop at nothing to prove time and time again how masculine their party really can be?

Unfortunately, not likely.

The story of how our government treats refugees opened many, many years ago, but perhaps the final chapter in this section began back in May. Prime Minister Gillard announced the Malaysia Solution, which involved sending 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia for processing. In return, Australia would take 4000 processed refugees into our community. Even for the least cynically minded amongst us, this announcement was one that was hard to fathom, not in the least because of the lack of long term vision involved. Only 800 arrivals? In the 5 months that it has taken for that proposal to well and truly be buried, more than that 800 have already arrived on our shores.

This really begs the question – what was the government trying to achieve? Perhaps it was just dipping its toes into the water, testing it out a little to see if the deal would fly. Given the appallingly low approval rate of the Prime Minister, it seems like a rather risky tactic. Either way, come August 31st, the deal was well and truly pickled when the High Court ruled that the solution was illegal.

What we saw next was an appalling act of “leadership” by the government, who then sought to have the Migration Act amended, effectively overruling the High Court, so that the deal proposed could become legal. In what is truly an amazingly desperate move, Gillard then sought the support of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, saying that he would come off looking better if he was aligned to the government, because his political stance would be be more firmly entrenched on the “right”. In the end, Abbott refused to give support, not because, like the High Court, he feared for the safety and well-being of the asylum seekers being sent to Malaysia. Rather because it simply wasn’t the solution that he had chosen.

Is this the next step in the Gillard government's plan? Reposted with permission from Kudelka Cartoons.

Yesterday, we saw the Gillard government coming to grips with the fact that, for now at least, the Malaysia solution is dead in the water (poor pun I know). However, that is not to say that it will not be resurrected later. In fact in yesterday’s announcement, Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen made it clear that the Malaysia solution was something that will be actively pursued.

But, did the government take the opportunity to at least take the moral high ground on the matter, and rub it in the face of the Opposition to show them once and for all that offshore processing was a morally bankrupt policy? Let’s have a look at the message that our Prime Minister had for her opposite number:

“We are at risk of seeing more boats. If we do see that, there is one person to blame, Tony Abbott, for this mindless negativity, his reckless strategy which has brought offshore processing to an end.”

To put it simply, the cynic in me sees yesterday’s announcement as little more than a way to publicly put the Malaysia solution to bed (well for a nanny nap perhaps), while taking the opportunity to take a big stab at Tony Abbott and declare that any boats that arrived from here on in were on his watch, not hers. Frankly, she’d have more luck selling iPads to the Amish than that idea to the Australian public.

Amongst yesterday’s announcement were also some promising details about mandatory detention. If offshore processing is not going to continue, what’s going to happen to the asylum seekers who would otherwise be processed offshore? The answer is that while mandatory detention will continue, the government will be issuing more bridging visas and trying to process more refugees in the community. However, more detention centres, in Wickham Point in Darwin and at Yongah Hill in Western Australia, will be opened to handle the overflowing facilities currently used. I would have thought given that the cost of mandatory detention per asylum seeker is approximately $113,000, the government would be looking at other options rather than building more facilities, even if these facilities are overcrowded as is.

It’s worth making the point here that although offshore processing is currently off the cards, which is a significant step forward for a more rights-based and cost-effective solution for asylum seekers, mandatory detention is still an evil that exists. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has stressed that mandatory detention exists for administrative, rather than deterrent value. If that is the case, then how come Chris Bowen is able to announce that the bulk of new boat arrivals will be processed in community using bridging visas? More to the point, why are almost all asylum seekers who arrive by plane not kept in mandatory detention? How are they able to be processed free of hoopla?

The fact of the matter is that mandatory detention, like the Malaysia solution, is a way in which the government can look like it has a control over the situation, and on those who arrive seeking asylum. It’s important for them to look like they have control over the situation when in reality, there are much greater causes at play, as Brendan has already outlined on this site. The entire point is deterrence (or at least the pretense of it). In which case, the policy is flawed either (a) morally, because it seeks to harm the people who are needing our help the most, and/or (b) pragmatically, because it’s just for show and doesn’t work.

Recently Prime Minster Gillard was nominated in the Atlantic’s list of Brave Thinkers for 2011, because of her insistence at pushing through the Carbon Tax, despite great opposition to it, and the damage to her popularity. The write up admitted that it wasn’t sure whether this act was a move of political expedience or principled values, but it acknowledged that Gillard was following what she believed in, and staking her claim on it. Now that we’ve seen a softening of Labor’s stance on asylum seekers, will we see some clear direction that her party will follow a line that it believes in, instead of changing their course when it suits them at the time? Only time will tell, but for one, I won’t be holding my breath.


Footnote: It’s difficult to believe that in this tough political climate, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott once flirted so outrageously with each other on television. Prepare to be nauseated.


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When I move you move: it’s the conflict, stupid.

I was listening to Triple J’s Hack (episode for 8th September) the other day, which was part IV in a series looking at the decade since 9/11. One of the interviewees, an academic from ANU, spoke of the correlation between conflict and migration. And, how 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts have been a catalyst for increased migration. In particular, of forced migration; or in Australian terms, ‘why people are getting on bloody boats and coming to our shores’.

