Now, I’d like to share my thoughts on refugees

Anxiety – Rob CorrI had thought with the election of the Rudd government in 2007, and the abandonment of the frankly shameful Pacific Solution, Australia had moved on from its most disgusting phase of xenophobia. Unfortunately, the last three years, and more specifically the last six months, have proven me wrong. And with Julia Gillard, a prime minister whom I really want to like, introducing what is now being called the East Timor Solution, it may be time to correct a few misconceptions.

All of the rhetoric about asylum seekers seems to come back to the phrase ‘boat people’. They’re ‘queue jumpers’, they’re ‘illegal immigrants’, they pay people smugglers; they’re doing something somehow wrong. Ignoring for a moment seeking asylum is completely legal, the majority of asylum seekers don’t even arrive by boat. Over eighty percent of asylum seekers arrive on planes, on existing visas, and then either apply for refugee status or overstay illegally. Even the government’s own immigration website states that ‘[t]he majority of asylum seekers are people who have arrived in Australia legally and subsequently apply for protection’. So, just for starters, the majority of asylum seekers aren’t boat people at all.

The next consensus I read in the papers is that too many asylum seekers arrive and therefore threaten our way of life. This is, to be frank, total bullshit. In the last twenty years, Australia has typically taken a total of around 200 000 immigrants per year. And in a typical year, twelve thousand of those immigrants were refugees. It’s not a hard and fast rule; quotas for refugees can be carried over, or borrowed from the next year if more people arrive. But typically around six percent of the immigrants we take are refugees, most of who came to us as asylum seekers. It’s not exactly bursting the bank, and it’s a pathetically small number if we compare it to the number of refugees who enter any other first world nation. It’s even more pathetically small if we look at the number of refugees who enter countries far poorer than ours.

Even if refugees made up a hundred percent of the immigrants who came to Australia, it wouldn’t matter – all the talk is against a big Australia. (See those charming ‘fuck off, we’re full’ bumper stickers.)

Well, I’m an environmental scientist and I tell you flatly that there is a limit to the number of people we can take; we may already have exceeded it. But taking in asylum seekers is not going to push us over some imagined limit: total migrants might, but refugees never will. The fact of the matter is that Australia’s existing population is shrinking; our birth rate, like that of most other first world nations, no longer exceeds our death rate. If we didn’t take in migrants every year, our population would be shrinking, and so would our economy. If only for purely economic reasons, we need immigrants. They take the low-paid jobs, like seasonal work; they keep our cities and systems running. We need the brain influx, and we need the sheer bodies, the people. Without them, Australia is a dying nation, and so are most First World nations, from England to Russia to Canada, whether they admit it or not. We need migrants to keep our countries alive.

And even if all of that weren’t the case, the bottom line is that we have a legal responsibility. It’s all outlined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights: individuals fearing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, have the right to seek refuge in other countries. We have a legal responsibility to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who land in Australia, regardless of how they arrive. They’re not illegal immigrants; there is no such thing – the correct term is an ‘irregular immigrant’, but I’ll give twenty bucks to the first person who spots an Australian politician outside the Greens calling them that. Political rhetoric calls them asylum seekers, as though it makes a difference, but the reality is that the majority are genuine refugees who are in fear of their lives. Statistics from the department of immigration indicate that over seventy-five percent of asylum seekers from 1989–2004 were granted some form of protection visa. The majority of asylum seekers are who they claim to be: traumatised people who need our help; instead, we lock them up in detention centres offshore and refuse to process the claims for months, sometimes years.

But find me that in a newspaper. It seems the Australian people would rather play political football with people’s lives and rights, and pretend it isn’t our problem. It is our problem. It isn’t going away, and right now we’re acting, at best, on the fringes of legality. We’re well into the boundaries of shame, and I for one wish Australia as a whole would get a grip.

