Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
ARTICLES

Something Mad About Refugee Policies

Even if we eliminate people smugglers, the people needing smuggling won’t disappear.

Kevin Rudd has an unnerving resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, the gormless cover boy of Mad magazine. Periodically offered for higher office, Neuman’s election slogan is always the same. “You could do worse … and always have.”

This week about 260 Sri Lankans, including 27 women and 31 children, are docked in western Java. They were seeking asylum in Australia, and are now refusing to leave their boat after being intercepted – at Rudd’s request – by the Indonesian navy. These people, and another 75 fleeing the brutal civil conflict in Sri Lanka who remain at sea in international waters, would have featured large in the Prime Minister’s discussion with his Indonesian counterpart in Jakarta last Tuesday.

I’ve written about boat people and stand by my view that community anxiety about such asylum seekers (only 3 per cent of those who seek refuge in Australia) is a proxy for the frustration many Australians feel about the refusal of successive governments to develop a national population policy.

But knowing why hysteria ensues each time a leaky vessel enters Australian territorial waters doesn’t tell us how we should respond to the men, women and children on board seeking our protection and whom history suggests will overwhelmingly be found to be genuine refugees.

We all know what’s right. We know in the same way we know that if a young, scared-looking woman pounded on our door in the middle of the night seeking refuge from some unseen persecutor, that we must let her in. Refusing to open the door – or, having seen her approach through the blinds, unleashing the dog to drive her from the gate and into the arms of our none-too-savoury neighbour – doesn’t absolve us of a duty to help. It simply adds “weasel” to the charge sheet.

Yet, in policy terms, this is what federal Labor is doing. This year, the Government has allocated $654 million to what it loftily describes as a “comprehensive, whole-of-government” approach to “combat[ing] people smugglers”. We need to stop kidding ourselves. Even if we eliminate people smugglers, the people needing smuggling won’t disappear. Just because people don’t suffer on our patch doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.

And anyone who thinks our Indonesian “friends” are not exploiting this Government’s determination to do whatever it takes to deny less than 300 people on-shore processing of their asylum claims needs to consult the dictionary definition of realpolitik.

The international convention on refugees was developed in response to the outflow of Jews from Europe after World War II and in light of the deaths of a third of the 937 men, women and children who embarked on what a later Hollywood movie would call the Voyage of the Damned. Having fled Nazi persecution in 1939, the SS St Louis was forced back to Europe after being denied entry to Canada, the US and Cuba.

Australia signed the refugee convention in the 1950s but if we can’t honour our obligations, we should have the decency to formally withdraw. Better still, we could elect federal politicians with the will and capacity to lead, rather than grovel to the lowest common denominator. The Prime Minister still has the moral authority – not to mention the electoral margin – to open a new policy and rhetorical chapter on asylum seekers and population issues more generally.

Should he fail to do so, Australia’s policies on refugees will remain just as Alfred E. Neuman said: “Like steer horns. A point here, a point there and a lot of bull in between.”

Publication History

Something Mad about refugee policies, The Sydney Morning Herald
25 Oct 2009
http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/contributors/something-mad-about-refugee-policies-20091025-hecg.html

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Email: leslie@cannold.com Mobile: 0417 114 859 Fax: +61 3 9348 2015 - PO Box 1337, St Kilda South VIC 3182 Australia