This crucial and central ‘push’ factor of migration has largely been ignored in forums. Have we have forgotten what the nature of conflict is like, and that both Iraq and Afghanistan are very much still in states of conflict? Yet, public discussions are shaped by finger-pointing and blame – on who is responsible. We look inwards, rather than outwards. We rightly question Australia’s continued presence, purpose and role in both these countries. Then, separately, we question Australia’s immigration policy, human rights obligations and treatment of asylum seekers. But, rarely do we talk about both at the same time. About the connection between conflict and migration.

The current discourse in Australia focuses on immigration, often beginning with people on a boat, at a border. Although a recent New Matilda piece rightly questions the ethical premise of Australia’s immigration policy, it only focuses on what happens in and around Australia’s borders. Next, the Gillard Government proposed some very radical changes to the Immigration Act. In particular, 198AA, which gives extraordinary executive power to the Immigration Minister irregardless of international obligations or domestic laws. And then, the Herald Sun decided to attach a very loaded question to recent reporting on asylum seekers – “Is the Federal Government too soft on asylum seekers cheating their way into the country? Yes/No”.

Ludicrous. With the weight of all this talk about pull factors, it “feels like a midget is hanging from my neckless” (Ludacris). Australian discourse shows a lack of imagination. Migration is much more than about the arrival at a border. Migration involves multiple borders with many histories, politics, and agendas. Invisible yet tangible, following contours that are neither linear nor defined. When people are forced to move through these complex webs, we tend to only care where they are going, not why or from what.

Conflict causes, exacerbates and acts as a catalyst of the forced movements of people. Just look at the table below (Fig. 6 from UNHCR’s Global Trends 2010) and the top 7 sources of refugees. So, indulge me and engage in a historical hypothetical. What if Iraq and Afghanistan were not invaded? What effect could that have had on the movement of Iraqis and Afghans both globally and to Australia?

(Sorry, I wish I could present this as a minimalist infographic, but I lack the skills).

From UNHCR's Global Trends 2010

By the end of 2009, there were an estimated 10.4 million refugees around the world.

From UNHCR's Global Trends 2010

Almost half (45%) of those refugees were from Iraq and Afghanistan. By some estimates, as many as 7.8 million since 2003 from both countries combined. But, really, we do not actually know. It is disputed, in particular for Iraq. This can be attributed to: mixed migrations of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, both leaving and returning; the capacity of host countries to identify, register and track their movements; and the swift and disruptive nature of the war. For example, since 2003, 2/3 of Iraqis returning were IDPs. According to UNHCR, over 460,000 refugees have returned to Iraq since 2003. In 2010, 230 refugees in Australia returned to Iraq.

Over 3 million refugees have been forced from Afghanistan, with over 96% of them being hosted in Pakistan and Iran. Most Iraqi refugees have also sought protection in neighbouring countries, particularly in Syria and Jordan.

But, how many refugees came from Iraq and Afghanistan in the years prior to 9/11? Well, this does not really elicit the point I am trying to make, but in some ways ito does. Since the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, there has been large movements of refugees from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries and around the world. The same goes for Iraq, but without the Soviets.

Between 1980-2o01, the highest number of Afghan refugees was in 1990 at over 6 million, eventually dropping to 2.6 million in 2000 after a total of 4.6 million were repatriated during the 1990s.

How many came to Australia?

According to UNHCR, in 2001, there were 3,600 Afghan refugees in Australia. Comparatively, in the first 6 months alone of 2010/11, over 1,000 claims were lodged by asylum seekers from Afghanistan who came by boat. Between 1991-2001, 12,000 Iraqi refugees were resettled in Australia. In that same period of 2010/11, 480 claims were lodged by Iraqis who came by boat.

So, it comes as no surprise, that the two countries which top the list as sources of refugees, are also the two countries that (arguably) have experienced little sustained stability and peace since 1980. For Iraq, it was the Iraq-Iran war, followed by two more Gulf Wars with the U.S and its allies. For Afghanistan, it was the Soviet invasion and occupation, periods of civil war, and then the current war and occupation. It is also no surprise that it was during the relative stability of the Taliban’s governance that over 4 million Afghans were repatriated and asylum claims declined (that is not to speak in absolute positive terms about the Taliban, but only to demonstrate the effects of stability and peace. The human rights violations, discrimination and repression, particularly of the Hazara and women, are well documented). I am sure that if not for these successive wars, a result largely of geopolitical concerns, we would between 45-50% less refugees around the world. And, considering that it is predominantly Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat, would ‘boat people’ even exist today? I doubt it.

