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.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tabloid TV, Like Politics, Not Always The Gospel Truth

I’m beginning to get a little weary of shrill stories in the tabloid television shows about illegal asylum seekers being given four star holidays in Queensland at the taxpayers’ expense. These beat ups usually include some sneaky shots of people trying to avoid being filmed, automatically making them appear to be furtive, and the inevitable comparisons to our own pensioners and disadvantaged who supposedly have no hope of ever receiving similar treatment. It is easy to get the impression that the TV stations want us to think that asylum seekers, almost always referred to as “these people” with a distasteful tone, are unfairly taking advantage of our good will at the expense of more deserving pensioners and hardworking taxpayers. It’s easy to get the impression that they are sounding the alarm about some gross injustice. It’s easy to get the impression that the TV stations are pumping out propaganda for a certain point of view. But they’re not. The truth is even more disappointing than that.

Just as some politicians are more than prepared to tell us whatever they think we want to hear in order to attract our votes, television stations are first and foremost motivated by attracting an audience. It’s a business, and in order to make money selling advertising time, they need to have sufficient numbers of people actually watching to make that time valuable enough to sell. If it’s boring, no one will watch, and sometimes the truth alone is not exciting enough. That’s why we are subjected to sensationalism in all its many forms in what we know as the tabloid media. That’s why we never just have a leadership challenge, we have a “political showdown”. Instead of a change of leadership, we have a “political execution”. And instead of displaced persons seeking refuge, we have “illegal asylum seekers”. It’s just so much more dramatic, not to mention a catchy and easy-to-remember way to pigeon hole a complex situation.

Of course such treatment amounts to far more than mere oversimplification. It’s dangerously jingoistic, not to mention a flat out misrepresentation of the facts. Aside from the Orwellian newspeak such as “illegal asylum seeker”, which is actually an oxymoron because there is nothing illegal about asking for asylum, the idea that helping a handful of refugees in some way deprives old age pensioners and disadvantaged Australians is utterly illogical. The fact that our pensioners are struggling to make ends meet, or that homeless Australians are sleeping rough, is not the fault of asylum seekers or refugees. It is the fault of governments who have failed to address the needs of those people, and of the community which allows it to happen. The truth is that this not a choice between helping pensioners or helping refugees. In a wealthy, free, and democratic society we can and should be doing both.

Far from representing the humane treatment of refugees as some sort of shameful waste of taxpayers’ money, our tabloid media should be telling us to be proud of our commitment to be fair and just, proud of our willingness to extend comfort to the vulnerable, and proud of our ability care for those less fortunate than ourselves. But of course, the unfortunate reality is that television stations, and other media outlets, like politicians, have a vested interest in beating up a non-existent crisis, sensationalizing the story, distorting or even discarding the facts, and telling people what they want to hear, if it means a few more votes or a few more ratings points. That’s why we shouldn’t always take as “gospel” everything we see or hear, whether it is from politicians or the media, without thinking carefully about what we are being told. The good news is that this really is a free country, and some of us in the media have the opportunity to present a different point of view. You might not agree with it, but at least you can hear it or read it and decide for yourself.

That’s just another reason why Australia really is the best place in the world.

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.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The East Timor Solution

4000 asylum seekers. 100 000 homeless Australians. 500 000 unemployed Australians. 2 million underemployed Australians. 3 million Australian pensioners struggling to make ends meet. In the overall scheme of things, the question of what to do about asylum seekers arriving in boats is not enormously significant. Yet, as a political issue it has been not only allowed, but actually encouraged to become a matter of overwhelming concern. So much so that for a while there it was starting to look as if there was a chance that we would all go to the forthcoming Federal election to determine the fate our nation on the basis of how a few thousand foreigners are treated. So much so that we ran the risk of all being distracted from matters of great importance which more directly affect us all, such as health reform, infrastructure investment, and economic management.

