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Fleeing from tolerance
Australia's refugee dilemma
26 September 2017
By: Duncan Graham

Every nation heralds its self-selected qualities like free speech, faith and honesty – though not all are grounded on facts. Australia’s honor roll once included “Fair Go”.

This supposedly meant that newcomers who toiled tenaciously and hugged Aussie values would not be held back, for the Lucky Country has long been welcoming migrants – currently 190,000 annually.

Last year’s census shows almost half its 24 million population was either born overseas or Mom or Dad came from abroad. Traditionally that was Europe; now it’s Asia.

They’ve arrived by air with wanted skills and valid visas. A handful chose a different route.  In the past they were accommodated. In 1975 when North Vietnam defeated the United States and its allies – including Australia – thousands fled the South by boat. 

Some made it to the promised land. One mixed group handed Customs officers a letter: “Help us live in Australia …we shall keep Australian law, will be goodman. (sic)”

Others went to camps like Indonesia’s Pulau Galang. During the next two decades 150,000 Vietnamese resettled in Australia.

That compassion was further enhanced following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing. Policy was made on the spot when then Prime Minister Bob Hawke tearfully offered asylum to 42,000 Chinese students who feared return.

Australia was clearly a haven for the persecuted. This encouraged others fleeing conflict in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere to head for the Great South Land.

Now the harbors are barred. Hopefuls paying people smugglers to ferry them from the archipelago to Australia’s north are turned back or sent to detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. 

This shift from acceptance to rejection has been examined by historian Dr Claire Higgins in Asylum by Boat, just published by the University of New South Wales Press.

It comes with the former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs commenting that the policy has moved from “humanity to inhumanity”. Maybe, but it’s widely popular with an electorate fearing Asia’s mega millions will flood the island continent and destroy the occupants’ first world lifestyles.

The hard liners are more diplomatic, reminding voters concerned at the damage to Australia’s image that being tough saves lives; more than a thousand have drowned after rickety fishing boats sank.

The other argument runs that “queue jumpers” should not take places reserved for proven refugees patiently waiting in camps elsewhere. Last year Australia took 17,500 under its “humanitarian program”.

Governments claim policy making is deliberative. Not with Australian responses to asylum seekers. By 2001 so many were sailing south that a crisis was looming in an election year.

Suddenly political salvation: The Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers from a sinking hulk and tried to land them in Australia. Instead they were sent to Nauru.

The then Prime Minister John Howard accelerated new laws to “determine who will enter and reside in Australia”. Although tagged the Pacific Solution it clearly wasn’t as the boats kept coming. The number peaked in 2013 with 300.

So the chauvinistically titled Operation Sovereign Borders was launched with zero tolerance to the dismay of human rights activists.  Since then 30 boats have been turned back, the last in March this year. In August six Chinese men who landed on an Australian island near Papua New Guinea were flown home.

Through her research into the background of these shifts and shunts Higgins has found nine options proposed by ministerial advisers which clearly show that policy making was adrift. 

These included a bizarre revenge-motivated plan  to tell the “governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia that we will put the entry of their nationals, including students, on to a quota and for every refugee that comes, one is dropped off the quota”.

A second madcap idea was to tie up the boats under quarantine until the passengers got fed up and sailed away to who knows where. Did anyone consider that the desperate might scuttle the boats?

Another notion  suggested treating the new arrivals “almost as lepers, segregating them in special camps and giving them minimal standards of support”. Centers like those in Thailand and Malaysia (where conditions are said to be primitive) were mooted.

Eventually deals were done with Nauru and PNG to warehouse the asylum seekers until they either go home or get resettled elsewhere. There are currently about 1,300; most are men and some have been held for more than three years. A similar number, including children are in camps on Australian soil, mainly Christmas Island. The US has just agreed to take 50 under a deal pre-dating Donald Trump’s election.

Malaysia has more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, Indonesia a tenth of that number.

Refugee advocates remind that Germany has taken more than a million and Chancellor Angela Merkel has survived the political backlash. They believe Australian detainees are so few that just being compassionate could solve the problem. The government says going soft would revive people smuggling.

Higgins interviewed former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser for her book. In a response revealing the paucity of policy the late PM asked the academic: “What else could you do?”

“It is as relevant as ever,” she writes. “The other answers to that question have been implemented, but not in a way that addresses the needs of vulnerable people and Australia’s international responsibilities.”

For Australian politicians the Pacific Solution is messy, possibly illegal but a crowd pleaser.  It’s also costly: AUD 5 billion so far plus AUD 70 million compensation to Manus detainees for allegedly holding them in dangerous and damaging conditions.

Absent is any coordinated international approach despite an available forum – the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. (See Strategic Review March 24, 2017).

So each country handles the issue their way according to the whims of local politics. The Fair Go tag has passed its use-by date.

 

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