Australia Must Meet Its Obligations Under International Agreements To Provide Help And Refuge To Asylum Seekers Fleeing War And Persecution

Australia must meet its obligations under international agreements to provide help and refuge to asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution

Richard Wong

Australia is having yet another round of its "great refugee/asylum seekers controversy". Government and Opposition are competing to prove that they are the tougher on "protecting border security" than the other.

Some Australians do have a phobia about the country being overrun by foreigners, refugees, boat people and so on. This negative trend in Australian society winds back through the recent Howard government's 'Pacific Solution' that involved the incarceration (sorry "processing") of thousands of asylum seekers on Nauru, then to the upholding of the White Australia Policy into the 1970s and even 1980s,

to the endless political dramas over the South Vietnamese refugees who sought a new life in Australia in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, to the Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s fleeing the destruction of World War 2. This ugly, ignorant trend of course goes much further back in Australian history.

Roughly, there are four camps in the current controversy, especially amongst the politicians. They range from the most ugly through to the enlightened and humane.

The most ugly are those who seem to care nothing for those fleeing persecution and torture in the home countries. In a cynical way they don't mind stirring and then exploiting these ignorant fears to gather political support around themselves, especially at election time. They often promote false and ridiculous fears about "illegal immigrants", "boat people and other nasty terms . These people are supposedly massing off-shore seeking to push their way "in".

Then there are the people themselves who are vulnerable to this manipulation

by the ugly. There may be an understanding gap in some about what is happening in many countries and around the world. and amongst the world's peoples. They are overwhelmingly good- hearted people who would put themselves last to help others facing difficulty or adversity. Stories abound of existing Australian communities who welcomed asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants once they came to live down the road. One of the shortcomings of the the current Government, Opposition and some other well established public bodies is that have not yet been able to adequately educate and lead these good people away from the manipulations of the ugly.

There are many important facts asylum-seekers and the refugees and Australia that could be presented much more effectively to the to the Australian public than at present. The well known Melbourne barrister and human rights advocate, Julian Birnside writes in The Age (Tuesday July 6) : "Julia Gillard wants an open debate about refugee policy. Good thing, but let the debate start with the facts. So far this year, just 3500 people seeking asylum have arrived in Australia by boat. This is a very small number. If it keeps up at this rate it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with boat arrivals. We receive about 240,000 migrants each year, so one year of asylum seekers arriving by boat is equivalent to about one week of new migrants. We aren't being flooded. 'Border protection' is a misleading term. We do not need to be protected from asylum seekers: they need to be protected from their persecutors. About 4 million people arrive in Australia each year by orthodox means; they come come for business, holidays, study and so on. If 5000 people arrive each year without authority it is absurd to suggest that we have 'lost control' of our

borders. Our borders are close to watertight.''

The third of the four camps are those, especially a series of political leaders, who express support for asylum seekers, but then seek to sidetrack and confuse the actual meeting of Australia's obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many and other international agreements, signed by Australia over the last 60 years, to provide asylum to those fleeing from persecution in another country.

John Howard said he was committed to providing shelter to genuine asylum-seekers but then set up a big detention centre on Nauru to allow for "screening" of the asylum seekers. The number who actually got through to reside in Australia was very small.

Kevin Rudd denounced people smugglers as vile low life. Indeed they are criminals, but if only he could have directed the same strength of passion against the persecutors and torturers who were causing hundreds of thousands to flee on whatever transport was available. They were not queue- jumpers seek to get in through Australia's back door.