I would like to see the discourse shift to one framed around conflict and forced migration, simultaneously with a more rights-based approach (‘humane’ does not cut it. It is a word you use when referring to animal welfare). Here is what the Australian government, with the support of civil society, could do:

  • Communicate a better understanding of how conflict affects the movement of people: shift from immigration to migration. This is subtle, but of significance, as it moves from the who and how to the why. That is, it is not about who immigrants are and how they arrive, but why they are migrating. Migration is about causal, origin issues, whereas immigration is about the consequences of migration and is focused on procedures, identification and security.
  • Messages that are win-win-win. The Australian Government should be communicating our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq as that of peace-building, conflict prevention and development. This can then be tied in with how these efforts will contribute to not only a decrease in the number of asylum seekers coming from these two countries, but increases in repatriation. Or, in other Australian terms, ‘stopping the boats and making sure the buggers go back to where they came from!’ For example, that 430,000 refugees from Iraq have returned home. The Australian government supporting the transition of two nations to democracy (win); the opportunity for Afghans and Iraqis to return home (win); and the decline of asylum seekers coming to Australia (win).
  • This can be supported by communicating AusAID’s role in these countries. The ODA budget for 2011/12 in Afghanistan and Iraq is $165 million and 36 million respectively. Relatively small compared to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea’s, but potential to be scaled up towards 2015 and receive a larger slice of the proposed $8 billion AusAID budget.

Who is to say that these messages will not resonate more strongly with the Australian public than ‘stop the boats’? That demonstrating the support for the stability, security and well-being of two nations will not strike chord with the public over and above the din of xenophobia? The Howard Government created a ‘boat people’ discourse, which lives on and continues to assume that Australians are xenophobic. I do not believe this entirely. A reshaping of the discourse will see a reshaping of attitudes and beliefs.

The nature of conflict has change since WWI. More civilians than soldiers are casualties. Millions are being forcibly displaced and seeking protection in other countries. There are no front lines. No clear borders of conflict.  But, the horror is the same. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est still resonates and more so, given it is largely civilians who are experiencing what he so hauntingly describes. I do not picture a young British soldier when reading this poem, but an Afghan man/woman/child fleeing a conflict for which they are no longer bystanders.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori”.

(It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country)

Go Back To Where You Came From: Superb, uncomfortable & influential (?) viewing

By Sarah Fosterling

Go Back To Where You Came From was fantastic and should be compulsory viewing for all Australians. Superb work by SBS Australia.

The story tracks the journey of 6 ordinary Australians who have differing views on refugees, as they travel backwards to retrace the path that refugees take when arriving in Australia. The first episode, which aired last night, introduced the 6 participants to refugees currently living in Australia. 3 of the participants met and stayed with a family from Burundi living in Albury, New South Wales. One in particular, Raquel, is a self proclaimed “racist”, who openly states that she doesn’t like black people. Watching her discomfort as she ate a traditional African meal with her hands, and then the empathy that she felt when the mother of the family described the atrocities she had suffered made for compelling viewing.

The other 3 participants were sent to the Western suburbs of Sydney, to live with a group of Iraqi refugees, some of who had actually travelled on boats to arrive to Australia. At one stage, the 3 Australians joined them in a swim at the local pool. There was one man who was noticeably uncomfortable around water, and his story of how he travelled across the seas despite being unable to swim was particularly touching. Travelling to Villawood Detention Centre to meet with some refugees clearly upset some of the men, as they were told of how after consecutive rejections, some of the refugees felt that suicide was the only possible option.

The 6 participants were then taken on board a boat which would ordinarily house up 60 or more refugees, to brave the rough waters off the Australian coast. Unsurprisingly, the journey proved to be extremely challenging after only a few hours.

As great as it was to see people having their views challenged, how much impact can the show have without the reach of commercial television? After the three nights of the show are over, will there be an outcry as was seen over live animal exports? Unfortunately, highly unlikely.

Would you send me back?

As mentioned on a blog post published by UNICEF last week – why is it that so much more public outrage occurred in response to the treatment of live cattle being exported to Indonesia, compared to the deporting of people to Malaysia under the Gillard government’s refugee swap scheme?

One of the biggest issues is ignorance.

There is a definite lack of education, which was clearly illustrated last night. How do people know if they don’t see?

Did you know that in 2010, Australia accepted 0.03% of the world’s refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people; of the 43.3 million refugees globally, we took just 13 750?

Go Back to Where you Came From is creating superb uncomfortable viewing that has the ability to humanise asylum seekers. Let’s just hope that a commercial channel picks it up in the near future so it reaches the minds of the many that need to be educated.

Everyone loves a little test.

In the meantime, send some mates who need a little education on the issue this great interactive Asylum Seeker fact tester which lives over on the SBS website. Also if you missed last night, you can watch it here.

Finally, if you had fled war, terror, starvation… would you go back to where you came from? Highly unlikely. And do you think Raquel will survive her experience in Malaysia? Again, highly unlikely. Great viewing tonight indeed.


Sarah is currently the Digital Marketing Specialist for Save the Children Australia and is also studying a Masters in International Development. She loves traveling, bicycles, languages, photography, fresh air, international supermarkets and working for the greater good and not the man. She just launched DonateADesk, an organisation that allows corporations to donate office space to not-for-profits, and currently blogs over on Social4Social.

A shorter version of this piece first appeared on Sarah’s blog, Social4Social, which you can find here.

Go back to where you came from!