Georgia Claire

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  1. Georgia, thanks for the post. The treatment of refugees (and asylum seekers, if I must) is something I am forever incensed by. Just curious where you got the ‘Over eighty percent of asylum seekers arrive on planes, on existing visas, and then either apply for refugee status or overstay illegally’ stat from. The only one I found in some quick internet research was from AI this time last year:

    In fact, only 3.4 per cent of people who sought asylum in Australia in 2008 arrived by boat – the other 96.6 per cent arrived by plane.

    SBS reported yesterday that, according to parliamentary figures:

    [T]hose who arrive by boat, in any country, are more likely to be accepted as genuine refugees … Of the boat arrivals, past figures showed between 70 and 97 per cent were later found to be genuine refugees.

    Though I think Drum reported genuine refugee stat from boats arrivals as 96.6 percent.

    One of the most interesting stats from the past week, IMO, emerged in an exchange between Kerry O’Brien and Bob Brown:

    KERRY O’BRIEN: But you obviously have a sympathetic view to boat people. A the same time, the Government says that 50 per cent in the recent past – 50 per cent of Afghan asylum seekers have been found not to have a case for refugee status in accordance with the UN convention. Now do you accept the Government’s right, ethical right, if an asylum seeker does not have – is not granted refugee status, and including – and has their appeal rejected, that the Government has the ethical right to return them to the country they came from?

    BOB BROWN: Kerry, we’ve always said, and Sarah Hanson-Young, our spokesperson on this, has always said that people who are not asylum seekers should be sent home. That said, it is curious, passing curious, that 99 per cent of asylum seekers from Afghanistan up until April were found to be genuine refugees. And here we have a situation in which this government, which Julia Gillard endorses with Minister Evans, has decided not to process the asylum applications from people coming from a country where we’ve deployed our troops, which has a war and a terrifying civil death toll. But our government says, “That’s no worry. We’ll stop processing asylum seeker applications from that country.” Now you don’t have to be very smart to understand that that is wrong.

    I am very concerned about the shifting boundaries of these definitions.

    1. Oh, and one my favourite quotes this week came from John Key, who wants in on Gillard’s East Timor Solution because he is ‘convinced that at some point in New Zealand’s future, we are going to have boats coming to New Zealand’.

    2. hi jacinda,

      I can easily believe the true statistis is up to ninety six percent, as you say. Unfortunately, at the time of writing i was having some trouble finding sources – probably more an issue with my internet that the sources, but regardless. I wanted to make sure my statistic couldn’t be contradicted and so went low.

      I’m rather intrigued by the comment that we’ll end up sending boats to new zealand… By what possible argument? New zealand is better than any other pacific island at resisting things they don’t want to do…

  2. I don’t disagree with you, Georgia (in fact I put together the graphic you’ve used), but you’re wrong about the birth/death rates. Right now the ABS says we’ve got a birth every 1 minute 47 seconds, and a death every 3 minutes 44 seconds. There is a greater natural increase in our population than all permanent migrants and refugees combined. So much for being swamped…

    1. H Robert,

      Great graphic! I was linked to it and had no idea of the originator, but I love it!

      Now, you’re right as far as hard numbers for the ABS. However, if you look at the breakdown of who is actually having babies, the majority of children are born to recent immigrants to the country. In fact some estimates suggest that without immigration we would have a population of around fifteen million! All my stats on this, by the way, are from a great book called “Peoplequake” by Fred Pearce, which I would recommend wholeheartedly.

  3. This East Timor business would have to be one of the most bizarre episodes in recent political life. The notion of announcing a policy about another country without consulting the government of that country, well, it beggars belief. Leaving aside the imperative of ensuring that refugees don’t touch Australian soil, the treatment of the East Timorese themselves seems almost classically colonialist: it simply doesn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind that the Timorese might actually have their own ideas as to what happens in their own country. Think about it like this: what would have been the reaction here if the Indonesian government blithely declared an intention to set up a major facility in Australia, without any previous discussion with the Australian government?
    I said before on the blog that the replacement of Rudd and the shift of Labor to the Right might hand Abbott the election. Think what’s happened over the past week. Gillard gave a speech at which she told Australians to put aside political correctness and voice their concerns about refugees, thus entirely validating the Liberals’ narrative about looming invasion. The next day, she announced the Timor Solution as a response. But it now seems, on the best possible interpretation, that a regional response is a long-term aspiration, and almost certainly won’t be in place before the election.
    Result? Abbott has a simple pitch. Refugees are bad. The Pacific Solution worked — and, look, Labor recognises its value.
    What’s the ALP’s response? *crickets*
    In the space of less than a fortnight, Gillard sounds more like Rudd than Rudd, frantically spinning the Timor solution as not being about Timor at all.
    Hopefully, I’m wrong. Hopefully, Abbott still seems too much of a lunatic to be electable. But I don’t think it’s looking good …

