On those who flee to our shores

In the afternoon of Wednesday 14 September, the peace of residents of the small island of Martha’s Vineyard, Masachusetts, was disturbed by the unscheduled arrival of a couple of aircraft.

The Spanish-speaking passengers who disembarked, the residents were surprised to learn, were Venezuelans who had fled their failed state. They had walked for months to Mexico and into Texas, where federal authorities put them up in a temporary shelter in San Antonio.

They were enticed aboard the two planes on the promise of jobs in Boston. When they found themselves on Martha’s Vineyard, the locals gathered community resources to feed, clothe and shelter them before state officials relocated them to a mainland depot for processing. 

The Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who hired the aircraft, was following an example set by Republican-governed Texas and Arizona. Since April those states have bussed thousands of migrants north and dumped them on sidewalks in New York, Chicago and Washington DC (all with Democratic administrations) saying they want northern liberals to feel the pain felt by border states.

“Give me your tired, your poor,” goes the 19th century text at the base of New York’s Statue of Liberty, inspired by the Civil War leadership of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican founding father. That sentiment was a strong element in American immigration policy for all of the last century. 

Now it’s faltering. The politeness which cloaked simmering conservative resentment of foreign “intruders” disappeared under Donald Trump’s presidency. Besides treating people as pawns for political advantage, some state leaders are mixing debate about immigration with black crime and how schools teach the history of slavery. It’s a volatile, dangerous brew.

We too are a nation of immigrants, from Britain and continental Europe, Asia and the Pacific, Africa and South America. As it did for the US, immigration shaped us too. 

In 2001 John Howard fomented public prejudice against irregular boat arrivals by declaring “we decide who comes to our country”. In 2013, Labor’s Kevin Rudd and the Coalition’s Tony Abbott set that policy in concrete, shipping boat people to Pacific island detention centres while giving a nod to public servants and contractors to make life hard for them.

Sri Lankan refugees have been on the radar of Australian authorities for years. The few who manage to reach Australian waters after paying boat operators and eluding Sri Lankan navy patrols are all but certain to be stopped at sea, taken into custody and returned to Sri Lanka by air. So far this year around 150 have been returned in this way.

Last week the ABC’s 7.30 Report aired a story about east coastal Sri Lankans who tried to flee their broken country. It focused on a town called Batticaloa, a common departure point for Australia, from where Christmas Island is a three-week voyage on a fishing boat. 

Two months ago, on 21 July, the boat carrying the 46 Batticaloa people was stopped at Australia’s maritime border. The boat people were taken aboard the Border Force vessel Ocean Shield and told they would be shipped to Australia. Instead they ended up on a Colombo wharf where they were put in the hands of Sri Lankan authorities.

Australia’s efforts to stop Sri Lankan boats extend to donating 4200 trackers to the island’s government to be installed on east coast fishing boats. Fishers already struggling to make a living must pay for installation plus a monthly satellite fee for the trackers. Needless to say, they’ve been rendering the equipment useless by cutting off its power supply.

For many weeks the government of Sri Lanka has been verging on collapse as people vent their fury over corruption at the top. Australia continues to collude with this highly unpopular regime to prevent its victims taking refuge in our country.

There are now 27 million international refugees and double that number again of internally displaced people. As crops fail, economies crash, regimes become repressive and poverty and hunger set in, people are forced to move and keep moving, and that trend will only rise as climate change kicks in. 

The US governors’ shenanigans are insignificant against our historic treatment of boat people. Keeping them confined by private contractors on remote foreign islands and in city hotel rooms for years, restricting proper medical and legal help, and forcing them to return to to the broken country they fled have created an indelible stain on our reputation.

But the damage goes deeper. In the long run, advanced economies with open borders are stronger and more resilient than those opting for homogeneity. We need these people, along with a whole new policy for receiving and integrating them into our society.

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