Friday, July 9, 2010

There, But For The Grace Of God, Go Us All.

While I have devoted a great deal of time to explaining just how and why the hysteria over asylum seekers has been blown completely out of all proportion, there remains a legitimate challenge to be confronted. For reasons I have outlined this week, it is not a challenge of national security or of border protection. Our borders are very well protected, and there have been no undetected arrivals turning up on the mainland, no invaders slipping past the sentries in the dark of night. It is rather the challenge of how we respond to the transnational migration of displaced persons, and there are two distinct aspects to this challenge. One is the domestic challenge, relating to how we handle those who arrive on our doorstep seeking assistance, and the second is the international challenge relating to how we deal with the initial causes which propel people to our doorstep in the first place. It should be obvious that if the international problem is resolved, then the domestic one disappears.

That’s why the proposal for a genuine Regional Refugee Processing Centre is basically a good idea, so long as it is genuinely international, and operates as part of, or at least in conjunction with, the United Nations Process. Whether it is in East Timor, or Nauru doesn’t really matter from that perspective, but the previous Government’s Nauru Solution was not the same thing as a genuinely international processing centre, and did nothing to address the root causes of the refugee problem. Geographically, East Timor is closer to the problem, but there remains a long list of hurdles to overcome before that can be a viable option, including doubts about the capacity of that country to shoulder the burden such a facility would impose. Where ever a Regional Processing Centre might ultimately be set up, it has the potential to more effectively manage the flow of refugees in times of crisis, but the reality is that it is not a solution which can be implemented quickly.

That leaves us with the question of what to do about the more immediate challenge of our domestic response. For the most part, our system works well. In fact that has proven to be part of the problem. It works so well that some people think it has made Australia a prime destination for those seeking a better life. While the vast bulk of asylum seekers arrive by air, there seems to be no concern about how they are processed, even though they will end up in detention centres on shore while their claims are processed. In the end, only about 40% of those arrivals are found to be genuine refugees. On the other hand, there seems to be great alarm, verging on hysteria, about the very small number of asylum seekers who arrive by boat. For the most part, these applicants are detained off shore, and ultimately more than 90% of them are found to be genuine refugees. The fear and anxiety that many people seem to feel about boat arrivals may not qualify them to be considered rednecks, but it is completely misplaced, and the politicians who pander to it should be called to account.

In the absence of a durable international solution, there will continue to be asylum seekers who put their lives at risk in unseaworthy boats because they feel that they simply have no other option left to them. The Refugee Action Group says that the pursuit of an offshore solution is an attempt to avoid our obligations to refugees, and that we have nothing to fear from an Australian Solution which embraces on shore processing. The Opposition insists that any such onshore solution will only encourage more asylum seekers to risk their lives in leaky boats, resulting in both an increase in arrivals putting greater strain on our facilities, and an increase in the tragic deaths of those who don’t make it.

The truth is that until a genuine international solution is created, troubled people will continue to seek our assistance, so we had better get over the hysterical debate and start living up to the high ideals we have set for ourselves. Australians pride themselves on all pulling together in troubled times, on everyone chipping in when disaster strikes. Australians pride themselves on giving everyone a fair go, and even though the problems in other parts of the world may not be our problems, you would think that perhaps we might be a little more compassionate about those who are cast adrift in a world of chaos.

There, but for the grace of God, go us all.

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