Breaking the 'boat people' deadlock


'Asylum seekers' by Chris JohnstonIf you are tired of hearing about asylum seekers imagine how weary they must be.

Much of the analysis regarding asylum seekers does not seem to drive home the core truth: that the debate conducted by politicians is not really about solving the so called refugee problem. It is predominantly a show for an audience. It is a game of hardball.

That game is an old one played by tyrannical regimes throughout time and perfected under Nazism by Joseph Goebbels. First, demonise a group. Then you can progressively suspend their rights and use them to shore up your power.

Part of this denigration is achieved by holding back what might arouse common sympathy.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority's new Guidelines on privacy restrictions will prevent television networks filming asylum seekers arriving on our shores by boat. Jill Singer cites this as politically ominous and deliberate. Out of sight and out of mind. If people don't see the pain on the faces of refugees, concern and protestations will be lulled.

So much of the convoluted argument about what to do with boat people evokes the journeys of many persecuted groups. Their journeys are also our own, demanding moral self examination. What do we owe fellow humans from other lands who are fleeing war, persecution, torture and death?

The Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951, to which Australia is a signatory, has already supplied this answer. We have agreed that we owe refugees the right to seek asylum and we cannot send them back into danger. We must allow them to flee to our shores and shall receive them and hear and consider their stories and grant asylum to genuine refugees.

But the accusations of irresponsibility, queue jumping and terrorism characterise asylum seekers as less entitled. Portrayed at best, as powerless suffering victims, or at worst as invaders intent on stealing the benefits of our citizenship, the plight of refugees then invokes our most limited ways of thinking. Refugees are spoken of as unwanted goods to be sent back whenever possible.

Advocates and supporters are mocked as soft bleeding hearts who are responsible for deaths at sea.

So why are we deadlocked? Firstly the Geneva Convention has been ignored as though its principles were up for grabs. Secondly our government and approximately 50 per cent of Australians have not focused on the humanity of refugees. Successive governments have used, abused and exploited them for perceived political gain and to distract from other problems.

It is a psychological mechanism, to focus on a threat or create an enemy coming from without in order to foster compliance or create a diversion from the problems within.

However, to erode or deny the rights of a few is to endanger the rights of all. Describing 'the slow lobster boil of erosion of freedom', Milton Mayor, in his book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 19331945, writes, 'Resist the beginnings and consider the end. But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings.'

As a daughter of Jewish refugees I know this in the heart of my being. 'The beginnings' were told to me by my parents in the stories of nagging, relentless denigration and discrimination in their childhood as Jews in Poland in the 1920s and 30s. These beginnings prepared the ground for persecution to build in Germany and Poland towards the extremity of the 'Final Solution'.

Similarly, if Asylum Seekers are seen to be 'lesser than', compassion is removed. So politicians argued about whether a boy orphaned boy by the Christmas Island boat wreck should be 'sponsored' to travel to his parents' funeral and then sent back to detention. The enormity of his grief was sidelined as was his need for care and comfort. He was just another Asylum Seeker.

If we start from the rights and humanity presumption we might see a way through this.

It is hard if not impossible to deter by punishment the desperate who fear for their lives and are seeking family reunion. The alternative of putting the Geneva Convention at the core of our actions, faster processing and resettlement, and increasing our intake from places such as Indonesia will produce a better outcome for thousands of refugees and make dangerous boat journeys less likely.

This has been proposed by advocates including Julian Burnside.

If we were to dismantle what has become our own unethical and psychologically damaging refugee processing industry, we could end the politically motivated game.

That in my view is a way forward out of the quagmire that is Australia's reprehensible treatment of vulnerable people.

Lyn BenderLyn Bender is a Psychologist who worked at Woomera Detention Centre.

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, asylum seekers, refugees, detention



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Existing comments

Bleeding hearts don't look after our own citizens but pay these monied refugees well above any entitlements our own citzens get. Indonesia must accept them back as it is where they jumped off. They have pushed the problem onto Australia. fair go for our own people!

