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article imageOp-Ed: Australia’s refugee mess gets messy wannabe compromise

By Paul Wallis     Jun 27, 2012 in World
Sydney - If you were to ask the average Australian who’s running our refugee program, the short answer would be “the people smugglers”. Canberra has taken forever to get any sort of consensus, and the new moves aren’t much better.
It’s taken yet another boat sinking to get Australia’s politicians finally talking turkey. The debate has been dragging on for years, and results of any kind have been meagre at best.
The current outbreaks of political genius are reported here by ABC Australia:
The regular disasters and drownings of boats full of asylum-seekers have finally got the government and opposition looking for a working solution. The political split on this issue is enormous. The Labor government revoked the offshore processing program of the previous Liberal government, which had more or less dried up the flow of refugees. The result was a return to boatloads of people and a major strain on facilities.
The story of the refugees is an unenviable one. They have to scrape together enough cash, usually thousands of dollars, to get put on a piece of driftwood with a motor and sent heading to Australia’s Christmas Island off Indonesia. Usually these people come from the Middle East or Sri Lanka.
They are then “processed” and given or not given refugee status in a lengthy process. Generally speaking, refugees stay in detention while this happens, and there have been regular reports of serious mental effects, self-harm and other issues. Recent riots burned down some buildings in detention centres.
The search for an alternative to the present barely workable program has produced some red herrings and a few flounders:
1. An alternative solution, to send people to Malaysia for processing, stopped the flow of refugees for a while until the High Court declared the program unconstitutional. The boats then started coming again.
2. The idea of reopening the previous government’s processing centre in Nauru keeps coming back. If the opposition wins the next election, it’s seen as the default option.
3. A few “refugees” have turned out to be people smugglers. They’re granted asylum and start up their own onshore cottage industry.
There’s also a double standard or several in our processing of illegal entrants:
1. Illegal entry is illegal entry.
2. The refugees are basically at the mercy of the people smugglers under the existing conveyor belt system. Hundreds have died.
3. The mysteriously unseaworthy nature of some boats is suspect. Under international Maritime Law, vessels are obliged to go to the aid of any vessel in distress. Indonesian fishermen may not be rich, but they’re also not stupid enough to go out in unseaworthy boats.
The other, long running stream of illegal entrants arrives from Asia, mainly courtesy of the Triads as cheap and heavily indebted labor and Thai sex slave rings. It’s a charming picture of pure brutality, organised crime at its ugliest. I met a Chinese illegal after Tiananmen who was making a princely 80c an hour working as a labourer. These people get absolutely no sympathy from anyone, and are deported regularly when caught.
Australia isn’t necessarily the land of milk and honey for refugees. We claim to do a lot for them, but if you go to Sydney or Melbourne, you’ll soon see that they’re not exactly turning into millionaires. I saw an African lady with three kids, a refugee from one of Africa’s endless wars who’d been given a nice house, a few thousand bucks, and within 2 years was facing eviction.
Arguably the most sickening of all, a lot of sudden and very conspicuous saints have appeared over the years, offering refugees services never offered to poor Australians. This very public grandstanding is really on the nose.
The other side of the refugee issue- Australia’s very iffy policies and priorities
The Australian public has had no say at all in this issue, nor has it yet been asked for an opinion by anyone, as usual in modern "democracy". Politicians queue up to tell us what they think. Nobody’s asking what the public thinks. “Unimpressed” would barely describe it. Canberra waxes and wanes in its enthusiasms, a rather uninspiring process of vacillating from one lousy solution to another. The public is less starry-eyed about the moral high ground. Australians don’t necessarily believe a word of the “great outcomes” crap from Canberra under the best of conditions, let alone an obvious ongoing stuff-up.
The public view varies, but there are some areas of general agreement:
* Everybody can have quite genuine sympathy for people in real distress, but do we need people smugglers dictating the priorities of entry?
* People smuggling is bigger than drugs. A lot of people feel that our soft approach is simply rewarding organised crime.
* To gain entry, refugees have to be accepted as genuine refugees. Some of them aren’t accepted for various reasons. The question why they’re posing as refugees has to be asked.
* Australia, like other countries, isn’t terribly keen on “economic refugees”. They’re barred on principle from just about every nation on Earth. Australians wonder why we’re the exception. Political refugees are a different ball game.
* There haven’t recently been many mentions of the fact that refugees from the Middle East have to travel through multiple countries to get to Australia. When the boats started coming, they were seen as queue-jumpers, getting attention before other people with equally legitimate claims rotting in refugee camps around the world.
* Australia hasn’t done a damn thing in any of the countries of origin to point people to better and safer ways of coming to Australia. The bad news for some refugees is that getting on a boat doesn’t mean gaining entry. Some people are turned back. It’s an expensive failure for them. Instead of telling people “If you want to come to Australia, this is the cheaper and safer way- Pick up a phone or talk to UNHCR”, we’ve done nothing to raise awareness of better options for these people.
*The enthusiasm for coming to Australia seems to depend on the policies in force. When Malaysia, which is very tough on illegal entrants, was proposed as an alternative to processing in Australia, the boats stopped completely. Not one was seen for months, as distinct from the few packed boats a week under the existing program. Apparently the new arrivals are well briefed on their chances of entering and we only see large scale movements when direct entry to Australia is likely.
The current move by an independent Federal MP, Rob Oakeshott, for a return to a version of offshore processing, has passed the lower house, but is expected to be defeated in the Senate. It looks like the only shot for a real policy revision will occur in 2013 after the election.
The Australian public is entitled to a few explanations. It’s very unlikely to get any at all. Why are people smugglers running our refugee program? Why are they being allowed to make millions per year out of this situation? Why are people coming all the way to Australia at ridiculous prices and risking their lives, instead of other countries? (You can get a plane ticket to Australia from anywhere in the world at about half of the lowest price I’ve ever heard from people smugglers.)
Millions of people are on the move around the world. This is one of the biggest mass migrations in global history. The humanitarian instincts may be right on principle, but they’re obviously not cynical enough to deal with the blatant exploitation of vulnerable people. These “tourist operator” people smugglers aren’t humanitarians. They’re criminals, and they’re currently calling the shots.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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