Saturday, May 12, 2007

Refugees from decency

Sometime between the fourth of August and the eight of December 2007, Australia will go to the polls for the next federal election. Prime Minister John Howard will again most likely turn to his tough border policy to confirm his status in the community as strong on security. But the policy is becoming discredited. Security comes at too high a price.

Under Howard’s watch, Australia is well on its way to a status of international pariah. In ten years, Howard has closed doors and smashed windows on the world stage in order to win elections at home. His stridency is a hollow echo of the Bush doctrine. He has projected a pre-emptive strike policy that has enraged neighbours. He has reneged on the international rule of the UN to take part in an illegal and ill-conceived war in Iraq. He almost single-handedly rejected a world process for climate change (Clinton’s US agreed to sign Kyoto). Above all, he threw away human decency and locked the door on the very people that most needed his help. John Howard, with the help of a vigilant and compliant Navy, freed Australian waters from the fleeced and powerless refugees of the war-torn countries of the world.

Australians, alarmed by talk of being “swamped” by another Yellow Peril, supported this action, in the main. Howard used the confluence of 9/11 and a boatload of Afghans to tap the fearful mood of the country to devise a new immigration policy on the fly. Refugees were not wanted, unless invited. And in the homeland itself, Australia frittered away hard-won freedoms in name of Anti-Terrorism and the need to protect itself from invisible enemies. But staying in a fearful mood is not healthy over a long period of time. The moral panic of terrorism will pass and Australia will have to live with the consequences.

The new immigration policy was a mallet used to crush a peanut. Bill Heffernan, a farmer and the Government’s hatchet man with a penchant for homely metaphors, described it as a “firebreak”. He told Jesuit priest and author, Frank Brennan, “You have to choose someone’s property as a firebreak. In destroying their property, you will save the neighbourhood”. His Government chose the Tampa as the firebreak. But his cute analogy doesn’t stand up. Refugees are not property, the boats are not a bushfire and the only thing destroyed in the neighbourhood and the world at large is goodwill towards Australia.

It is not entirely the fault of the current Government. Labor in power been equally unsympathetic to refugees. Mandatory detention was introduced in 1992 under the Keating Labor Government. While they have softened this stance lately, they have not entirely renounced it. Yet they and the Liberals know mandatory detention is unnecessary. It is ineffective as a deterrent and merely clogs up prisons creating prologued human agony. It remains in place merely to "send a message" that Australia is not a soft touch.

The “Pacific Solution” was one of Howard’s addition to the hard touch. It was done to keep the boats and their human cargo out of reach of interfering lawyers. Australia outsources its immigration problems to poor and compliant countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea at great cost and with total loss of due process. The Australian locations are remote from the big cities and the overseas locations are almost inaccessible. Yet it too is a totally unnecessary action. It not only increases the tension between the executive and judicial branches of government, it denies the refugees any appeal process. Much to the Government's annoyance, the Australian courts rule fairly on most immigration matters before them.

The third plank of the strategy was the 1999 introduction of Temporary Protection Visas. This was a Pauline Hanson idea adopted by the Government to offer a three year visa that would not apply to family. The law’s failure to protect family members caused an increase in women and children in the 2000-2001 wave of boat people and explains why there were only 65 men among the 353 who died when SIEV X sank in October 2001. It also meant that of 1,609 people held offshore since Tampa, 368 of them have been children.

While such positions seem unfair, inhuman and abhorrent (not to mention expensive and inefficient), the hard stance played to the Government strengths on security. It also played on an almost feudal fear of invasion by boats. It failed to take into account that most overstaying immigrants arrive in Australia by air. But the wider community is unconcerned by an airborne invasion. Meanwhile Labor ducked for cover while the Government came down hard.

Australia’s three year election cycle means that governments spend almost as much time campaigning as governing. Governments turn to slick public relations, making themselves look good at taxpayer expense. Advertisers paint a picture of a prosperous nation, the lucky country. The people held in Nauru, Manus Island, Christmas Island, Port Hedland, Woomera and Baxter wanted a small slice of that luck. They wanted a safe environment free from trauma; they wanted medical treatment, schools, adequate water, food, toilets and housing. But Howard’s Australia just wanted them to go home and looked the other way. Australia now needs to face up its responsibilities. Its time to start acting like a decent neighbour again.


