Playing the populist card again

Playing the populist card on asylum seekers – John Menadue
First published on ABC’s The Drum Unleashed on 25 June 2010

Asylum seekers may now be arriving at Gillard’s door. And if our new PM does not want to be punished by that other ‘faction’ controlled by the electorate, she must decide what card she will play.

Will it be the populist card again with rhetoric from our leaders based on myth and fear? Or will she choose a different course on the question of asylum seekers, one that is based on fact and that may in fact stop punishing Labor in the polls.

Many Australians helped elect a Labor government because they wanted a more compassionate policy on refugees, one that treats the few asylum seekers who come by boat in the same way as we treat the less visible asylum seekers who come by air. Boat arrivals are newsworthy because they can be captured for television screens, but asylum seekers who come by air get lost in the crowd.

If Ben Chifley had responded only to populist prejudice, his government would not have accepted Jewish refugees after WWII. Malcolm Fraser would not have allowed large-scale Indochinese refugee programs in the 1970s and 80s if he had consulted only opinion polls. They both showed leadership in ‘encouraging the better angels of our nature’ as Abraham Lincoln put it.

Sadly an appeal to fear and xenophobia has been the more chosen route. Fear of the foreigner and the outsider is as old as human history itself. In Australia, we have a long history of demonising migrant and refugee groups. In 2010, we again have a thinly veiled appeal to racism and xenophobia, called ‘protecting our borders’.

We need to correct the dangerous and wilful misrepresentation and misinformation about asylum seekers. In the longer term we need to revisit approaches that were successfully adopted in the 1980s by the Fraser Government.

Consider the facts.

• Push factors, crises such as war and persecution, force desperate people to reluctantly leave their homes. When the crisis subsides, so does the people flow.

• As an island country at the ‘end of the line’, Australia does not have anything like the refugee flows that occur elsewhere. In 2009, Australia received 6,170 asylum applications. In the US it was 49,020, France 41,980, Canada 33,250 and UK 29,840 At the end of 2008, there were 42 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including over 15 million refugees. Australian exposure to asylum seekers is miniscule.

• Less than 2 per cent of Australia’s migration intake comes from asylum seekers. Yet Essential Research reports that 10 per cent of Australians believe that half or more of our migrant intake were asylum seekers; 15 per cent said about 25 per cent and 13 per cent said about 10 per cent. Only about 18 per cent of Australians were close to the mark in saying only 1-2 per cent. The misinformation is working.

• The pattern varies, but the majority of asylum seekers come to Australia by air and not by sea. As the Australian Parliamentary Library put it: ‘the vast majority of asylum seekers … arrive originally by air (96 per cent – 99 per cent)’.

• >Most boat arrivals who seek asylum are found to be refugees. Past figures show that between 70 per cent to 97 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been found to be refugees. This is far higher than for asylum seekers who come by air.

• Our exaggerated focus on boat people ignores the fact that there are about 50,000 illegal over-stayers in Australia. They are real illegals, unlike asylum seekers who are legally entitled to seek our protection whilst their claims are assessed.

We need to be proactive and address the problems of asylum seekers at source – and replace heartless refugee polices with a humanitarian response to what is a crisis. For example, the Australian government should consider proposing to the Sri Lankan Government that Australia would be prepared to take, say 3,000 to 5,000 Tamils who are languishing in resettlement camps in Sri Lanka. Careful assessment by Australian officials in association with international agencies would need to be made to ensure that those selected faced real discrimination and were not in the military wing of the Tamil Tigers. Those selected would never be described as ‘refugees’ as they would still be ‘in country’. It would require considerable diplomatic skill to negotiate such an arrangement with the Sri Lankan government, but that government might privately welcome the opportunity to rid itself of some of its opposition.

There is precedent for this in the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) which was developed by the Fraser Government in 1982 to assist persons in Latin America who were oppressed by military governments particularly in Chile and El Salvador. The SHP was deliberately designed and worded so that it could not be seen as a refugee program. Thousands came to Australia under this program. It was done quietly and diplomatically.

Such an approach of processing and accepting people ‘in country’ would send a message to would-be asylum seekers that the Australian government intends to treat the problem at source and not on the Australian coast.

Being risk takers and courageous, refugees are usually great settlers. We see it in the professional and business successes of Jewish, Indochinese and other refugees. It gladdens our hearts to see the success of their children in high school and university examinations. They have the priceless gifts of high motivation and energy for themselves and their children. They take up Australian citizenship much faster than migrants.

We can handle the refugee debate more skilfully. With well-managed programs, Australia would be better served by allocating more of our total migration intake to refugees.

With courage and new leadership, our politicians can choose to appeal to our ‘better angels’ rather than pander to selfishness and fear.

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