We are in a dark place indeed

The refugee policies of successive governments have broken all the rules of decent behaviour [26 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

There’s little to dispute in the words of “Advance Australia Fair”, an unremarkable string of platitudes about our glorious country, until close to the end.

Unregistered Rohingya refugees in Thailand. PHOTO Jonathan Saruk

Unregistered Rohingya refugees in Thailand. PHOTO Jonathan Saruk

“For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share” is the ringing declaration written into the two-verse version which parliament approved in 1984.

Back then not one politician raised an eyebrow. I bet they would now.

When the UN Refugee Convention came into force in 1951, refugees were seen as people displaced by war between nations. The convention didn’t consider victims of nasty regimes, or boat people or people smugglers.

At that time Australia had a positive outlook on the world. We were a leading contributor to global debate about immigration and refugees. Within the next quarter-century we ended the White Australia Policy and accepted Vietnamese boat people as refugees.

Then for some reason we hardened our hearts, to the point where in 2001 we deemed people approaching in boats to be a security threat and elected a government on its promise to stop them.

Old jingoistic fears of foreigners have returned in a new form. Far from sharing boundless plains we’ve retreated into Fortress Australia. Instead of regarding our neighbours as equals in the family of nations, we use them as convenient repositories for people we don’t want.

Having got Nauru and Papua New Guinea to help us deal with boat people, we reinterpreted the law of the sea to allow us to waylay boats on the high seas and tow them to Indonesia. Now we’re refusing to help relieve the burden on three neighbours, including Indonesia, as they battle to deal with thousands of refugees from a little-known corner of Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Settlement of Muslim people in Myanmar’s western coastal state, Rakhine, goes back many centuries, into the dim unrecorded past. The Rohingyas, as they’re known, have lived there so long that they have their own distinct language.

In the 19th century, British overlords imported labourers from Bengal in India, giving rise to the belief among Buddhists that all Muslim people in Rakhine are recent arrivals. For over half a century Myanmar’s military rulers have taken advantage of this to deny Rohingyas citizenship.

Fearing they were becoming a minority, Buddhists in Rakhine attacked Muslims in 2012. Violence on both sides has left around 140,000 Rohingya people without homes.

The myth persists that the now-stateless Rohingyas are intruders. They have been forced into what can only be called concentration camps, restricted in their movement and having what little government support was available taken away.

One of those supports was healthcare. The international organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres stepped in to provide medical services but was expelled by the government early last year.

Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants on a fishing boat off the coast of Julok, Indonesia, last week. PHOTO Reuters

Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants on a fishing boat off the coast of Julok, Indonesia, last week. PHOTO Reuters

Seeking to escape from their virtual imprisonment, large numbers of Rohingyas have managed to move east across Myanmar to the Thai border. With passage into Thailand now blocked they are holed up in border camps no better than what they left behind.

The Rohingyas are coastal people. With the land avenue to the east closed it was natural for them to take to the sea. That’s how thousands of them ended up bobbing about on waters off Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, short of food and water and desperate to find a safe landing place.

Many died while those three countries took the Australian position and stopped them from landing. They relented only after the Philippine government offered to take in refugees. They allowed the boats in to shore so the Rohingyas’ immediate needs could be addressed.

As we have a “Pacific solution”, Myanmar has its “Bangladesh solution”. Continuing to peddle the line that Rohingyas are illegal migrant workers, the Myanmar government seeks to ensure that as many of them as possible are “repatriated” to Bangladesh.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop points to the need for Myanmar to understand it must treat Rohingyas properly. The prime minister supports her; “in the end, the culprit is Burma”, he said last week. They’re right, but who’s listening? Australia long ago gave up the high ground on refugee policy.

Callousness in Australian refugee policy is bipartisan. Under Julia Gillard, John Howard’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island were reopened after the High Court rejected the government’s “Malaysia solution”. Kevin Rudd’s contribution was to declare that Pacific detainees will never be settled in Australia.

We send children to these places and claim they’re no longer our responsibility. We turn back boat people while proclaiming to be doing it just for their own good, to stop them drowning, and we tell the Rohingyas that they’re not to use boats because that’s cheating, entering through the back door.

I agree with every politician who says “this is tough”. There never is, never was a simple solution to refugees. But we have to ask: beyond the astronomical dollar cost of turning back boats and processing offshore, what price are we prepared to pay to keep people out?

