Another date on the refugee tragedy calendar


Wednesday 15 December is now another date on the calendar of refugee tragedy. We remember the  SIEV X catastrophe in 2001, and the explosion on the boat in April last year. The deaths off Christmas Island on Wednesday are a reminder of the dangers faced in coming to Australia by boat. Yet still people come. We might learn some of the reasons by listening to the refugees.

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Over the last 20 years, politicians from both sides promoted the fiction of 'good' and 'bad' refugees. Good refugees are plucked by the Government from 'camps'. They wait in the 'queue' and calmly accept that if they are lucky, they will be offered resettlement. Bad refugees are those who take the initiative and risk of fleeing in order to seek resettlement and 'take the place' of a good refugee.

WikiLeaks recently released reports of both major parties seeking political advantage from the treatment of asylum seekers.

Some people will risk their life in a boat seeking asylum. Others will come by air. The lucky few will win the refugee lotto and be picked from their temporary home, which may be a camp or a small flat in a city in Asia or the Middle East (nearly half the world's refugees now live in cities).

All who meet the definition of a refugee, are refugees. How someone arrives should not affect how we treat them.

For a while under the Coalition there were five different types of visas for refugees, depending on how they arrived. It is not a matter of saying 'they should all stay', but there needs to be a transparent process that is fair and abides by the rule of law.

Some will not meet therefugee definition. However, we need to give those who do, and their families, a real chance for their future.

Resettlement is the least favoured option for refugees. Refugees want to go home, see their family, live in a country where the language and customs are familiar, where they can safely bring up their children and live their lives.

Sadly, it takes years, often decades for people to be able to return home. Some never feel safe enough, even after 30 years. Some experience exile for generations — such as the Palestinians, Tibetans, Burmese ethnic groups and many others.

Those who are unable to return home need some certainty for their future. You cannot expect people to live on a temporary visa with no certainty to plan for their family and work. The idea that refugees should be given only temporary protection so they can be sent home when the time comes fails to understand the serious psycho-social consequences of years of living with uncertainty.

Such policies did not prevent the SIEX X disaster and would probably not have prevented those who joined the boat that sank off Christmas Island from doing so.

Refugees have told me about the stress of separation from their family for years whilst they sat out their time on temporary protection visas. Some could not wait and went home, and some of those experienced the persecution we were supposed to protect them from in the first place. Others saw relationships end, with families divided for years.

It was no surprise that many women and children started coming on boats after the introduction of the TPV. This brought with it great risk. But what would you do to be with your family?

According to some, the 'good refugee' accepts it when their case is refused, and promptly goes home. However if you genuinely believe you are at great personal risk, and you do not have the chance to properly present your case, would you simply accept the refusal?

We should seek to improve the system, the quality of decision makers, and the availability of country information. Critics say it is the fault of refugees when their cases are inadequately assessed; that they did not present their case well.

Is it their fault if the interpreter is inaccurate? if the decision maker has not understood what is happening in their home country? when the case is refused by a decision maker who incorrectly applies the law?  Why should refugees be forced to accept a faulty second rate assessment process?

The right to protection from persecution is a basic human right, yet politicians on both sides want to prevent refugees from having their cases heard in a fair and transparent process — a process that provides for proper review and applies the rule of law.

Australia will only ever be a small player regarding resettlement of refugees and receiving asylum seekers. In the 1980s we accepted 20,000 people each year. In the last 20 years, this has dropped to around 13,000 or so people, while the number of refugees in the world increased.

The suggestion we increase our intake to 20,000 is a laudable proposal of the Refugee Council. This will help prevent some risking their lives on boats.

Refugee policy is often driven by a reactive response. This is a political matter. The terminology people use hints at their politics. Even the phrase 'the refugee problem' is problematic. Is the 'problem' the refugees, or is it how we non-refugees treat them? Policy is commonly framed from the response of resettlement countries. Rarely would the views of refugees themselves be heard.

Every week I listen to the stories of refugees. Some show resilience, courage and determination. Others express severe trauma and fear. Universally they show relief when their visa is granted. They look to the future and want to make new lives in a new country. Maybe if we listened more to the refugees before drafting policies, we would be able to really help them.

Meanwhile, let's hope Wednesday's tragic events are not exploited for political advantage. We remember those who died and offer prayers and condolences for their families. For the living, they need to be treated with dignity. 

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and
was recognised by the AFR Best Lawyers survey in 2009 and 2010 as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. 

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, good refugees, bad refugees, asylum seekers, villawood



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Existing comments

I agree with this article and want to say that Mr Abbott always referred to as a devout catholic is not so devout when it comes to assylum seekers what did Jesus say do unto others any way most of these people come from countries the america and australia are involved in wars in
irena mangone | 17 December 2010

Thanks Kerry, it is good to read the view of someone who is in daily contact with the refugees and to get a sense of the overall situation.
steve sinn | 17 December 2010

What a disaster. The first responsibility rests with the Indonesian Government which allows people smugglers to operate in its territory. The Australian Government is also responsible for encouraging people by its lax policy on boats to take this risky course of travelling to Australia. The Australian newspaper today has an excellent editorial on how the Howard's Government's Pacific solution between 2001 and 2007 actually worked and saved lives and the lesson that the Gillard Government needs to learn from this tragedy.
Sylvester | 17 December 2010

