~ my current rant ~
A friend of mine who lives in a small Western Australian country town suggested to me that if her town had offered to take the Afghani refugees off the Tampa, it could have been a great benefit to the town - they would have got themselves well and truly on the map internationally, and the Federal Govt's money would have gone into a rural Australian community instead of toward maintaining camps in other countries (how many million did it cost?).
Afghan Traders played an important role in Australia's post-colonisation history. Tinkers travelled all throughout our remote and rural regions, and traces can still be seen where old date palms grow beside long-ruined house sites. The wild camels of our Outback are the descendants of those used by the Traders to bring supplies to our most remote desert areas.
All Australians were Boat People at some stage - those of us of European descent arrived no more than a few generations ago. We were all refugees, or at least came here looking for a better life. We certainly should therefore show a little more compassion for others who wish to do the same, especially if they are fleeing regimes where you can be put to death for the fundamental Human Rights of expressing your beliefs.
katty b, 9 September 2001
the Guardian Unlimited site:
is Howard's Belgrano
Australia's tough attitude towards asylum seekers may be shocking, but it is neither surprising nor unique, writes Patrick Barkham.
The popular support for the Australian government's refusal to let 433 asylum seekers seek asylum on its shores appears a powerful example of the startling racist heart of a country that was built by the original "boat people" who settled in Sydney in 1788.
But with European nations now playing pass the parcel with massed ranks of asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel tunnel and Britain accused of jeopardising the UN conference on racism, the events of the past week show that Australia is no exception. The issue of refugees is troubling most developed democracies, triggering policies likely to turn nations into fortresses and voters into racists.
The level of popular support for the insistence of the Australian prime minister, John Howard, that the "illegals" must be turned away from the country remains unprecedented, say pollsters. The past week has been called Mr Howard's Falklands. His backbenchers are already chortling at the prospect of a snap federal election in September, to take advantage of the surge in support for his government in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher cruised to victory in 1983 on the back of the sinking of the Belgrano.
In many ways, majority support for the Australian government's mind-bogglingly brutal and irrational stance is because the country has gone into war mode. Tabloid newspapers are praising Mr Howard's strong leadership. The opposition Labour party's support for the bulk of the government's moves in the past week adds to the unified front. Terribly sensitive for such a jocular and self-deprecating nation, many Australians feel hurt and besieged: not by the asylum seekers but by foreign journalists' critical newspaper and TV reports of the Christmas Island crisis aired across the world.
In this sort of climate, partisanship and patriotism rule, and the significant minority who feel quietly ashamed of their country's failure to put humanitarian concerns ahead of mealy-mouthed legal technicalities and domestic political posturing go unheard, completely alienated from mainstream opinion.
The rest of the world should not be too judgmental of Australians. The popular antipathy towards the asylum-seekers - talk-back radio stations have heard suggestions that the scrounging Afghan criminals (90% of whom are found to be genuine refugees by Australia's tough assessment policy) should be barbecued and tossed to sharks - is what happens when governments "crack down" on refugees.
Australia's rightwing coalition continues to plant seeds of distrust for asylum-seekers in the minds of Australians with a barrage of misleading facts in support of its claims that the country is at risk from a "flood" of "illegals" being smuggled in. Most of these claims go unchallenged by the popular press and by the Labour opposition desperate not to be branded "soft" on immigration.
The prime minister says Australia takes more refugees per capita than any country other than Canada. This is true if you define refugees as people taken from UN camps abroad in organised resettlement programmes. But it is not the whole truth. Britain, for instance, takes no refugees in this way, instead granting asylum to more than 80,000 people who turn up on its shores and apply for asylum. Australia receives just over 5,000 of these each year.
Another government claim which supposedly proves Australia is a nation of mugs being taken for a ride by foreign fraudsters is the fact that Australia gives refugee status to more than 80% of asylum seekers. In contrast, the UNHCR mission in Indonesia only finds 15% of people who come to it are genuine refugees.
But this figure is taken from the total number of asylum-seekers who make contact with the UNHCR, many of whom disappear before their claims can be assessed. UNHCR officials confirmed last week that 40-50% of those it assesses in Indonesia are found to be genuine. Australia's assessment procedure is as tough as anywhere, suggesting that the vast majority of those who survive the treacherous trip to its shores do have a well-founded fear of persecution.
Australia's immigration minister also likes to portray asylum seekers as "queue-jumpers", a label now firmly etched in the public mind. He has reduced the number of refugees Australia takes from UN programmes from 12,000 to 8,000 this year, claiming that this is because of the growing number of asylum seekers skipping the UN's camps and turning up in Australia. But in the last year, the number of boat people arriving in Australia has levelled off while last year Australia did not fill more than 2,000 of the 12,000 places it reserved for UN-approved refugees. There is no "queue" for Australia and there does not need to be any correlation between the number of refugees arriving via the UN and those who get into Australia independently. The government has made one, in a classic racist move to divide refugees into the good refugees from UN camps and bad ones: those cashed-up criminal queue-jumpers who seek asylum when they arrive in Australia, something which everyone is legally entitled to do under the 1951 UN convention.
Most developed countries fed such a diet of misinformation for five years, during which the major political parties raced to adopt populist attitudes pioneered by Pauline Hanson, would react in a similar way to Australia. The dismaying thing for the minority who see the plight of those picked up by the Tampa as a humanitarian problem which cannot be addressed by unilateral posturing, is that the lead taken by Australia's politicians is only going to become more incendiary and more distorted in the three months leading to the election.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001
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