    1. Bizarre, yes. But I am surprised by East Timor’s backbone in this situation – I assumed they had no negotiating room or leverage (guess I was wrong about that).

      But Sparrow, I beg to differ – again – on the election outcome. Abbott is always going to appear the goofy, zealous, anti-choice, xenophobic, sexist farmhand next to Gillard’s pro-business desert mirage leftism.

      What’s the Liberal Party’s line going to be: we were the first to commit to xenophobia, you’re just a pale imitation? Labor will take the moral high ground: we never wanted to punish asylum seekers – genuinely damaged and persecuted people for the most part – but they just won’t play by the queue-forming rules.

      1. Woodhead,
        If you remember, both John Howard and Jeff Kennett seemed like figures of fun, right up until they took power. In the Age, Tanberg used to draw Kennett with a foot perpetually in his mouth. Howard, too, was thought to be unelectable.
        And, yes, the Liberal argument will be precisely that Labor is a pale imitation. They’re already making it. ‘Under Howard, the boat’s stopped coming. Gillard’s proposing her own Pacific solution. But she doesn’t have the guts to go all the way.’
        It might not work but it’s more coherent than the Labor stance.

        1. But they weren’t elected by their most right-wing policies; the policies emerged during their dictatorships and then dragged everything else to the right.

  4. I’m a little bemused that “the Australian people” are the ones deemed to be playing political football. Surely the populace’s main role here is as suggestible dupes.

    1. I used to think that, and hell, I’d still love to. But there is a strong undercurrent of racism among many Australians that I’ve seen a lot of in the last year. There’s a lot of people willing to buy “fuck off we’re full” stickers and engage in racist bullshit at the Pub. The politicians are always selling their rationale to someone, however little we want it to be true.

      1. I’m sure all of us have anecdotal experience of regular folks expressing anti-immigrant feelings. That’s not in question: we have, after all, been invited to have a national conversation.

        But why do you think people are talking about this issue down at the pub? It’s mostly of no direct relevance to their lives: it’s on the popular radar because others have placed it there. These others are the active agents.

        1. I agree with that, mostly. Like, we were all pretty much told that we should be anxious about refugees, and were invited to distinguish between the ‘right sort’ (eg Gillard’s parents) and the unspecified ‘wrong sort’. So, yes, it’s driven from the top.
          That being said, you don’t completely want to deny agency to ordinary people. Hansonism, for instance, did have a genuine political base, mostly amongst the classical rural or semi-urban middle-class: the shop keepers, the small farmers and so on. I can’t imagine that’s not still there, at least to some extent.
          In fact, there’s an interesting question as to why we haven’t seen a resurgence of the mass-based right-wing populism that’s manifesting just about everywhere else.

          1. This is pretty much my point. Yes, we are being lead b our government in the wrong direction. But people also make up their own minds, and to date, I haven’t been impressed.

          2. No, I certainly don’t want to deny agency to ordinary people, or suggest there’s no mass constituency for racist politics.

            But I keep hearing comments along the lines of “wake up, Australians – stop being such a bunch of racist knobs!” I don’t think this is politically useful. When anti-immigrant policies find mass support, we should try to understand why; meanwhile we should try to work out what elite objectives might be. Deploring the stupidity of others (which you aren’t doing, but many are) gets us nowhere.