SBS, an Australian public TV channel (sometimes known as ‘Soccer Before Sex’ or ‘Sex Before Soccer’, originally due to its high content of football matches and foreign films), is launching a very interesting initiative in the form of a 3-part series – Go Back To Where You Came From

“Go Back To Where You Came From – the world-first, three day TV event – is coming to SBS on 19, 20 & 21 June. This three-part series sees six ordinary Australians, of varying ages and backgrounds, who agree to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers by embarking on a confronting 25 day journey. Tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia, the series features unprecedented access to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world”.

From having a quick look around comments posted in reply to the trailer, on Facebook and YouTube, there appears to be quite a positive response from Australians so far. Although, this series is not being aired on Australia’s more popular, commercial channels, and it can be suggested that regular SBS viewers are already concerned about and aware of refugee issues. That is, SBS is preaching to the choir.

But, is that being unfair to the wider Australian public? A number of recent surveys have shown positive attitudes not only to migrants, but also to refugees. The Australian Red Cross conducted a survey in 2010, which showed that of 1,000 respondents, more than 80% of them said they’d be willing to help a refugee settle into their community.

  • 86% of people would flee to a safe country, if they lived in a conflict zone and were under threat.
  • 94% of these people would use all their money and assets to get to a safe country.
  • 31% know of someone who has come to Australia escaping persecution or conflict in another country.
  • 83% agree that people fleeing persecution should be able to seek protection in another country.
  • 83% are willing to assist a refugee in their community settle in Australia.
  • 67% agree that refugees have made a positive contribution to Australian society.

So, what’s the deal? Is there a strong disconnect between the empathy of the Australian public and the very unsympathetic nature of public and political debate around asylum seekers and refugees? More precisely, is this disconnect found between the public’s different understandings of a ‘refugee’ and an ‘asylum seeker’? Dr. Bob Birrell, of Monash university in Melbourne, argues that there is a difference between the two in people’s minds:

“I think the controversy in Australia about refugees is, has to do with the undocumented arrivals on our shores who then claim asylum. There are questions there about who are these people, are they an especially privileged group because they have the money to come here. But I think overwhelmingly the key issue is the way they arrive. Instead of us choosing them, they are choosing us”.

This is perhaps further supported by results from another survey, from late 2010, which found that of 1,400 respondents, only 48% believe migrants should be able to maintain their culture without prejudice or disadvantage. Yet, 8 out of 10 in the same survey, believes that the Australian migration program has been generous towards migrants throughout its history. Clearly, 8 out of 10 are forgetting the White Australia Policy, which was essentially, in one policy form or another, in effect from 1901-1973 and restricted ‘non-white’ immigration. It was absurd which ever way you looked at it.

Clearly, there is a volatile mixture of xenophobia and empathy, misunderstanding and willingness. The purpose here is not to make a case for upholding human rights and Australia’s obligations (although a public education and awareness campaigns are perhaps needed) or to dissect the government’s immigration policies (see links below for far more capable and insightful commentators). I want to think about this distinction being held, between refugees and asylum seekers; between Australians and migrants. There seems to be very contradictory attitudes held by many Australians; an inner contest of values. And, our media and shared history, with migration and refugees, is standing in the way.

A quick Google search around perhaps reveals what is driving and feeding this misunderstanding. Boat people. This is the term that most commonly appears in newspaper headlines about asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia. In The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, and The Age.

Julia Gillard to send back boatpeople”

“Who’s afraid of 4500 boatpeople?”

“Fury at boatpeople `with dubious stories'”

Boat people policy limbo”

“Record armada of boat people”

“Govt can’t say where boat people will go”

Australia has a shared history with refugees, written in the books, on camera and visibly evident in Australian society. Refugees are legit. Between 1976-86, post-Vietnam War, Australia accepted over 100,000 refugees from SE Asia. Since the events in Tiananmen Square 1989, Australia has accepted over 40,000 refugees from China. It is during this period, that the term ‘boat people’ originated, but very few actually arrived by boat. Those that did, were arriving in an unauthorised manner according to Australian law and successive governments began as early as the 1980s setting up policies and places for processing arrivals by boat and defining those that did as different from asylum seekers and refugees.

It was, and still is, about national sovereignty and maintaining top-down control. A country’s sovereignty is defined by many things, but in particular by geographical boundaries. Any unauthorised entry, whether by asylum seekers, fisherman, whalers, soldiers is an encroachment on that country’s sovereignty, an act of aggression. And, as the history of countless wars demonstrate, governments, kings, rulers are very, very territorial.

So, Australia now has a well-established, shared history with boat people, as defined by law, media and political debate. Australians associate ‘boat people’ with illegality, with queue jumping, with an identity that may not gel well with the Australian way of life. It is about the way asylum seekers and refugees arrive. This is what is causing the disconnection between asylum seekers and refugees: boats. Asylum seekers arrive by boat, they have dubious stories with no evidence or identity, they did not go through proper immigration channels, they are doing something illegal. Although none of the above is necessarily true, it is a matter of personal perceptions, knowledge and relative truth. On the other hand, refugees have suffered real, visible and known persecution. We know this from history classes, films and popular culture.

