Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Twisted Words Of A Misguided Debate Over A Nonexistent Crisis

As I have attempted to point out many many times, the asylum seeker issue is not a border protection crisis. It is not a national security crisis. If it is any kind of crisis at all it is an humanitarian crisis, with something like 10 million displaced people scattered around the world looking for some kind of safety and security. Even then it is a crisis for them far more than it is for us. Here in Australia there have been fewer than 4000 of those displaced persons arrive in our waters by boat in the past year. Not even a drop in the ocean. And yet for some reason, there are politicians who are prepared to encourage us to believe that this is some kind of tidal wave threatening to overwhelm us. When you actually stop and think about it, it should become abundantly clear that those politicians are callously exploiting the fate of those few thousand people in the pursuit of a political advantage. I think it’s about time we asked ourselves just what sort of politician really wants to be elected on the basis of a lie.

There is no threat of being overwhelmed by boat people because the simple fact remains that no matter how many boats might or might not arrive, the quota for our refugee program remains at 13 750 per year. In spite of this, or perhaps because they know that whatever our policy is it will affect only a handful of foreigners, some politicians are quite happy to encourage unease about boat people and suspicion about refugees. The truly sad thing about this is the apparent shift in public perception, apparently encouraged by those politicians. When the phrase “boat people” first came into popular usage, it referred to the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s who were widely perceived as brave and heroic characters escaping from an evil regime. Today it seems to make no difference how evil the regime might be, or how heroic the difficult and dangerous journey. Today we are told of evil people smugglers, a phrase which once referred to those who transport kidnap victims and sell them into slavery, but is now applied to impoverished fishermen making a few hundred dollars by giving people passage. By today’s standards it would seem that Oskar Schindler would be described as a people smuggler. It is astounding how far words have been twisted in their meanings.

Putting aside the domestic politics and the fake crisis for a moment, let’s consider the actual humanitarian crisis on our doorstep. With many thousands of people likely to attempt the perilous boat journey in the future unless something is done, does anything proposed by either the government or the opposition actually do anything to improve the situation? The Federal Government’s announcement of what could easily be called the East Timor Solution, appears to offer some hope by embarking on a process of regional engagement which must by definition include the many nations involved in the matter one way or another. It also seeks to involve the United Nations in a way which has the potential to not only legitimize the plan but also to advance it. In this way, the East Timor Solution is vastly different from the old Pacific Solution which did nothing to address the primary challenge of displaced persons, only the political challenge of keeping boats out of Australian waters.

At the same time however, this is also the point at which Prime Minister Gillard’s plan is vulnerable to criticism. The opposition has already decried the proposal as more talk without any concrete action, and the accusation is essentially correct. At this point the policy is nothing more than a promise which can only proceed to practical implementation if our international neighbours are prepared to sign on, if the United Nations High Commission on Refugees approves it, and the biggest if of all, if East Timor is not only willing, but also capable of hosting the proposed Regional Refugee Processing Centre. East Timor remains one of the poorest nations on earth, with many of its own citizens existing on about 50 cents a day. It remains socially unstable, and potentially politically volatile. East Timor is going to need a great deal of help to make such a thing work. What we saw yesterday from Prime Minister Gillard was a very nice speech, and in the long run it is going to take a lot more than nice words to meet the real challenge of the humanitarian refugee crisis, not just in our region, but around the world.

But it would be a great travesty if the twisted words of a misguided debate over a nonexistent crisis prevented any sort of real progress from being made.

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