  5. reCAPTCHA says ‘human drooping’ and I don’t think I have anything wiser or more pertinent to add, nevertheless, I forge on…

    Immigrants ourselves, I was discussing the spurious ‘East Timor’ solution with my family. My mother and I were arguing with my father. My mother said ‘the boat people …’ and my 17 year old daughter called out from the other room, ‘not boat people! People!’ The upshot of our discussion was that imperialist capitalism created most of the war/dischord refugees and those seeking asylum are fleeing – it’s simply our moral obligation to do what we can. Why can’t the government talk in those term? Why can’t they bring out the statistic and ‘reassure’ people that there is no ‘national/personal threat’ or whatever it is that people fear. Why can’t they run an ad campaign highlighting what cultural diversity brings to our nation? Why can’t they appeal to what’s good and generous in the (so called) Australian spirit?

    I’m back to human drooping.

    1. all the errors in the above are due to my drooping – now reCAPTCHA says ‘all manacled’ – it’s an Oracle, I tell you

    2. Why can’t they bring out the statistic and ‘reassure’ people that there is no ‘national/personal threat’ or whatever it is that people fear. Why can’t they run an ad campaign highlighting what cultural diversity brings to our nation? Why can’t they appeal to what’s good and generous in the (so called) Australian spirit?

      I always want to know this. I guess it comes down to the fact that it’s easier to campaign on fear than hope. But I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to believe in it.

      1. “it’s easier to campaign on fear than hope” – why is that? There’s something deeply wrong with the human psyche, if that’s true.

        I think it’s more insidious than that – or that psychological state has been manufactured, groomed to a purpose. I think capitalism needs racism for profiteering: to ‘justify’ war (and the subsequent/co-current pillaging of resources), to justify exploitation of all kinds. Look at the incredible power-stroke just dealt by the mining industry: big business rules the world and our politicians are their puppets.

        But I still think if ‘ordinary’ Australians took to the streets with GIVE REFUGE TO REFUGEES – I CARE AND I VOTE banners, politicians would come over all compassionate (especially if they saw them doing it on a ad!!!) And I think if the government had the GUTS to be true leaders, they could create a ‘campaign’ for compassion/sense. Television crimes are a huge part of our so-called ‘fears’ of … whatever it is we’re afraid of: ‘them’. Though Jerry Mander tells us the medium can’t be used for good…

        I don’t like it or believe in it, either.

    3. what a cool daughter… not many 17 year olds have a social conscience like that, nice one… reCAPTCHA says ‘suntan daughter’- half oracle. maybe the ‘suntan’ art will have more relevance to you Clare.

  6. Nobody likes to stay in another country far from her friends and belonging,far from her spirit.We (immigrators)are always strange in Australia.Find the reasons instead of condemning innocent people who just seek is the time to see this movie again: “against the wind”.

    1. I feel your pain, Eli. Even my family is descended from refugees (though some who arrived in the 1910s!). Although I’m considered about as Australian as it’s possible to be, I’m descended from migrants and refugees. We’re all in this together, and I wish we’d stop being such buttheads about it.

  7. Griff Rhys Jones stated on his program Great Cities the other night that Australia’s White Australia policy was scrapped in the ’70s.
    The accidental drift of ten years is scarcely noticeable, really, for all the change we have seen. Great post, Georgia: maybe Julia’s gaffe has embarrassed enough Australians to make them realise how inhumane these policies are, and how silly our politicians make us all look.

  8. Whilst I agree with the broad sentiments expressed in the original article I do have a problem with its implicit assumption – namely that Australia must grant asylum to all those arriving at its territorial boundary seeking sanctuary. Granted the number of people arriving by boat is minuscule. But if Australia were to simply accept near on 100% of these traumatised people would that continue to remain the case? If not what is an appropriate answer? This question is as vexed for those in favour of helping asylum seekers as the question of whether mandatory detention complies with Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention is for those who wish to turn their backs on those in need.
    When will sentiment vacate the field in favour of policy which commits Australia to shouldering its fair share of the solution to the global problem of those dispossessed by war and its attendant miseries while at the same time educating and reassuring those who express disquiet over the absorption over people who come from non-white/non-Christian/non-English speaking backgrounds?

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