Peter | 30 January 2012  

Good on you Lyn. We must be tireless in stating and restating sound principles on this question.

Jim Jones | 30 January 2012  

Thank you Lyn Bender for getting to the heart of the matter. I have wondered over the past few years why we just don't change our asylum seeker policy, close detention centres, house asylum seekers in the community and take more refugees. I have decided the answer is simple, "Because we don't want to." You are right, I fear, to have this denigrated group serves a sinister purpose, one some of are regret and one all of us might in time regret.

Janet | 30 January 2012  

Ms Bender's final comment is the key. Our approach to asylum seekers need not be party political. That way is failing us on this issue. The way out of the political venom surrounding the issue may be to depoliticise it - we need leaders within parliament who can build an all party, or above party, approach which aims for humane, decent, transparent and workable solutions. Secondly, I hope readers can comment on this extract from the article: "The Australian Communications and Media Authority's new Guidelines on privacy restrictions will prevent television networks filming asylum seekers arriving on our shores by boat. Jill Singer cites this as politically ominous and deliberate." What is the media doing about that? Our TV news can show bodies on the street, death in war, scenes of carnage, immense distress from many situations, yet not asylum seekers arriving? Isn't that how we learn a lot about asylum seekers? Behind their arrival is a story, which sometimes gets told. What is our free press doing about this development?

Julian McMahon | 30 January 2012  

I agree generally but just increasing our intake will not solve the problems (of refugees) and Indonesia doesn't want us to take more people from their country - that is a real furphy that is not going to happen, partly because Indonesia doesn't want to be more of a drawcard ( a big issue for them). It also means that anyone whose case is rejected will still get on a boat knowing that once they are here they cannot be returned anyway- and there are many who will be rejected in that process. The problems need to be dealt with before Indonesia and much closer to sources. i agree with your sentiment but generalisations on policy that ignore realities are also a huge part of the problem with the debate we have - everyone makes sweeping comments without understanding policy... it all sounds nice but doesn't address what Indonesia thinks or the realities or consequences of the approach you suggest. Is it ok for people to keep dying at sea?

reader | 30 January 2012  

Thanks. Excellent statement of the problem. That there are some who are testing the boundaries of asylum seeking does nothing to undercut the genuine search of those who have nowhere else to go. Enough of the political posturing!!!

RFI Smith | 30 January 2012  

Thank you Lyn for continuing to fight this good fight based on firm and compassionate ethical first principles. Too many people who until recently were on the right side of this debate have started to compromise with expediency. Dehumanisation of asylum seekers - turning people into numbers - is the first step down a bad road. I heard a seriously put argument recently that the Refugee Convention is the product of the Holocaust and the Cold War and that it is no longer necessary or relevant for Australia to support this Convention. It does not take much unpicking of that argument to see how selfish and racist it is.

tony kevin | 30 January 2012  

Paul Maley's article in today's The Australian raises serious doubts about the bona fides of many asylym-seekers arriving in Australia by boat. "Of the 3237 asylum-seekers who admitted to flying to Indonesia on a passport, 3200 did not have any travel documents when they arrived in Australia. People-smugglers routinely advise their clients to discard their identity documents before arriving in Australia." Are we so willfully blind that we will not recognize we are being taken for mugs? Those who may desperately want a better life in Australia, but are not genuine refugees, must not be allowed to take the places allocated from those who truly do need protection.

Patrick James | 30 January 2012  

Peter, which 'bleeding hearts don't look after our own citizens but pay these monied refugees well above any entitlements our own citizens get'? Name a few, please. Then we can debate your point, rationally.

