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Deporting or imprisoning desperate refugees is a shame on all Australia

Over the years in this blog, I have tried to show how Australia’s most creative and productive citizens were once terrified refugees and migrants, forced out of their own countries and waiting to be accepted by Australian society eg Judy Cassab: from HungaryScottish migrants,  the Evian Conference of 1938,  Holocaust survivors from Poland,  child deportees from Britain,  recent boat people, the Dunera BoysNicholas Winton’s train loads of children and Viennese refugee Richard Goldner. Australia would have been a very bland, conservative country, if it was not for the large minority of Australian citizens in every generation who were not born here (26%). My year at school would have had five children in it, rather than the 120 I met in 1953.

Jane McAdam is law professor and director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at NSW University. McAdam and Fiona Chong’s new book Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum Is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not (UNSW Press, 2014) was published just a few years ago.  This book should be read by all Australians concerned about the inhumanity demonstrated by successive federal governments when dealing with refugees seeking our protection. I hope schools will introduce young Australians to such issues. The book reveals not merely the abandonment of Australia's cherished "fair-go", but shows how we have breached international law.

small boat filled with asylum seekers, Christmas Island
photo credit: ACBC Media Blog

As the Refugee Council of Australia has said, permitting asylum-seekers to enter a country without travel documents is similar to allowing ambulance drivers to exceed the speed limit in an emergency. International law recognises that desperate people have a right to seek asylum. This book explains, using case studies, why some people fleeing persecution have no choice but to risk their lives at sea rather than face certain death at home.

Some families fled persecution in Myanmar & won refugee status from the UN 8 months after arriving in Indonesia, yet had to await resettlement for long periods. We can scarcely imagine their emotional suffering. Yet Conservative prime minister John Howard increased such suffering by denying family reunion to small boat arrivals. Consequently, entire families risked their lives at sea. As the case studies demonstrate, it is the last choice of desperate people.

From the time the Keating Labour government introduced mandatory detention... to the Conservative government’s current stand, Australia has adopted many policies in breach of international law. Citizens with an ounce of humanity were and are disgusted.

Temporary protection visas do not fulfil our obligations under the Refugee Convention. Mandatory detention behind barbed wire breaches intern­at­ional human rights law. The contrast with the bi­partisan policies of the Fraser and Hawke governments could not be greater. The authors outline the need to restore a functional refugee status determination process, with merits and judicial review. Australia used to be recognised as having one of the best systems, but successive governments have sought to restrict access to the courts.

Statistics quoted in this book also help place the issue in another important context. In 2012 Australia received 17,202 asylum-seekers by boat, its highest annual number. Yet this represented only 1.47% of the world’s asylum-seekers. The Abbott government may have stopped the boats, but at what cost to a fraction of the world’s asylum-seekers? And at huge cost to taxpayers. Research by the Kaldor Centre puts the cost of Australia’s onshore and offshore detention system — $3.3 billion — as equivalent to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ entire budget for projects covering 51.2 million people of concern worldwide. So much for morality and budget prudence :(

At the same time, we have an annual intake of 190,000 legal migrants. Surely we must also debate whether asylum-seekers should be processed in regional nations and, when declared to be refugees, be invited to Australia as part of the immigration intake. That was the policy of the Fraser and Hawke governments and refugees made outstanding migrants. This book exposes myths about asylum-seekers, such as that those arriving by boat pose a security risk. The statistics show this is not so. Yet they have been placed in barbaric conditions on Nauru and Manus Island and may be sent to Cambodia or any other country that will have them; they will not allowed to settle in Australia. The children suffer the worst.

Nauru and Manus Island are arguably the poorest islands in South East Asia. Papua New Guinea granted refugee status to some men on Manus Island, but has also amended laws to allow asylum seekers to be gaoled without trial.

Successive governments have continued to pander to paranoia by demonising people who have no choice but to flee persecution. So the authors explore alternatives to the present situation. The chapter on the need for a regional framework is essential reading. One of our diplomatic priorities should be to persuade those of our neighbours who have not signed the Refugee Convention to do so and help our region meet the humanitarian goals of the UN. We should have used our moment (2013-14) on the UN Security Council to achieve this.

asylum seekers in a Malaysian detention centre 
photo credit: The Daily Telegraph

Nauru Detention Centre, 2016
photo credit: Social Vision

In another important recent book, Walking Free, Munjed Al Muderis writes of his reasons for fleeing Iraq, his hazardous journey to Australia, his detention and ultimate acceptance as a refugee. As a doctor, his community contribution has been inspiring. So are the stories of countless other refugees who have been welcomed into Australia. We must influence our politicians from the grassroots! McAdam and Chong’s book should help to achieve that.


I asked 20 Australians why they believe it is appropriate for our governments to tow boatloads of refugees back into the open ocean or lock them up behind barbed wire in remote Pacific islands. The answers were – they eat smelly foods, they are not Christian, they don’t speak English, they will steal our jobs and especially they might be Islamic terrorists! My response? Settle the refugees in safety in a proper Australian building, with health care and English lessons, and ensure the Immigration Department does thorough background checks.

A country with a particularly innovative, inquisitive, industrious people always thrives. History is replete with examples of countries undermining their own potential by banishing groups of people with greater potential to serve the greater cultural, scientific or economic good. Host countries, like Australia, would be lunatic not to accept refugees who were once the cream of their own nation, before they were forced to flee.


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