As Bob Hawke sensibly said, and perhaps channeling Lara Bingle, “We’re all bloody boat people…That’s how we found the place…These people have got initiative, guts and courage and Australia needs people like that.” Although that is how Australia was settled by both forced and willing migrants from the British Isles, it feels like within all this debate and proclamation of Australian values that something is missing. Australia is lacking a creation mythology (at least non-Indigenous Australians), a shared national identity that bonds and is almost irreproachable. The Americans built a creation myth after their struggle for independence from the British. Migrants, whether legal or illegal, to the U.S. have been able to buy-into the foundation myth, the ‘American Dream’, and the folklore of the Founding Fathers. The numerous and strong national identities of migrants that come to Australia do not have the same folklore to buy-into. It is the cause of much anxiety.

Ted Simon, who traveled around the world on a Triumph motorcycle in the late 1970s, perhaps hits a nerve when describing Australians:

“Like most people everywhere they spent most of their lives just getting by, but there was no collective dream or mythology that told them what it was they were supposed to be doing. In that respect they were far behind the aboriginals they had decimated and despised. Yet many signs indicated that the time might not be too far away when Australians would agree on a better reason for living than to eat a pound of beef a day. When that day came I thought this would become one of the world’s best places to be”.

Perhaps this explains the outrage Australians are demonstrating at the export of live cows to Indonesian abattoirs but are nonchalant about the transfer of asylum seekers to Malaysian detention centres. Are we closer to finding a better reason for living than to eat a pound of beef a day and creating an irreproachable national identity?


Links dissecting the debate

New MatildaYou might get snakes, you might get ladders

ABC The DrumOff the wall refugee policy

The AgeMalaysian deal a risky proposition

Centre for Policy DevelopmentTrampling on human rights is expensive

ABCUnderstanding the asylum seeker debate


Breaking: Australia accepts refugee swap deal with North Korea

Following successful negotiations with Malaysia, and interest from Thailand and Indonesia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard today announced a new deal to exchange asylum seekers travelling to Australia with refugees currently living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

“North Korea has exactly the sort of human rights record that we are looking for in this latest transfer deal,” Gillard said this morning from Kirribilli House. “Kim Jong-Il has personally guaranteed that the asylum seekers we send to North Korea will be treated no better than the average North Korean. I’m wholeheartedly encouraged by his assurances that they too will live in squalor.”

Under the new plan negotiated this morning, Australia would be willing to accept 5000 Sri Lankan and Afghans, who have been determined as refugees. In exchange, North Korea would accept the burden of Australia’s least wanted residents: 50 boat-arriving asylum seekers and Russell Crowe.

“By eliminating two crucial components of (private security firm) Serco’s role, this deal with save the Australian taxpayer 20 million dollars each year. Firstly, Serco will no longer need to deploy a unit of 15 men to control Russell Crowe every time he goes drinking in a New York bar. Secondly, we expect that we will see a noticeable drop in asylum seeker riots that have recently occurred after in-house screenings of Robin Hood,” Gillard said.

Asylum seekers display their anger after yet another unnecessary Hollywood remake.

The decision is a landmark moment in Prime Minister Gillard’s leadership, as it is the first time that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has provided his full support for one of her propositions. Mr Abbott was typically coy this afternoon, in a press conference that contained many subtle metaphors and insinuations. Abbott himself wore his signature red Speedos, with the word “STOP” printed in capital letters over his groin and bottom, and held an oversized red stop sign in his right hand, all while standing atop a life-size papier mache replica of a 50 foot wooden boat.

“It has been said in the media that I instantly oppose proposals put forward by the Labor government, regardless as to whether they have merit or not,” Mr Abbott said.

“Quite clearly this is a fallacy, and the fact that I have now backed Julia’s 4,687th proposal this year shows this. The media has also written that I mindlessly repeat brainless slogans whenever I give press conferences. I want to make a clear point that I absolutely stop the boats do not.”

Opposition leader Tony Abbott single-handedly stopped the path of thousands of boats last year by parading around in such swim attire.

Across the seas, there were wild celebrations in the central district of the nation’s capital, with many locals deliriously driving the country’s most recent and fashionable vehicles for hours on end. Deep into the night, North Koreans traversed up and down Pyongyang’s main street, hanging out of the side of their horse-drawn carts, and firing crossbows into the air with gay abandon. Earlier, celebrations reached a peak when it was mistakenly announced that North Korea had successfully completed a deal with Austria, not Australia, and they would be sending over one their most famous movie stars as part of the deal. However, when a correction was made over Pyongyang community radio that Arnold Schwarzenegger would indeed not be coming, there was much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, and many chambermaids sighed deeply.

It appears that this negotiation has come at a perfect time for Kim Jong-Il, who has been trying to distract attention from the behaviour of his erratic son, Kim Jong-Un. Local newspapers have reported that North Korea’s leader is unhappy with his son’s strange and unprecedented shift in behaviour. Sources close to the presidential palace have indicated that Kim Jong-Un has recently been locking himself in his room, for hours on end and refusing to come out for his daily torture session of small squirrels, as he previously enjoyed. Rumours abound that Kim Jong-Un is now addicted to the most addictive type of anti-social behaviour – Angry Birds. With such embarrassment surrounding him, his father is now looking overseas for a way to distract the often savage North Korean tabloids.