Ginger Meggs | 30 January 2012  

In April last year the Indonesian parliament legislated to make people smuggling illegal under Indonesian law. The law becomes active after commissioning by the president. Being an archipelago, Indonesia's waters are extensive and extend, as in any other archipelago, to the remotest islands in the archipelago and for twelve miles beyond that boundary. Surely people smuggling from Indonesia is now Indonesia's problem and should be policed from there. Government officials certainly know where the smugglers operate and it would seem that a patrol boat service in Indonesian waters would solve the problem. However, in a country where corruption rules such is unlikely to happen. Maybe, Australia's approach should now be a demand that Indonesia intercepts illegal people smuggling in its own waters and failure to do so incurs a corresponding deduction of the costs to us of illegal smuggling from our Aid to Indonesia Program.The success of such a program would depend on two things: first, some guts on behalf of Australian politicians and second, on the monetary balance between loss of aid monies and payments to corrupt authorities by the people smugglers. Neither is likely to happen. The ineffective bleeding hearts have many more years left to wring their hands over an easily soluble problem. Easily soluble, that is, if both Australia and Indonesia were Christian societies running on ethics rather than secular humanist societies running on money and self-interest.

john frawley | 30 January 2012  

Peter, what payments are refugees receiving, "above any entitlements our own citizens get"? I suspect you might be recycling the claims made in a fake email that went viral last year, which Media Watch debunked in detail — but perhaps you have access to different/additional evidence we haven't seen yet.

Tom Clark | 30 January 2012  

OK, here's a challenge that may sound Utopian, but what about working towards stopping the causes of people getting on boats? What is the unrest in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East etc all about? If we just pretend that it's simply terrorism then the world will only become more divided. It's because world economic policy favours developed countries and the corrupt leaders/regimes of developing countries. We in Australia with our high standard of living are part of this system.

AURELIUS | 30 January 2012  

I am ashamed to be Australian at present, the lack of compassion and the one upmanship of the two major political parties in relationship to these desperate people is disgraceful behaviour. I had personal experience in meeting and nursing some of the most desperate of these people who were actively suicidal, their personal stories were spine chilling.

Margaret M Coffey | 30 January 2012  

Dear Lyn, Please note that coverage about the Australian Communications and Media Authority's new privacy guidelines for commercial broadcasters having an impact on the coverage of asylum seekers is incorrect. The ACMA issued this clarification on 5th January: -Blake Murdoch, Media Officer, ACMA

Blake Murdoch | 30 January 2012  

Well said Lyn, in particular identifying the 'political game' at the core of the reprehensible debate which has in my view diminished our culture and therefore our humanity as Australians. The price of freedom IS eternal vigilance and so we must never tire of speaking out against misinformation, ignorance and discrimination - no matter how 'over' the discussion we may feel.

Dawn O'Neil | 30 January 2012  

The reference to Goebbels is timely. Germany at the turn of last century was Europe's most civilised nation, culturally as well as socially. And yet, within a span of a decade it degraded itself to the pits of inhumanity. Australia at the turn of this century is the envy of the developed world, alas, we have among us the Peters of this world who are remnants of Goebbels' era. I don't say this too lightly but let's hope that God will save Australia soon. Bravo Lyn Bender for adding your voice to the compassionate few among us.

Alex Njoo | 30 January 2012  

I don't understand why the United Nations can't take charge of resettling refugees and have each country do what is needed to help them. I don't believe that the people who oppose what's happening now, are less compassionate than the rest of Australia. They are probably tired of being told what to think and feel instead of being invited to participate in genuine and respectful debate on these issues. I am a second generation Lebanese/Greek female and remember well the taunts directed at my colour and ethnicity, while growing up - BUT - not all my Australian acquaintances were nasty. I had the most wonderful Australian friends who were just lovely. While it was very difficult for my family, my father learned to read and write english and take his place in the business community. As president of the Greek community at the time his role was to not only welcome the 'foreigners' but also to help them settle into and assimilate with the Australian way of life. Somehow, I sense a different attitude with some of the people arriving now. Maybe I feel vulnerable, too.

Millie | 30 January 2012  

Peter, It's good to know there's that rich country Indonesia there ready to pay entitlements to those 'monied refugees' and saving us poverty-stricken Australians having to do it. Julia Gillard, use the Australian Navy to bring the refugees, and smash the business model of the people-smugglers.