David J said...

Wow this is quite a detailed review of the great deeds our Federal Government has performed!
I recall finding myself in deep water back when the Tampa episode was current. I was discussing the shocking state of affairs with a group of people who I thought were reasonable civic minded fellow Australians, when I realized I had misjudged the situation completely.
I thought the issue at hand was the shocking lack of regard for human life and the apparent condemnation of helpless people but I soon found out the major issue was not this at all, but how are we going to get rid of all these dirty 'Cue jumbers'?!
I was shocked and deeply saddened that people could turn so savagely against, for the large part, helpless and desperate people.
It is always nice to read that not all Australians have become so inhuman.

Joestoke said...

It failed to take into account that most overstaying immigrants arrive in Australia by air.

And thats a huge part of tapping into peoples psyche. Many are terrified by the image of immigrants arriving by boat. It conjures up morbid visions of desperate dependent people. And isn't that a key to the whole issue? How is the children overboard episode referred to? Of course its ...CHILDREN OVERBOARD. That title do the horrendous connotations which come with an issue as sickening as that. However for many people the first reference point is the title 'children overboard'. And for just as many people details get washed away by the images of the aforementioned desperate dependent people arriving by boat. An excellent example of terminology dictating hearts and minds. When you have the power to use language so effectively the facts are often deemed irrelevant. Partly too is it because people believe what they want to believe? davidj hits a certain nail on the head when he recalls reasonable people dismissing these people so bluntly.

This post digressed slightly from the original subject but theres many aspects of an issue like this which create the bigger scene.

nebuchadnezzar said...

"theres many aspects of an issue like this which create the bigger scene".

Indeed you're right, Joe and that's why it is a detailed review, David.

CHILDREN OVERBOARD stuck because a half-truth became an exaggeration that became government writ. By the time they found out the photos were taken two days earlier when the people were being rescued, it was too later to withdraw the insult and therefore the government steamed on regardless.

And yes David, everyone supported them. They turned so savagely against the people arriving not because they knew their story but simply because they simply saw the boats. The boats tapped into a primal Anglo-Celtic invasion memory. Britain and Ireland have suffered millenia of naval invasions and accumulated panic.

But no-one in those centuries invaded by aeroplane. These days people come in to the country, they like it and they overstay their visa.

Are we then to treat them as criminals who abuse our hospitality or as residents who merely want to share in our fortune?

Very few think the first way of air travellers and very few think the second way of boatpeople.


David J said...

Although I am no expert on psychology have to disagree with your analysis of the driving force behind peoples response to people arriving in boats.
To claim this as a "primal Anglo-Celtic invasion memory" may fit with some known phenomenon, I don't know. But I really do think it is much more basic than that and I am quite sure it is not only people of Anglo-Celtic ancestry who opposed their arrival or fair treatment. I often hear immigrants of none Anglo heritage making the most vocal protests against new arrivals. As if their appearance will somehow force the rest of us out.
If you want to talk about primal responses I would say the boats have nothing to do with it as such. But it is simply a selfish response to people who may want what we have.
Maybe its a case of choosing not to identify with the people we are looking at. Being in a boat however does assist this as most Australians travel by plane not boat therefore anyone in a boat is easier to identify as 'Other' or not the same as 'Us'.
We can then justify our disapproval of them in all sorts of ways that confirm for our consciences that it is acceptable to condemn them because they are somehow below us. But then of course there is the Government approach to boat arrivals and the media hype convincing us that we are under siege which may support your theory.
I found the 'Living with Refugees' program on the ABC to be a great counter argument for this kind of thinking, although I doubt many watched it.

nebuchadnezzar said...

yeah you're probably right David. My "primal Anglo-Celtic invasion memory" was a bit of a flight of fancy. Its much more likely to be inspired by selfishness and government inspired propaganda as you say.

I missed Living With refugees and must look out for it next time they broadcast it.