I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Boat People

Every year, some thousand people are desperate enough to attempt the dangerous crossing from Indonesia to Australia on rickety boats.  They pay thousands of dollars to the unscrupulous operators who own the boats, in the hope that they will be allowed to remain in Australia as refugees.

Most of them get recognition for their refugee status and, slowly and painfully, find their place in our society.

Unfortunately, these people, who leave behind a life full of violence, abuse, and fear, have become a virtual ball that the two major Australian parties (Labour  and Liberal) play to score political points.

In Australia, if you enter the country illegally (i.e., without a valid visa) and apply for refugee status, you are kept in detention until your application is processed.  This would be acceptable if the processing took, say, one month.  I am sure that everyone, after years of deprivation and a perilous journey, would be happy to relax for a short while in a comparatively comfortable place with plenty of food, clear water, and medical assistance.  I know I would.

But the processing can take YEARS!

Often the problem is that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) encounters difficulties in determining the identity of the applicants and in ensuring that they do not represent a threat to national security (i.e., that they are not terrorists or criminals in disguise).  This is understandable, but what is wrong with letting them out, with some form of control, like regular reporting or perhaps, if you really are paranoid, GPS ankle-bands?

As a result of this mandatory detention policy, families are split for years, and cases of self-arm and suicide are more frequent among detainees than in the rest of the population.  What a shame, for such an affluent society.  Besides, if these people were allowed to live a reasonably normal life and to look for work, beside being the humane thing to do, it couldn’t possibly cost to the taxpayers more than maintaining detentions facilities scattered throughout the country.

According to both major parties and the Australian newspapers, the Australian public is very sensitive to the integrity of Australian borders.  This might be true, but then, rather than encourage alarmism every time a boat is intercepted, they should point out that every year some fifty-thousand people fly into the country legally and then overstay their visas.  It would take longer than a decade of boat people (estimated on the average of arrivals during the past 2.5 years) to make up the same number of travellers that in any single year overstay their visa.

These people who come by boat could have not even applied for a passport in their country.  It is inhumane to lock them up as soon as they reach our shores.  Who bloody cares about a couple of thousand people more or less?  I say: let them in and treat them with dignity.  Show them, the Australian public, and the world that we care.  But perhaps we don’t.  Not enough.

Then there is the myth of deterrence.  It was Paul Keating who, as a Labour Prime Minister, introduced the policy of “mandatory detention”, to discourage people from coming by boat.

Then, John Howard, some years later, as a Liberal prime minister, introduced “offshore processing” for the same reason.  Asylum seekers were transported to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru while their application was being processed.  Also, towards the end of 1999, the Howard government introduced the Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs).  Refugees were given a three-year visa rather than a permanent one.

The Liberals claim that their TPVs worked as a deterrent, because the number of refugees trickled to almost nothing.  It is true that in 1999 there were 3721 arrivals by boat and in 2002 only 1 (yes: a single person), but the arrivals in 2000 were 2939, and in 2001 the number of arrivals reached 5516! (see http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bn/sp/boatarrivals.htm).  If the TPVs had been effective, it would have not taken two years to see a reduction of arrivals.

The Liberals contradict themselves.  They explain the 2849 arrivals of 2009 with the fact that the Labour prime minister Rudd abolished the TPVs in 2008.  But then, why should it have take two years to see the opposite effect when the TPVs were introduced?

Some months ago, the current Labour government came up with the concept of “regional processing centres”.  They said: refugees are a regional issue, not just an Australian one.  Therefore, we should set up regional centres where all refugees of the region can be processed.  Very innovative (although not in agreement with the Geneva Convention).  But East Timor didn’t agree to take the centre.  The Liberals pushed for Nauru, whose government would have welcomed such a centre.

The government stated that Nauru was impossible because it was not a signatory of the Geneva Convention.  But they remained unmoved in their position when Nauru did sign the convention on refugees.  It seems obvious to me that the government rejected the idea of a regional centre in Nauru because the Liberals had been pushing for it.  That’s all.  The convention was just an excuse.

Things seemed to be moving ahead on the deterrence front when the Labour government of Julia Gillard signed an agreement with Malaysia (which, incidentally, is not a signatory of the convention, and apparently treats its refugees in an appalling way, with beatings and unjustified arrests).  Australia would take from Malaysia four thousand recognised refugees and send there in exchange the first eight hundred boat people that would reach Australia after the signing the agreement.

It certainly would have been a deterrent for people to try to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia knowing that they would be immediately flown to Malaysia.

But somebody applied to the High Court of Australia on behalf of some of the people who were going to be deported to Malaysia to have the agreement reviewed, and the High Court ruled that it was in violation of Australia’s international agreements and therefore illegal.  In fact, it wrote such a ruling that all offshore processing became impossible.

The government formulated a law that would have allowed them to establish national policies in violation of international agreements, but the Greens, who support the current minority government, disagreed.  They had always been in favour of onshore processing and didn't change their mind.  And the Liberals were happy to score a point against the government by opposing the law, despite the fact that they had invented offshore processing in 2001.

In any case, I question the morality of cajoling refugees so that they are dissuaded from coming.  I don’t find it acceptable to put under pressure people who are already so desperate.

Earlier today, I talked about this subject with my local member of parliament.  He said that Labour’s goal is to prevent people from taking such a desperate journey.  Fair enough, but we are not responsible for them.  We should work with the neighbouring countries and try to catch the criminals that cash on people’s desperation, but once somebody decides to take the journey and arrives on our shores, we should treat them with compassion, not throw them into jail or fly them off to Malaysia...

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