Gavan | 30 January 2012  

Maley is talking drivel as he usually does. The fact is that under the law refugees do not need passports, most can't get passports and the fact is that those who come by sea are almost always refugees while those who fly and lie are generally not refugees but scammers. Everyone has the right to seek asylum, that is the point. Why this country is so obsessed with so few over so little beats me but anyone who watched "The Man who Jumped' on Tuesday night knows that we have seriously lost the plot long ago. We do not have to treat refugees worse than criminals.

Marilyn Shepherd | 30 January 2012  

Because Millie the law has always been that signatory states assess and accept those who need it. The UNHCR does not have a country and they do not protect refugees.

Marilyn Shepherd | 30 January 2012  

You hit the nail on the head! I spent time in the UK a few yeara ago.Europe has a massive problem compared to Australia.Ours is miniscule problem .Most so called "illegals" come in on planes and simply overstay their Visas.Any Terrorist would do exactly the same as "nine - eleven" proved in the US.I also watched "The Man who Jumped"- that was quite traumatic to see.
We really do need to wake up or we will go down the wrong path fast.Do keep the issue in the lime light

Gavin | 30 January 2012  

Thank you Lyn for an excellent, thought provoking article. Some general points I would like to raise:

1) Australia seems to have racism, particularly toward people from non-European countries, etched into its psyche. This dates from the anti-Chinese riots on the goldfields and the White Australia Policy ("two Wongs do not make a white"). To Australia's shame John Howard successfully tapped into that embedded racist vein with his dog-whistling. No political leader on either side of politics since then has had the principle and the fortitude to confront the electorate and lead a just and humane debate on refugee policy.

2) "Breaking the people smugglers business model" is a furphy. Simply putting the people smugglers out of business will not stop the stream of refugees coming to Australia. Desperate people will find a way to secure their safety.

3) Simply because refugees have money to help secure their freedom does not make them any less a refugee. A number of refugees escaping Europe before, during and after WW2 had the resources to secure their safe passage yet they were still welcomed in countries such as Australia, Canada, the US, South Africa and in South American countries. But they were European refugees, not Middle Eastern or Asian refugees.

D O'Connor | 30 January 2012  

We can't compare world war two refugees and the illegal refugees coming to Australia by boat.World war two refugees had no choice where to go, it was the United Nations that sent them to different parts of the world. They did not destroy their credentials. The current asylum seekers, after travelling by plane through many Moslem nations to Indonesia pay large sums of money to people smugglers to get to Australia. As we now know, thanks to "The Australian" out of 3237 asylum seekers who admitted to flying to Indonesia on a passport, 3200 did not have any travel document. That means that over 3000 genuine Coptic refugees in Egypt suffering persecution will have to wait longer to settle in a peaceful country.

Ron Cini | 30 January 2012  

Well Ron, the problem \ is that before 1951 the Jewish refugees had no right to asylum, after 1951 refugees did. And Maleys story was tripe because refugees do not need passports. If they could get passports they could be the same as tens of thousands of other frauds and make bogus claims.

Marilyn Shepherd | 31 January 2012  

It is is just an insult to all the people of Australia trying to draw a comparison to the Nazi area. Australia is spending Billions of Dollars in helping people to settle in Australia and I challenge Lyn Bender to name a single person who ever has bent sent out of this country because of his or her race!

Beat Odermatt | 31 January 2012  

My friend whose new and devout Catholic spouse will have to wait at least six months to join her new husband in subject to every bureaucratic "requirement", which only Sir Humphrey might have dreamed up.

Claude Rigney | 31 January 2012  

Claude, is your friend's wife a refugee in fear of her life. If not what is your point?.

