the war on refugees

This is a thing from Crikey a few days back.

Somebody should give Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Australia Senaka Walgampaya a cabinet post, for he has just encapsulated the logic of Australian refugee policy into a few pithy lines. Discussing the prospect of Tamils fleeing the Sri Lankan army campaign, he assured the public: “These people don’t have the financial resources to pay anybody to smuggle them into Australia. The people who have the financial resources have earlier left these areas”.

Phew. That’s all right then — the poor are still stuck.

The remarks illustrate rather well how refugee policy has been shaped by two disastrous wars.

The first and most obvious is the Global War on Terror. Quite evidently, the countries producing the most refugees are those where, over the past few years, the West has devoted the most resources to killing people. Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously, but also Pakistan, a nation which the GWOT currently seems to be tearing apart.

As for Sri Lanka, the situation there might be more localised but you can also see it as an example of what a War on Terror looks like when it actually wins. Crushing the Tamil Tigers with military force? Check. Resolving the genuine grievances that supplied the Tigers with a popular base for so long? Not so much, no.

Not surprisingly, a humanitarian disaster is unfolding, with Human Rights Watch noting that “the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population”. Its report continues:

High-level statements have indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks. Sri Lankan forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with civilians. This includes numerous reported bombardments of government-declared “safe zones” and the remaining hospitals in the region.

All displaced persons crossing to the government side are sent to internment centres in Vavuniya and nearby locations. As Human Rights Watch has reported previously, these are military-controlled, barbed-wire camps in which those sent there, including entire families, are denied their liberty and freedom of movement. Humanitarian agencies have tenuous access, but do so at the risk of supporting a long-term detention program for civilians fleeing a war.

If you were a Tamil in that situation, facing — at best — life in a barbed wire camp, how would you respond to someone offering you a place on a boat? Would you denounce them as “the vilest form of human life”? Or would you, in fact, seize hold of the opportunity with both hands?

The question highlights how much Mr Rudd’s fulminations against people smugglers recalls the rhetoric from another conflict — the equally disastrous war on drugs. Under that paradigm, the proliferation of drugs was seen not as a social problem but as the consequence of individual wickedness. Rudd’s outburst about smugglers rotting in jail (and/or hell) might equally have been directed against “pushers”, those seedy characters in trench coats who, we are told, turn kids onto pot at the school gates.

If the Laura Norder approach to drugs has invariably proved disastrous (the USA, where the policy reigns unchallenged, now holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, with nearly a half there on drug charges), the criminalisation template simply makes no sense when discussing refugees. You can’t “Just say no” to a humanitarian crisis. Where drugs are, at least, genuinely addictive, no-one seriously thinks that Afghanis get lured onto boats by the promise of a groovy trip. In fact, most would prefer to stay in their own country, with their friends and family. So why, then, do they leave Afghanistan?

Mr Rudd should know, given he once described their nation as a “hell hole” and a “Godforsaken place”. On almost every indicator, the country’s been moving backward for years, so much so that the Taliban now claims control of great swathes of the countryside.

In those circumstances, is someone offering a way out really going to seem “vile”?

That’s why Senaka Walgampaya’s probably wrong. You can’t stop the poor from buying drugs just by making heroin expensive. In the same fashion, if people are desperate enough, they’ll find some way onto a boat, no matter how dangerous and costly the voyage becomes.

That’s why any real solution to the refugee problem depends upon improving the countries from which they flee. In a recent Salon interview, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed out that the war on Afghanistan has so far cost more than $250 billion. In other words, the West has spent more than $8,000 per Afghan, or close to $42,000 for an average family of five. Sure, Ahmadinejad’s a demagogue, but the point still stands: there might not be quite so many people fleeing for their lives if we spent as much money on humanitarian projects as on military campaigns.

If we’re not prepared to do that, well, it might make us feel better to rant against people smugglers. But that’s all it will do.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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