Refugees. Illegal immigrants. Queue jumpers. Terrorists in disguise. In the past decade, our media and politicians have called them all sorts of things. The images are of brown-skinned people, dressed shabbily, crowded onto boats and staring at the camera. Foremost in people's minds is the question, "Who are these people? Are they genuinely fleeing persecution, or are they lying to sneak into Australia?"
Before I look at the major parties' policies, I'll briefly go over three points. The size of the problem, our historical response to the problem, and our moral obligations.
The size of the problem is important. Just from the TV and the newspapers it looks as though it's frequent and it's large, as though the boats are another form of public transport. Famously, a couple of graphic representations have been crafted to show the scale of the situation. Relative to the population, it's small. Relative to other refugees, it's small. Relative to the number of people who overstay visas, it's small (the count was about 47800 people, around five years ago). If we, as a community, are concerned about illegal residency, the bulk of the problem is here, not on boats, but it doesn't make for good video-bites and sound-bites to deport a hundred backpackers.
Historically, we've seen an increase in the numbers of boat people, without a commensurate increase in personnel to assess their claims for refugee status. "In 1998-99, 926 boat people were detained, in 1999-2000, 4174." The number of people in detention rose, and the length of time they were in detention rose as well. Courts were unable to handle the increased demand, and the terrible situations in the detention centres arose. Hunger strikes. Suicides. It became "prudent" to send them offshore. It's cheaper to run a detention centre in Nauru, and it's harder for the Australian media to investigate. The solution was to find more space for the queue, rather than find sufficient capacity to evaluate claims for asylum.
But what's the problem? Why can't we just let them all into the wider community? The problem lies in the notion of government as the ordering force in society. Government has a role to provide the rule of law and security for citizens and residents. They are even given the right to use violence, in the form of the police and the military, to accomplish this. As Max Weber put it, the state is the entity that claims a "monopoly on the legitimate use of violence." So governments want to protect the community from...
...from? Well, from terrorists hiding as refugees, said Wilson Tuckey, Liberal Party MP in 2009. And maybe from ethnic gangs that form in ghettos in the suburbs of Australia. There have certainly been plenty of cases of ethnic violence in Australia, some allegedly caused by Sudanese, some by Serbians and Croatians, some by Anglos. In all cases, this view of government shows that the moral responsibility of government is to impose order.
But what about our moral responsibility to genuine refugees? It doesn't take much googling to see that the situation in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan is terrible. Women living in the DR Congo fear for their safety and her lives. The process to assess asylum claims is required for this situation. People who are in such peril in other countries want to take refuge in safe countries. No one should argue that. Furthermore, a wealthy and peaceful country has the resources available to provide that refuge. The next time you go shopping, look around you at the products on sale. More clothes. More jewellery. More electronics. We have more than enough money in Australia, and yet we spend it on ourselves for things we don't need when there are others who have neither the money nor the opportunity to even have clean water and regular food.
And with that in mind, let's look at the policies from the big three.
The Greens have a policy on immigration and refugees. It has three main points: No mandatory detention, end offshore processing, climate refugee visas. The first one sends a shiver of fear through anyone who thinks that governments should enforce order to protect society. Refugees can disappear into the community, true. In that way they'd become like any other illegal resident, from backpackers to Chinese sweatshop workers who overstay visas. The second point is good. Asylum claims should be reviewed here, with the people here close to services that they need, like medical care and psychological care. The third point is also good, and quite forward thinking. Sea levels are rising (for whatever reason) and there will soon be a number of people who need somewhere else to live.
The Labor Party has, well, nothing on their website. I looked for immigration. I looked for refugee. Only when I looked for asylum did I find some commentary. No policy, just a press release. Let's work from that. They want a regional centre (Timor?), which is another way of saying that it won't be in Australia. Sri Lankans are welcome again, because they improved internal security. I wonder whether there will be such a need for asylum claims from a country that has improved internal security. And not much more than that. A regional centre that assess claims by people fleeing countries with improved internal security and humans rights performance? This is not the action of the strong protecting the weak, it's the strong showing some concern for the average.
And the Liberals? For a start, it's listed under National Security issues, so already we see their approach. The policy is called Restoring Sovereignty and Control to our Borders. Despite its ominous name, the policy focus in on people smuggling with a final point about "a compassionate and fair refugee and humanitarian program" for refugees who "come to Australia through legitimate processes." Although I'm pleased that they've not ignored genuine need, I'm stunned that they think a person in fear of their life will queue up at an Australian embassy to follow "legitimate processes."
Fleeing in fear is just that. People leave homes, possessions, culture, and sometimes family, to preserve themselves. Bellowing "STOP THE BOATS" is a shameful trivialisation of the issue. There are people on those boats, and people should be treated as exactly that, people. If the problem is people smuggling, then say it as it is, and deal with it as people smuggling.
And lastly, perhaps as poetic reminder, another country once sent plenty of boats to this land. Those boats brought soldiers, violent criminals, petty thieves who stole bread for their families, and a whole host of other social problems (alcohol abuse, disease, etc.). By the standards of some Australian political parties, not even the First Fleet would have landed.