Marilyn Shepherd | 01 February 2012  

We must not ignore Media responsibility in reporting names of refugees. In escaping persecution reporting of names and identities may result in relatives back home being persecuted.

john ozanne | 01 February 2012  

Dear Marilyn, My point pertains to the history of this woman from the Phillipines, whose life story parallels the life stories of so many women from that deprived country. She is aged in her mid-thirties. Like so many of her countrywomen she spent more than 10 years working as a domestic slave in Hong Kong to support her poor parents. Newsflash: The Phillipines main export income is derived from the money returned by the Fillipino slaves who work as domestics in places like Hong Kong and and some of the oil rich countries of the Middle East. Newsflash: Every week an average of seven bodies of such workers are repatriated to their home country, and yet Australia refuses to become a signatory to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Foreign Workers. Some of the things, for example, that the Australian goverment requires, in this case, are a security clearance from the Hong Kong Police Department (like it doesn't from the Afghan Police0 and document fees drawn on a bank account in the applicant's name. Newsflash -Poor Filliino people don't have bank accounts. In other words Marilyn, boat asylum seekers are not the only ones who suffer in their existing lives and in the torment they face to come to Australia. I support the idea of raising the annual intake of asylum seekers to 20,000, accessed from the wretched holding camps all around the globe. Even such an intake may not stop the boats from coming,but it would beg the question: Why would the Indonesian Government continue to facilitate the transition of asylum seekers to Australia, in the face of such a generous Austalian Immigration Initiative? The answer to such a hypothetical question would be the same as it would be if asked under present circumstances: because such facilitation is a source of revenue to corrupt elements in Indomesian society.

Claude Rigney | 01 February 2012  

Your article encompasses everything that I believe. How do we get this opinion (which I hope may shared by the silent majority), into the public arena, before it is too late, and we become an unjust Nation based on ignorance. Letters to the secular press may not be published. What is the course of action we must take, to prevent a philosophy of selfishness and cruelty seep into our Government and our country? Could we organise a public demonstration of outrage at the acts of inhumanity being committed through lack of lack of moral integrity . We``are quickly destroying our reputation of being a just and 'lucky country' People power works, as history has shown. Let us ''do'' something,as well as write letters. Who can help plan a demonstration of hope for persecuted people, who don't deserve to be imprisoned and treated as common criminals. '.

bernie introna | 01 February 2012  

And here we go again. Some asylum seekers drowned off Malaysia escaping the brutal treatment by Malaysia so Bowen says we must send some other refugees to Malaysia after they get here safely.

Marilyn Shepherd | 03 February 2012  

@Marilyn Shepherd. You accuse Maley of talking drivel but your post makes it clear that you did not read his article properly. At no point does he assert that refugees need passports. What the article relates, based on figures from interviews with the asylum-seekers themselves, is "....Of the 3237 asylum-seekers who admitted to flying to Indonesia on a passport, 3200 did not have any travel documents when they arrived in Australia." If these people are legitimate refugees, what have they got to hide? Why not hold on to their passports so that they can prove they are who they say they are? And if and before you respond, I reiterate that according to Maley, "The information is based on admissions made by asylum-seekers during their initial entry interviews with officials." Marilyn, I do no see your post has disproven my original point. Legitimate refugees may be losing their spots to imposters.

Patrick James | 03 February 2012  

But the question is moot. The government have always known that they get to Indonesia on false passports which are then recycled to get more people out of Afghanistan, so the whole article was just nonsense.

Morrison predictably said they should be punished, which is illegal.

Marilyn Shepherd | 03 February 2012  

Excellent article, Lyn. As I see it, there are two populations to be concerned about here: the asylum seekers who are not culprits but victims of crime, and the loud and basically ignorant citizens of Australia who choose accept the blundering bigotry of redneck propaganda.....

Philomena van Rijswijk | 03 February 2012  

@Marilyn. If what you say about the reliability of the passports is accurate, then I would concede that the question is indeed moot.

Patrick James | 03 February 2012  

Patrick I am not known for making things up.

Marilyn Shepherd | 04 February 2012  

Dear Marilyn, I have been so looking forward to your response to my answer to your "what's your point..Claude" question. Kind regards, Claude.

Claude Rigney | 08 February 2012  

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