Child psychologists are concerned that Kim Jong-Il's son has been raised too closely in his father's image.

“Quite frankly, after seeing the deal Prime Minister Gillard cut with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, I couldn’t wait to get on it,” North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il said.

“It is a win-win situation for both our nations. Australia gets to rid themselves of the burden of following the UN Convention on Refugees, and in return we take a small number of refugees, and the gormless buffoon who continues to embarrass his home nation through drunken displays of poor behaviour. After years of entertaining Boris Yeltsin in the 90s, I don’t envisage this being a challenge at all.”

The continued success of these refugee swaps opens up the door for future deals between countries wishing to rid themselves of undesirables. Today Tonight’s resident swapping expert, Stephen Fantergan, had this to say:

“Could we see a future deal between Thailand and Singapore? Thailand could send over a boatload of Phuket-dwelling, overweight, middle-aged Westerners and in return, Singapore could send its entire supply of chewing gum? Or perhaps Australia could send the Gloria Jeans franchise back to the United States, in return for repatriating Rupert Murdoch? The possibilities are endless.”


The blind leading the blind

“If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (Jesus in Matthew 15:13-14)


Australia’s new refugee policy and associated consequences for human rights in the region

Hot on the heels of the ‘planking’ fad, comes a new Australian craze: the asylum seeker shuffle! (Or for those who prefer a catchy acronym, let’s affectionately call it ASS). The general gist is that the Australian government sends asylum seekers who arrive to our shores via boat away to human-rights poor settings, and in return, the receiving country sends a few extra back our way. Re-set, breathe a sigh of relief, then play again! In fact, no need to limit the game to just two players… everyone is encouraged to come play the asylum seeker shuffle… come one, come all! The only rules of engagement are that you must NOT have signed the Refugee Convention and you must have a poor record on adherence to human rights. The other rules are… well… there are no rules!

Just like the planking phenomenon, ASS is in equal measure both inane and as(s)inine, and infinitely more dangerous. The policy announcement by the Gillard government on the 7th of May that a bilateral agreement had been entered into with Malaysia, under which 800 new arrivals by boat would be sent into Malaysia’s unwelcoming arms and detention centres in return for our acceptance of 4000 pre-screened refugees, is mind-boggling. The evidence of Malaysia’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in detention centres and residing in the wider community is widely known, and severely disturbing.

In certain respects, the ASS bears similarities to ‘planking’: the government for all intents and purposes is lying prostate with its head in the dirt, while Malaysia does whatever it wants out of eyesight, and hopefully, earshot. See no evil, hear no evil. Forget political posturing, we now have political planking! By promising to remain in a supine position while the Malaysian government continues its atrocious treatment of asylum seekers unabated, Australia is tacitly giving its assent to the violation of human rights, turning a blind eye not only to this but to its own international obligations under international human rights and refugee law. In criminal law we call this wilful blindness. In international refugee law, we call it refoulement, the prohibition against which is provided for in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his [or her] life or freedom would be threatened on account of his [or her] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.[1]

Non-refoulement is a non-derogable obligation (an obligation from which no derogation is ever permissible) and has been described as the ‘cornerstone of international refugee protection’[2].  In addition to this, Article 3(1) of the Convention Against Torture, of which Australia is also a party, provides that: ‘No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.’[3] Clearly someone forgot to send Australia the memo.

As one friend I know put it, we appear to be enduring an epidemic of idiocy in regards to migration policy in Australia at the moment. And stupidity is becoming contagious. It started with Malaysia. Then Thailand piped up and said it wanted a piece of the pie too. Now Indonesia is considering jumping on the bandwagon. What do these countries have in common? For starters, a renowned poor record in regards to the humane treatment of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. This prompts me to ask: what kind of example is Australia setting for our neighbours in the region? Our supposedly highly developed country; a fair, free and democratic land to be differentiated and delineated from the morally obtuse in our region above all else.

Burma? Malaysia? China? North Korea? Oh no, we are head and shoulders above all of those shady characters. And yet, here we are, again setting a terrible example internationally for others states to replicate (this brings to mind the ominous international precedent set by the 2001 Howard-era Pacific Solution in regards to offshore processing, which shamefully served as inspiration for the UK, supported by Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria and Germany, attempting to implement a similar policy in 2003[4]). Countries with fewer resources mind you. So, is this a case of the blind leading the blind, or, more accurately, the politically calculating leading the morally pernicious? Should Australia be responsible for leading the way in the region? Are we hurting any chances that may have been open to us to convince our neighbours who haven’t signed the Refugee Convention to ratify it? And what is the real cost of this policy on the international human rights framework?

Australia is located in a dubious region when it comes to adherence to human rights principles. States in the region are underrepresented in terms of the ratification of major human rights treaties, and there is no regional human rights framework covering the Asia-Pacific such as those that exist in Africa, the Americas and Europe. As one of the most developed and democratic countries in the Asia-Pacific, we should be encouraging those around us to take human rights seriously. It is in our own interests, as well as clearly being in the interests of those who through no fault of their own find themselves within the borders of states who actively violate their human rights.