Jesus’ story about the good Samaratan told us that true goodness is blind to everything but essential humanity. Fear of the foreigner has trumped common decency. We’re in a dark place indeed.

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3 Responses to We are in a dark place indeed

  1. Jacob Jonker says:

    What exactly are we proposing here?This year, sofar, the police in Calais have detained 18000 refugees from Africa.They have come via Italy and wish to get to the UK.If they are let in without hindrance, there will be no end to it.Like the boatpeople from Asia, in this case Burma(I prefer to not recognise the legitimacy of the dictatorship in Burma), there are not only economic reasons drawing these refugees to the West, even though they are shopping for the best country to flee to, rather than fleeing from, there are always certain push factors involved.In the case of the Rohingya, the push factors are most pronounced and generally likely to be more a case of fleeing from, rather than country shopping as economic migrants, yet, apart from certain rare cases of political persecution of individuals, the persecution of ethnic, religious or otherwise separately identifiable groups, is usually, if not generally, a matter of a struggle for resources, land and/or the enslavement of politically/economically disenfranchised.
    To facilitate such abuses of human rights and virtual genocide and dispossession of peoples by opening up the West to such displaced person is certain to dramatically increase such abuse and dispossession.This is not a problem to be solved by emotive political posturing and the pushing of socalled solutions paid for by someone else.The Greens and the broad Left generally have a habit of advancing short-term schemes paid for by others.
    It has been noted before, but nothing stops private individuals who are so concerned to initiate their own programs to help refugees.However, the call for the country to be opened up tp more economic refugees is rarely, of ever, preceded by private and privately funded initiative.
    From a strictly economic perspective, for westerners to fund the re-settling of refugees from Africa and Asia within these continents would be vastly more effective than settling more of these people in the West.This is not to say I am against the intake of refugees as such, but the cost to the taxpayer, who often is already struggling with relentless inflation and diminishing wages, is not inconsiderable.How often do we read in the papers how much is spent on “refugees” settled in Australia?I think the government is not really volunteering the information.
    The people on the gravy train and those with secure incomes and superannuation, and they who can always pass on their increasing costs of living to they who are lower down the socio-economic chain, they are quite happy to support taxpayer-funded schemes, knowing that others are picking up the tab.
    Imo, the Greens, the Left, and others pushing the charitable bandwagon paid for by others, should stop pushing for simplistic solution, a lot of which is playing politics for the sake of one’s charitable feelings, however appropriate in themselves, and others often simply striving for a place on the taxpayer-funded gravy train, or mouthing off to stay there, and start thinking of solutions relevant to the problems at hand.It serves no purpose to shout one’s charitable concerns in the hope that politicians will take heed and take cosmetic measures which will compound the very problems soon, or a little later.
    So, again, what to do about the entire world where increasing numbers of people are being enslaved, dispossessed, downtrodded, exploited and disenfranchised in the case where people were enfranchised before, such as in the almost entire western democracies where a new form of feudalism is being put in place without a challenge from the political parties in the western democracies purporting to represent their electorates.
    Much charitable concern in the West is displacement therapy without the slightest change of success.A psychological mechanism to make people feel better who know subconsciously they are effectively neutered politically, but unable to face it and intelligently work for a solution.Its a helplessness which is no help to anyone, except, for a few generations, the economic refugees who are let in, who will by the very process of neo-feudalisation import with them the conditions they have fled.

  2. Wayne Afford says:

    Thanks Peter

  3. Jacob Jonker says:

    Yes, Peter, I still don’t get it.Some long-distance runners barge across the wilderness to raise money, for the money to be spent somehow, not buried in a hole to be dug up when carbon dioxide levels are down and spent when it is save to do so.At the moment, if you spend a dollar, you set in train a round of economic transactions which at every turn uses fossil fuel to make it happen.No matter what you spend the money on, the money keeps going around and around, enabling people to buy and sell goods and services.The people who sell services in turn buy goods.Only a share economy which by-passes use of fossil fuel or uses wood which is replaced by growing trees will be carbon neutral.So everybody who believes in AGW should work and spend as little as possible, other than in a share economy which is carbon neutral or better.
    Unlike ecologists or environmentalists proper, the climate change activism is driven by a religious zeal or an explicable tolerance for contradictory positions, probably both.

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