Politics are directly responsible for the killings on Christmas Islands. Many of us have warned for a long time that the criminal people smuggling rings and their supporters in the welfare industries will risk the lives of many. All the people who wanted a fair immigration policy were branded as “villains’. The death of these people may be a direct result of the soft policies of the current Government. The Government was trying to appease the vocal pro-people smuggling and tried to brand fair and reasonable policies of the former Howard Government as “inhuman”. Julia Gillard is now desperate in trying to “keep politics out” of the tragedy. I just hope she will think about her part in the tragedy when she tries to go to sleep. I hope that all the “do-gooders” think hard about their part.
Beat Odermatt | 17 December 2010

I am very disturbed by commenters placing the blame for this tragedy at the feet of the government's supposed 'softer' approach on asylum seekers. I don't think politics should be kept aside in looking at the causes of this disaster, but neither should our human compassion and common sense. The Coalition ran on the grounds that they would 'turn back the boats' - hardly a safe response to people arriving after a treacherous crossing. How many sunken vessels would it have taken for this to be the desired 'deterrent' to others? The truth is, while we abhor the idea of sending people out on perilous crossings in such unsafe vessels, we have no choice but to treat those who arrive on our shores with compassion. Meanwhile, let's not kid ourselves that a hard approach on asylum seekers is about saving lives. Groups such as the Edmund Rice Centre have tracked the journeys of a number of refugees who have been denied asylum in Australia, only to disappear or be killed on their return to their own country. And groups like the Uighurs from China who are prevented from gaining asylum because of our political ties to that nation? There is more we can be doing in the region to stop people from undertaking these journeys. But let's be very careful before we start placing bodies at the feet of our politicians.
Joseph Vine | 17 December 2010

The only way the Dutch could get their East Indies to work was through 'Baqsheesh.' The culture of corruption has become an integral part of the hidden GDP of Indonesia so it should come as no surprise that the people who are making money out of the misery of the 'illegals' are the corrupt providers of dodgy boats. They are protected in turn by the institutionally corrupt Indonesian authorities. Solve that one and you get a Nobel Prize for something or other.
David Timbs | 17 December 2010

I hope Julia Gillard will read the editorial of today's The Australian newspaper. One thing is sure if the Prime Minister was Tony Abbott instead of Julia Gillard this tragedy would not have happened.
Ron Cini | 17 December 2010

Current refugee policy is broken in so many crucial respects, mired in partisan politics which pitch to the lowest common denominator in terms of perceived acceptibility to the 'Australian community'. Thus we have a second rate, highly compromised refugee determination process which gives little benefit of doubt to asylum claims and is not capable of review on the merits. We have a refugee quota which artifically pits off-shore refugee places against on-shore claimants and undermines capacity for family reunion, fundamental to successful resettlement and beginning life anew. We have a settlement program which limits support and grudgingly expects refugees simply to cope and to be grateful for whatever they get, based on what can be tolerated against adverse tabloid media headlines. The system neither meets the needs of refugees and asylum seekers or achieves wider community benefit. A proper refugee program would be designed around the criteria needed for successful settlement and meeting our responsibilities as a Convention signatory- humane, fair and transparent, independent assessment processes and 'best interests' of refugees and the community. We've done it better in the past. It's high time to revisit what works and to have a proper refugee intake of around 20,000, with a separate quota for family reunion. Too much of what happens now, to asylum seekers and to refugees accepted for settlement, knowingly inflicts harm on vulnerable people and damages prospects for full participation in Australian society.
Kate | 18 December 2010

A comment on such a difficult area of concern is not so easy to make. Firstly, how are people trying so desparately to reach Australian shores,meant to be labeled? There are many, many other questions here too. The sad fact is that people are dead, and in horrific circumstances. Who took the risks and provided what sort of information to these seekers of something other than what they knew?
Not I hope reckless! | 18 December 2010

Why do people blame the Indonesians? The refugees make their own choices, even though we pay Indonesia millions each year to lock up innocent people for us it is still the right of the refugees to come to Australia.

It is not people smuggling as no-one is being smuggled.

However, Australia runs a fine trade in trafficking of people out of this country and dumping them in places where they have no right to be and where many have been slaughtered after we did it.

14% of the vessels have needed safety of life at sea rescues, the other 86% have been perfectly fine.
Marilyn Shepherd | 19 December 2010

Ah, I see Sylvester, Beat and Ron are at it again. Never is any mention made of the major push factors, the aggression perpetrated in Iraq and Afghanistan by the (Christian) Bush, Blair and Howard, the long-term exploitation of third-world resources by the (Christian) West. No suggestion that this might possibly be an example of 'as ye sow, so shall ye reap'.

Ginger Meggs | 20 December 2010

I share many of Kerry Murphy's thoughts and certainly join with him in hoping and praying that this tragedy is not politicized by politicians and particularly refugee advocate groups who have there own reasons to do so I work with many refugees and ex refugees from South Sudan who have spend large slabs of time in Egyptian camps waiting there turn to come to this country and find the article insulting to these people .Would they be more worthy refugees had they had the money to by a package to jump the process and come to Australia on a boat ? The article seems to say so .These people come ,after 3 years get citizenship ,then a passport and then go home to visit there families after usually 6 to 8 myears of time away .They are the Australians of the future because they respect our values and our law’s Thank You for listening
John Crew | 21 December 2010


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