Indeed, Gillard’s new policy is entirely short-sighted and counter-productive. Considering that refugees by definition flee their countries to escape persecution, by turning a blind eye while countries such as Malaysia persecute human beings within their territory (citizen or no) with impunity, we thereby fail to address one of the root causes of the cross-border migration of peoples who leave in search of protection. Is this approach sustainable? No. Is it practical? No. Will it once and for all “solve” the “problem” of movement of peoples who fear for their lives? No. Will it encourage those with dubious human rights records to amend their ways? Most certainly not.

My firm belief that Australia should be leading the way in the region rather than engaging in a ‘race to the bottom’ perhaps derives from a lesson in childhood ethics 101: the lesson taught to us by our parents and teachers not to excuse our own behaviour by citing the poor behaviour of others (“But Mum, everyone was doing it!”). Or, as the lesson was commonly posed, in simple question format: “And if Joe jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” The difference is that as children, while the temptation to take the low road, to do as others were doing even though we knew it was wrong, often proved too great, as adults it is far easier to understand the wisdom inherent in this advice. We understand that when we reduce ourselves to the lowest common denominator in order to secure instantaneous, however ultimately fleeting gratification, we lose out in the long run.

Australia is, unfortunately, acting like a child. It is shirking its responsibilities under international law for quick political gain. By refusing to take the high road, Australian society and the region in general thus loses out because human rights norms, where they are not adhered to, lose their impact. Where they are treated as fluid principles rather than a binding system of rights and correlative duties, the foundations become precarious and the whole point of the framework becomes muddied. We demonstrate to other countries that it’s okay to ignore human rights. We don’t take a stand. In fact, we take it one step further by engaging in ‘political planking’: lying down, rolling over and firmly burying our heads in the sand, and after we’re done performing said acrobatic manoeuvres, we get up, wash our hands, and deny any responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

The bottom line is – when states engage in such tactics, when they play new Great Games – they are playing with people’s lives. Every human deserves to be treated with respect, with humanity. Human rights, in the words of Jack Donnelly, are held ‘universally’, by all human beings, and against all other persons and institutions.[5] Australia has promised to protect and promote human rights at home and abroad, and it should do what it promised. And that, my friends, was a lesson from childhood ethics 102.


[1] The full text of the 1951 Convention Relating to The Status of Refugees and the 1967 Optional Protocol can be found on the UNHCR website, at http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.

[2] ‘UNHCR Advisory Opinion on the Extraterritorial Application of Non-Refoulement Obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol’, available at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refworld/rwmain?docid=45f17a1a4 (accessed 20/05/11), p. 2.

[3] 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cat.htm

[4] See U.K. Home Office, Concept Paper Presented by the Home Secretary to the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council Meeting: UK Proposals on Zones of Protection: New International Approaches to Asylum Processing and Protection (March 2003), available at <http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk> (accessed 21/05/11); Schuster, Lisa, ‘The Realities of a New Asylum Paradigm’, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society Working Paper No. 20, University of Oxford, 2005 (accessed 21/05/11); Noll, Gregor (2003) ‘Visions of the Exceptional: Legal and Theoretical Issues Raised by Transit Processing Centres and Protection Zones’, European Journal of Migration and Law 5: 303-341 (accessed 21/05/11); Amnesty International, ‘Australia-Pacific: Offending Human Dignity – the “Pacific Solution”’, 26 August 2002, AI Index: ASA 12/009/2002, p. 3.

[5] Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2nd ed., Cornell University Press, p. 1.

Immigration nation and the refugee situation: another case of history repeating

Before Christmas last year, I posted a piece about the asylum seeker issue that is currently in the Australian spotlight. It generated many hits and a lot of commentary. Undoubtedly, this is an issue that stirs up a lot of emotion in most people. This could be one reason why, despite the actual number of asylum seekers being so low, there is such huge media coverage and consternation amongst our politicians whenever a boatload arrives.

As part of that piece, I asked the question: why? Why is there such a huge concern over a very small number of people coming to our shores? Why are there so many myths created about this phenomenon? How could a former prime minister of our country successfully run with the false claim that asylum seekers threw their children overboard prior to an election?

Some of these answers, I feel, can be gleaned from looking back at history. The story of the fear surrounding immigration is told quite brilliantly in the three part documentary series Immigration Nation on SBS, which concluded on the 23rd of January. You can watch all three episodes here (SBS does not region lock their episodes so you should be able to access it regardless of which country you are in). The basic premise of the series is that Australia has managed to develop into an extremely diverse and tolerant nation, and that this was a “miracle”, considering the decades of exclusionary and racist policies that existed. Episode 1 and 2 detail the White Australia Policy which existed from 1901 to 1973. Apart from creating an image of a racist Australia worldwide, the policy also divided many families who were split up when some members were deported. The absurdity of the policy’s implementation was highlighted with a description of the now infamous “dictation test“. The test required the immigration officer to dictate a passage of 50 words, which the applicant had to transcribe. Not only did the test contain incredibly difficult Queen’s English, but if the applicant managed to pass the test, the immigration officer was then allowed to select another European language of his choice, and invite the applicant to write another 50 word passage down. The dictation test allowed for the overt discrimination of anyone who did not meet the criteria for immigration at the time – in other words, anyone who was not white.

