Thursday, December 16, 2010

It’s Time To Honour Our Promise

There seems to be a number of people lining up to blame Julia Gillard and the federal Labor government for at least contributing to conditions which led to the tragedy at Christmas Island yesterday. On the one hand, newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt is demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, accusing her government of having blood on its hands because of what he calls the relaxation of asylum seeker policy. It is his view that “Even before yesterday, up to 170 people had been lured to their deaths by the Government’s dismantling of John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, scrapping temporary protection visas and softening mandatory detention rules.”

On the other hand, refugee activist Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition has also blamed the Gillard government for causing the tragedy through what he describes as its “anti-refugee policy”. He says, “… the blame lies with the Australian government. If the Australian government was willing to properly process asylum seekers in Indonesia and resettle successful refugees in Australia, then far fewer people would get on boats to travel to Australia.” In contrast to Andrew Bolt, Mr. Rintoul is saying that the government’s policies are too harsh, and ironically both are claiming that the current policy is to blame, even if for opposite reasons.

The truth is that they are both right up to a point. The current policy represents a diabolical compromise between being compassionate to people in need and being tough on border security, and this kind of disaster is perhaps more likely in such a policy environment. Mr. Bolt may be correct in that if we simply shut our border completely and refuse to allow anyone to enter in this manner then it is less likely that anyone would try. But that would involve abrogating our responsibility, and our promise to help those in need. However, Mr. Rintoul is also right to say that if there was an effective and orderly process for dealing with asylum seekers both here and in Indonesia then there would be no need for anyone to undertake the dangerous sea voyage in order to seek asylum.

The difference is that choosing to follow Mr. Bolt’s advice would simply push the refugee problem beyond our borders. It would perhaps placate anyone of the view that it is all someone else’s problem, and so long as people are not dying on our doorstep, it’s okay if they are dying somewhere else. It is a case of out of sight, out of mind. It ignores not only the obligation that Australia has accepted by being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, but also the reasons why our nation chose to make that obligation in the first place.

But this tragedy did happen on our doorstep, and it serves as a reminder of our own hypocrisy as a nation which claims to believe in a fair go, but then labels asylum seekers as “queue jumpers”. We have the policy we do because our government has cobbled together a patchwork policy which tries to appease a broad array of disparate opinions, while failing to actually stand for any identifiable principle. Australia could easily double its intake of recognised refugees with no adverse effects on our own wellbeing, and yet we have a policy which panders to a myopic fortress mentality because there might be a few votes in it.

It’s time for someone to be brave enough to do the right thing and radically change our approach to the asylum seeker challenge. It’s time to assess the claims of potential refugees before they leave Indonesia. It’s time to get people who have been proven not to be a security risk out of detention centres. It’s time to honour our promise to offer dignity and safety to those who are fleeing the oppression and persecution that we claim to denounce and despise. Unfortunately, none of our current politicians seem to have that sort of courage.

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