Sunday, April 11, 2010

Refugees as election pawns: Labor's immigration shame

In the minute or so it took to issue an infamous media release, the Rudd Labor Government blew away all the goodwill it generated with its previous attempts to undo the shabby Howard era treatment of refugees. On Friday, Labor went back to the future and tore shreds out of Australia’s already battered international reputation on the humane treatment of refugees.

The release began ominously with the words “effective immediately”. These two words had a double meaning. Firstly it showed Labor were not going to give anyone time to prepare, and secondly it was showing it was going to hide behind an instruction delivered in management-speak. The instruction itself was a knock-out blow “the Australian Government has today introduced a suspension of the processing of new asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.”

What did the unfortunate people of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan do to deserve this sudden treatment? Apparently, according to the breathtaking insouciance of the Government, there are “evolving circumstances” in these countries that “will mean that it is likely that, in the future, more asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will be refused.” Evolving circumstances is a fancy way of saying things have changed though even these weasel-words of this sentence did not dare claim circumstances have evolved necessarily for the better.

That arduous task was left to the sentences that followed. Looking through Asian politics with glasses so rose-tinted it matches their shameful embarrassment, the Labor Government has somehow concluded that wartorn Afghanistan is now safe for Hazaris and post-war Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils. Afghans will be surprised to hear about the “Taliban’s fall” and “durable security” (admittedly only “in parts of the country”). Meanwhile lucky Tamils have “hopes for further improvement and stabilisation in conditions.” Based on this flimsiest of evidence, the Australian Government has suspended the processing of new asylum claims by Sri Lankans for three months and Afghans for six months.

This is a breathtaking assumption for these “developments” that the facts on the ground simply do not support. In 2009, the worsening humanitarian crises caused by the American occupation and “surge” in Afghanistan and the Sri Lankan army’s brutal crushing of the Tamil independence movement has led to more desperate boatloads of Hazaris and Tamil refugees arriving. They will now be detained for three or six months as political pawns in an Australian game.

The blame for this shameful announcement can be shared equally between three pollyannas - Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor. Nevertheless the release has the fingerprints of their mutual boss all over it. Kevin Rudd is enough of a foreign policy wonk to know this message about “evolving developments” is complete rubbish. But this announcement has nothing to do with the political situation in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka – even a cursory glance at either country would not support this spurious nonsense spouted by his three stooges Evans, Smith and O’Connor.

No, the real reason is that opinion polls are showing 64 percent of Australians are afraid of the refugee boats and want them “stopped”. These numbers are dangerous but not yet near Tampa territory and the last thing Kevin Rudd wants in an election year is an issue Tony Abbott can wedge him on. So his solution is breathtakingly efficient and hypocritical – Park the issue for six months until the election is over.

According to Evans et al’s presser, the Australian Government believes “asylum seekers should only be granted the right to live in Australia if they are genuinely in need of protection.” This has nothing to do with evolving circumstances and everything to do with treating every case on its merits. But the hysterical media reaction to a few dozen boats arriving on our northern shores has dusted off the fears that always seem to lie just under the surface of Australia’s fragile settler mentality. According to the UNHCR’s 2009 report, Australia / New Zealand had 6,500 asylum claims last year out of a worldwide total of 377,200 – barely 1.6 percent of the world’s refugees.

But this data is conveniently glossed over in the vapid heat over the asylum “debate”. Nor is the truth of conditions on the ground in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan of any local interest. Instead the agenda is set by dangerous stupidity from politicians such as Barnaby Joyce and fuelled by talk show hosts and tabloid editorials who speak only in the xenophobic language that panders to the fears of their readers and listeners. As a result, what we share as a people matters less than what we might lose as individuals. This is a human tragedy and not just for the asylum seekers. Kevin Rudd is to blame, but we are all indicted.

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