The third and final episode of the series shed some fascinating light on the changes that were made to Australia’s immigration policy during the Whitlam era. Many people are aware that former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was responsible for the official dismantling of the White Australia Policy. However, what many people may not know is that the actual numbers of non-white immigrants after the abolition of the policy did not increase greatly. It appears that the abolition of the White Australia Policy was something more cosmetic than paradigmatic. It was the Vietnam war, however, that prompted an actual shift in government policy.

In 1974, there were 96,000 Vietnamese being held in Guam for processing to other countries. Whitlam, the visionary who is often credited with benevolently opening the door to Asian migrants, would only allow 1,000 of these refugees into Australia. Why so few? Members of the ALP party at the time explain that Whitlam was fearful of letting too many South Vietnamese refugees in, because, being anti-Communist, they were unlikely to vote for a political party aligned to the left. That’s correct. Whitlam’s main fear against the refugees coming to Australia is that they will not vote for him. It’s not racially motivated. It’s entirely pragmatic, if not irrational.

I was amazed at the story of Tac Tam Lam, who is 19 when he arrives in Australia with 4 other Vietnamese boys fleeing persecution in their home land. After a journey of thousands of kilometres, they arrive in Darwin, and pull up next to a prawn trawling boat. They ask the fisherman on shore what they should do. One of them suggests calling the police for help. When they explain that they have no money and virtually no possessions to their name, a fisherman gives Lam 10c to make a phone call. Meanwhile, one of the other boys is dying for a cigarette, and asks another fisherman for one. Instead of just one cigarette, the fisherman looks him up and down and tosses him the whole packet. “Wow,” thinks Lam. “The Australian people are so welcoming to foreigners.”

However, despite the warm welcome that the boat people feel from the Australian people, there is a remarkably familiar tone to the government’s attitude to the new arrivals. A team of authorities from the Department of Immigration is quickly sent to Darwin to hush things up. As Wayne Gibbons, who worked in the Department for 24 years, notes:

“Boat arrivals directly into Australian territory risked creating an atmosphere that things were out of control. When the Australian public feels things are out of control, they generally turn against immigration.”

Then there is the story of Phong Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who arrived by boat and who is currently a welfare worker in human rights. Choking back tears, he emotionally tells the story of his arrival:

“Mum was carrying with us nothing but a little statue of our lady. It was…and that’s it…nothing. No clothing, just what we wear. And we are leaving our country, but the only thing is I (sic) happy if we die, if we perish, at least we as a whole family, we die…together.”

Equally striking is the contribution to history made by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the conservative leader of the Liberal Party who comes to power following Australia’s 1975 constitutional crisis. In July 1979, there are 400,000 Vietnamese refugees in South East Asia who are seeking resettlement. Under normal circumstances, one might expect Fraser to continue the tough stance of his party on immigration and oppose the intake of some of these refugees. However, against the odds, Fraser decides to let 14,000 refugees in. During his time in office, Fraser permitted the entry of 70,000 refugees.

John Menadue, who was secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister between 1974 and 76, was, with Whitlam, instrumental in dismantling the White Australia Policy while Labor were in power. He had this to say about Fraser’s decision:

“If Malcolm Fraser had decided that he wouldn’t take Indochinese refugees until he had consulted opinion polls or focus groups, he would never, and Australia would never, have taken Indochinese refugees. But Malcolm Fraser didn’t take polls. He decided that leadership was essential. It was something that Australia had to do, morally justified, and it would benefit Australia to do so.”

The story of the handling of the Vietnamese refugees bears striking resemblance to the situation we find ourselves in today. The abolition of the White Australia Policy was supposed to bring about equal opportunities for immigration for all people, regardless of their cultural background. However, in the early years, this only resulted in a policy shift by name only. The Labor Party have recently been guilty of the same thing, by abolishing the Pacific Solution then effectively rehashing it as the East Timor Solution. An outside factor, namely war, resulted in a number of asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat. Although this is a “push” factor, the government seeks to hush up the unwanted arrivals and emit an air of control, even though the cause of the boat arrivals is not something that they can easily control. So all the tough talk by political leaders about stopping boats only occurs to provide the illusion of potency.

The final chapter of the story, that of a strong leader who ignores polls and focus groups, but follows his own moral conscience, is yet to occur. Time will only tell if this portion of history repeats itself.

When the White Australia Policy was overturned, it was achieved on the back of heavy lobbying from university students, who saw the exclusion of foreigners from this country on the basis of skin colour as morally abject. As I saw the footage of hordes of white students protesting on behalf of others who were different to them, protesting simply because they saw injustice, not because they had their own personal stake in the outcome, I was deeply touched. The question is, can we do the same? Is it within us to repeat history for the latest victims of this exclusionary and racist government policy?


You can read the original article on this issue here. You can also follow this author on Twitter.