Asylum seekers good for Australia's soul

It must have come as a shock to his conservative Australian fans. Appearing on ABCTV's Q&A panel in April, conservative humorist P. J. O'Rourke turned his acidic wit on fellow conservatives who wanted to limit the number of asylum seekers entering the country.

While his fellow panellist, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop frothed at the mouth about how 'since last August there has been an increase in the number of people arriving by boat' and how 'the people smugglers are back in business', P. J. had this to say:

'You know, we in the States have much, much more experience with being all wrong about immigration than you do. I mean 36,000 you said in Italy? ... We laugh. That's a day in the United States. And we are so wrong about it. I mean, build a fence on the border with Mexico, give a huge boost to the Mexican ladder industry, you know ... the thing is when somebody gets on an exploding boat to come over here — they're willing to do that to get to Australia — you're missing out on some really good Australians if you don't let that person in.'

His very wide and very humorous tirade went even further:

'Let them in. Let them in. These people are assets. One or two of them might not be, but you can sort them out later ... I think conservatives are getting this wrong all over the world, I really do.'

So today's asylum seekers are tomorrow's 'really good Australians' and 'assets'. O'Rourke gave hard-headed conservatives more than just 'bleeding heart' reasons to show compassion to refugees. He reminded us that compassion also paid economic and nation-building dividends.

That was also the message delivered to the National Press Club on 11 August by exiled World Uighur Congress leader Rabiye Kadeer. A number of innocent Turkish-speaking Uighur men have been kept at the Guantanamo gulag waiting to be resettled. It took our American allies some seven years to realise the men posed no threat to anyone.

'All of the Uighurs in Albania, Bermuda and Palau are living very normal and productive lives — so we'd be happy if Australia took the four', Kadeer was quoted in The Australian.

The plight of the Guantanamo Uighurs in Albania, Europe's poorest nation, came to the attention of the international media in 2007 when Al Jazeera English broadcast a 24-minute documentary called A Strange Kind Of Freedom. The program detailed the experiences of four Uighur men who had been dumped in Albania with no apology from their American captors and no explanation for their 54 month detention at Guantanamo. (Continues below)

But how did these men end up all the way from Western China to Afghanistan and then Pakistan? The men fled China due to their support for the East Turkestani/Uighur independence movement. They ended up in Pakistan via Afghanistan in 2000, and were sold for a mere $5000 each to the Americans before being transferred to Guantanamo.

But despite living in limbo and separated from their families, these men are not sitting on their hands feeling sorry for themselves. Two of the men are training to become pizza makers, and they are all attending Albanian language classes. They receive some government assistance.

At one stage, Albania was the only country willing to take the Guantanamo Uighurs. Now some Uighur men have also settled in small Pacific Island nations which have no Uighur or other Turkish-speaking communities. Which raises a simple question — if an impoverished nation like Albania and North Pacific island nation of Palau can accept Uighurs, why can't a wealthy nation like Australia?

Australia doesn't exactly have a good record in welcoming even its own citizens who were former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The fact that credible reports showed our men, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, were also abused and tortured did not move our political leaders (apart from Bob Brown and a few other lonely voices) to place pressure on the United States.

Indeed, a profile of former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer published in The Australian on 9 September 2008 showed him having a good laugh when mention was made of the torture of Australian detainees and the practice of water-boarding.

And if a recent Red Cross survey on attitudes to torture is any indication, it seems many Australians have a fairly lax attitude toward torture. Some 47 per cent of those surveyed said they believed it was acceptable to torture prisoners of war in some situations.

That's POW's, not former 'enemy combatants' and 'suspected terrorists' such as the innocent Uighur men our country is being asked to adopt. Australia has established Uighur and Turkish communities and could easily accommodate the few remaining ex-Gitmo Uighurs. If we refuse them, we won't just lose the opportunity to have good citizens. We'll also lose another piece of our collective soul.

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Uighur, P. J. O'Rourke, Guantanamo, refugees, Rabiye Kadeer, A Strange Kind Of Freedom



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Existing comments

Thankyou, Irfan Yusuf. Problem: the gutless Rudd government is afraid to take Uyghur Gitmo people. Why? It is scared of offending the Beijing junta; and if that bunch of gangsters takes offence, it may be harder to sell our coal and iron ore for the blast furnaces of Wuhan and Taiyuan. That's a dilemma. Australia's collective soul? That's an ideal, and a joke.

Neil Tolliday | 14 August 2009  

Well said.

Glenys | 14 August 2009  

Let's not forget Ronald Reagan's words (before he was president): ‘Any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange land and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here.’

Fully open borders are as inevitable and desireable as fully free trade. Time to have that conversation as a nation.

barry york | 14 August 2009  

Australians are ignoring the acceptance of these people because BIG BUSINESS is dictationg what and who we should trade and pursue dialogue.
Just look at the situation in China with Rio Tinto. Oue citizens are the sacrificial lambs in the name of profit!

We need to pursue the dictates of Social Justice.

Peter Lynch | 14 August 2009  

As Glenys said: "well done", mate. A lot of Australians are 100 per cent behind you. I certainly am.

Eugene | 14 August 2009  

In 2001 Australia signed a people smuggling protocol which forbids charging refugees for being "smuggled" or those who help them because we are the brainless fools who put up the walls in contravention of the declaration of human rights and the refugee convention.

In 2004 Rudd nagged and nagged until it was ratified and held to be binding on us.

Still we punish refugees who dare to come on boats and as we don't lock up any other person on earth for "health checks" and the security of Christmas Islanders doesn't seem to be an issue we can only be locking them up for the "crime" of being "smuggled", except refugees don't have to be smuggled to Australia and they never have been.

We are whinging, pathetic tossers.

Marilyn | 15 August 2009  

I was a victim of political repression here in the Philippines, i am seeking for an asylum in your country, thank you very much!

Edwin R. Egar | 16 August 2009  

It is all very proper to read these comments but the key factor in our country acceptance of refugees keeps being overlooked. Refugees are seeking a new life and are accepted on that base. Their culture has failed them so they must be prepared to integrate in all aspects of Australian society.

edward J | 17 August 2009  

Very interesting. This P.J. may think American history demonstrates refugees, immigrants/asylum shoppers to be a boon, they conveniently overlook native American history.

The European American history shows for example after the Mexican war of independence in 1821, it was seen as a `boon' to import Americans into Texas. Oops. Although when their error became even obvious enough for the type who have posted here in favour of refugees and such to accept and recognise, it was too late.

Bustamente outlawed the immigration of United States citizens to Texas in 1830 the American run Republic of Texas was established in 1836 and entered the US of A in 1845. Now P.J. thinks it funny that some people want to build a wall to keep out refugees,imigrants and asylum shoppers while Americans slowly learn to speak Spanish as a second language as their culture slowly sinks.
We need to put the whole Immigration/refugee/asylum shopper problem to a referendum.

regn | 18 August 2009  

When I heard P.J. O'Rourke on Q&A I cheered his comments.

jack kennedy | 18 February 2010  

When I heard P.J.O'Rourke on Q&A I cheered his remarks on refugees. When John Howard said "We will decide who comes to Australia....." I shouted at his image on the TV, "You don't speak for me mate! Then when he lost his seat in Parliament, I knew I was not alone.Don't worry Irfan we are slowly becoming Asians and losing the old world attitude of calling Britain "home": we are not the same as Americans either, we are hybrids and unique.

jack kennedy | 18 February 2010  

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