The proposal of Tony Abbott to revive the Pacific Solution and reinstate temporary protection visas for asylum seekers has been rightly described by Petro Georgiou as ‘cruel’. It is a return to John Howard andPauline Hanson populism. It illustrates again that despite progress in treatment of refugees in recent years, the case for the humanitarian treatment of the most vulnerable people on earth is never won. It is always work in progress.
Fear of the foreigner, the outsider and the person who is different is as old as human history itself. In Australia, we have a sorry history of mistreating these ‘outsiders’, whether they were Chinese, Germans,Jews, ‘reffos’ or ‘balts’. After their tragedy in exile, it is not surprising that the Jewish people place treatment of exiles as even more important than their dietary laws or the observance of the Sabbath.
Forgive me for repeating what I wrote a year ago, but the recent populist challenge to a humanitarian policy needs rebuttal.
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 the 1980s if he had consulted only opinion polls. They both showed leadership in ‘encouraging the better angels of our nature’ as Abraham Lincoln put it. We now look back with pride that through Chifley and Fraser’s leadership we helped not only refugees, but also ourselves. 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. Refugees pay us back one hundred fold for our generosity. They may sometimes lack language and technical skills, but they have the priceless gifts of high motivation and energy for themselves and their children. They become Australian citizens muchfaster than migrants.
So much of the public discourse on asylum seekers lacks balance and perspective.
We have shown in the past that we can successfully manage refugee flows. The Fraser Government had 2,000 Indochinese people come by boat. Over 400,000 Indochinese refugees were temporarily camped in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The ‘threat’ was managed successfully by strong leadership that won the public case for generosity.
So we need to get a balance of perspective about asylum seekers coming by boat. Despite difficulties and setbacks, refugee and migration settlement in this country is our greatest success. The government’s ability to get the balance right between humanity and border protection is being tested. It will always bea difficult and messy business.
Beyond the current dispute, we need to be proactive and address, if we can, the problems of asylum seekers at source. It is late in the day, but 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.It is highly likely that the Sri Lankan government might privately welcome the opportunity to rid itself of some of its opposition. It is also not so difficult to anticipate possible future refugee flows. North Koreawould be an obvious future candidate. We should be ready.
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.
There is precedent for this in the Special Humanitarian Program 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. The military rulers were pleased to see some of their opposition leave. I wrote about it in ‘Things you learn along theway’, p221, which was published in 1999.
If Australia had such an approach and anticipated possible future flows of asylum seekers, the Australian government and people would be in a much stronger moral position to be ‘tough on boat people’. I reluctantly concede that a generous humanitarian policy must go hand in hand with tough compliance and border protection. The Australian public will not accept otherwise.
Australia owes a great debt to Malcolm Fraser for his unwavering concern for vulnerable and defenceless people escaping from tyranny and persecution. He chose not to pamper to the selfishness and fear that is in all of us. He appealed to our ‘better angels’ and we responded. We need leaders today with the same courage and leadership he displayed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Unlike ministers in the Howard era, Minister Evans has humanely and skilfully handled the politically fraught issue of boat people. But he needs to be supported by a public education and information program to better promote the facts about people flows and to keep at bay the unscrupulous, who are only too ready to exploit our fear of the foreigner, the outcast, the person who is different.
Melbourne: Level 18, 1 Nicholson Street,East Melbourne, VIC, 3002(+61) 03 9752 2771
Sydney: Level 5, 320 Pitt Street, Sydney, NSW, 2000
Media Enquiries: Curtis Moore email@example.com+61 481 334 013
Melbourne: Level 18, 1 Nicholson Street,East Melbourne, VIC, 3002
Design By: WP Creative