The harsh reality is that there are some politicians who a perfectly happy to cast aside the welfare of a few thousand foreigners in order to obtain a political advantage which could make the difference to winning or losing the election. They would prefer us all to be distracted form the shortcomings of their policies by encouraging us to be fearful of people that we are unlikely to ever meet. Ask yourself, have you ever actually met an asylum seeker? The chances are that you never will, because no matter how many boats arrive, the yearly quota of less than 14 000 refugees does not change. In fact you are more likely to meet a real illegal immigrant, that is someone who has come to Australia through an airport and then deliberately stayed after his or her visa has expired, because there are more than 50 000 of them. They’re the ones who really are the queue jumpers.

The Prime Minister’s announcement today has spelled out asylum seeker policy in a manner which is intended to draw a line under the debate so that all of us can move on, and more specifically so that the Government can approach the election without the border protection baggage holding it back. Whether or not it is successful will depend on whether Australians feel that a) the Government is in control of the situation, and b) that asylum seekers won’t be getting any kind of unfair advantage or special treatment by jumping the imaginary queue. On the first count, Julia Gillard has delivered a speech clearly designed to paint herself and her government as being firmly in control. But more importantly, the policy announcement is intended to cut off the arguments about people smuggling and queue jumping.

The proposal to enlist international co-operation to establish a Regional Refugee Processing Centre in East Timor under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner On Refugees effectively answers the question of just where can asylum seekers join the imaginary queue that is so often discussed. If successful, the Centre will be legitimized by the involvement of other countries including New Zealand, as well as the imprimatur of the United Nations, and represents a positive step towards a better outcome overall. But the basic idea is to provide a destination for offshore processing of refugee applicants in a safe environment. The funny thing is that’s an idea which sounds remarkably familiar.

Am I the first to call this the East Timor Solution, or has Tony Abbott already beaten me to it?

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Concocted Crisis

Here we go again. It must be election time because apparently we have a border protection crisis. That’s a phrase that would seem to imply that villains are crossing our borders at will, raiding and pilfering our goods, assaulting and raping our citizens, and disappearing back into the dark with their ill gotten booty. Either that or the rampaging armies of a foreign power are engaging in hostile raids upon our soil, firebombing our factories and blasting our bridges. Or maybe that clandestine secret agents are infiltrating our society and subverting it from with in through sabotage and sedition. Any of those things would amount to a crisis in border security, but none of them are actually happening. So what’s the fuss?

The fact is that the only crisis which exists is the political crisis confronting a party which is terrified of not getting enough votes to win an election. That was the case in 2001 when the Tampa incident was shamelessly transformed into a manufactured crisis, pandering to and promoting irrational fears in order to secure votes. It is still the case today with the Federal Opposition in particular banging the very same drum for the very same reason whenever they talk about border protection, deliberately implying that there is a threat from which our borders must be protected. But it’s just not true.

Our borders are very well protected. Boats arrive, they are intercepted, and the system is working well. When more boats arrive, more demands are placed upon the system, but it still works well. They talk about the floodgates and the idea of our country being swamped with asylum seekers, but that’s not true either. The fact is that there is a quota for the number of refugees that Australia will accept, which is 13750 per year. That quota does not change no matter how many boats arrive at Christmas Island or anywhere else in Australia. But most insidious is the demonization of people who almost always turn out to be genuine refugees.

None of them will actually say it straight out, but all the talk of illegal entry, border security, and people smuggling, is loaded with the implication that the asylum seekers are in some way undesirable or evil. The rhetoric is dripping with prejudice in a way that can only promote and propagate unfounded fears which are then exploited for political advantage. But the truth is that genuine asylum seekers are usually good people who have the courage and initiative to do whatever they can to escape a bad situation, the kind of people who will be more likely to make a positive contribution to our community than to cause it harm.

The truth is that Australians have been lied to, first by the Howard Government, and now by the Abbott Opposition, for purposes of political expediency. They have swept aside the fact that our nation has signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and as such has promised to defend the principles of liberty and human rights by offering genuine asylums seekers a place of safe haven. They seem to be acting as if the principles of democracy, freedom and human rights should only apply to us and not to all human beings. And the really sad thing is that it looks as if the Gillard Government, like the Rudd Government before it, might be contemplating pandering to those same irrational fears, rather than exposing them for the lies that they really are.