Economic hard times even tougher for refugees


Nikos Michaliakos of Greece's Golden Dawn Party

Refugee Week invites us to see asylum seekers and refugees as faces, not problems. It is also a time for taking stock. 

Internationally, asylum seekers who have had to flee persecution in their own lands have had little to rejoice about this past year. Chronic violence fed by religious and ethnic tensions continue to drive people to seek a safe and peaceful life outside their own lands.  Conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa threaten to displace more refugees. 

The readiness of developed nations to help and receive refugees and asylum seekers has come under greater strain. In Europe xenophobia has been intensified by the effects of the financial crisis. Dysfunctional financial systems create dysfunctional populist attitudes to immigrants and refugees. In Greece, for example, the Golden Dawn party threatened to expel migrants from schools and hospitals if elected. 

Hostility to foreigners and especially to asylum seekers has also led to measures that put people’s lives and security at risk. In England it was recently revealed that asylum seekers returned forcibly from England had been severely tortured on arrival in Sri Lanka. The Home Office judgment that it was safe to return asylum seekers to Sri Lanka had been sharply criticised by those familiar with conditions there. 

In Australia, asylum seekers are now seen entirely through the political lens of a government seen as powerless to stop boats arriving on Australian territory. They are regarded like an infestation that reflects on the competence of the sanitary department. So the focus of public discussion is placed on the unsavoury past of some refugees admitted to Australia and on people smugglers who posed as asylum seekers.  This focus, with its imputation that the government  has been negligent, is unlikely to change as the next election draws near. It will continue to feed xenophobia. 

The Coalition has promised new measures to deal with ‘the problem’.  Discriminatory treatment of those who arrive without identification papers, offshore processing, the return of temporary protection visas, a new level of bureaucracy to limit the number of favourable decisions will not address the existing difficulties.  They will only further weaken the link between policy and reality, and increase the suffering of asylum seekers and the cost to the Australian community. 

The results of the refugee week stocktaking are pretty gloomy. But gloom is not overwhelming. In Australia access to the courts by people who seek asylum in Australia has been vindicated in recent decisions. This week a High Court case has heard arguments challenging the scandal that people found to be refugees can be kept imprisoned for a lifetime on the basis of a security assessment which they can neither know nor challenge.  Whether this situation is decided to be legal or not, its human baseness will be exposed.  

But refugee week reminds us that what matters is the humanity of the asylum seekers themselves.  Many live with extraordinary resilience in the face of all that they have lost in their own lands and of all that they have suffered in Australia.  The resilience and the joy of those who have won protection and can begin to live fully again are worth celebrating.   

The collapse of the unlamented Malaysia Solution, too, was followed by the release of many asylum seekers into community detention.  This has been a blessing for those released and also for the community groups who have come to know and to work with them.  It has made visible the human face of asylum seekers.

Finally Refugee Week makes claims on the future. For many years a priority has been to end routine and prolonged detention.  The long term damage detention causes has become increasingly evident, and its abolition is more urgent. Promotion of conversation about asylum seekers based on reality and not on mean myths remains a priority.  And so does international cooperation directed, not at excluding asylum seekers from making a claim on developed countries, but at enabling refugees to live human and productive lives.  

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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Existing comments

Refugees should certainly be welcomed without regard to skin colour or beliefs. Australia and other countries should also be concerned for the welfare of the much greater number of people who suffer iniquities but cannot escape. Other countries should do more to reduce or eliminate the evils that produce refugees, perhaps though greater activity in a strengthened United Nations.

Bob Corcoran | 19 June 2012  

If we claim to be a Christian nation, perhaps we should reflect that according to the Gospels, (1),Jesus began life as a refugee fleeing with his family to a distant nation. And (2), that he said he will take as done to himself, the way we treat others. No one will want to be met at the Pearly Gates with the message "You turned back my boat when I was desperate to find refuge with you."

Robert Liddy | 19 June 2012  

In numbers refugees are not a significant problem to this country , although it is a big political problem as the two main players compete. i can see it as a more significant problem in europe and we can be too quick to condemn. In principle we should be looking to solve these matters at the source though given the nature of human beings one cannot see any easy outcome. it is easier to preach of course than to actively work on effective outcomes.I fail to see how, what is on the evidence of the other accounts a myth, Luke's story of the flight to Egypt advances anything. What is reported of Jesus is revolutionary, as Kierkegaard said an offence. Politically we can hardly know how to cope with such demands and we must recognise this. Matthew stresses 'be perfect", Mark "be merciful'', perhaps more achievable..

Brian Poidevin | 19 June 2012  

With respect, Fr H, it's time to put up or shut up. Provide a detailed legislative framework that's going to filter in all the refugees you deem to be acceptable and genuine, without opening the floodgates to just about anybody in the world who, rationally, wants to join our Australian community for whatever reason, and thereby destroy our commonwealth. Or, cease from this moral grandstanding. I've seen myriad whinges. I've yet to see a serious, practical proposal.

HH | 19 June 2012  

BRIAN POIDEVIN "I fail to see how, what is on the evidence of the other accounts a myth, Luke's story of the flight to Egypt advances anything." The tradition from the early Christians that whatever we do to others is done to Jesus should at least make us pause and look for ways to help the poor and desperate. The problem of course, with an estimated 15 million refugees, is a world problem, and each individual can have little effect, but only when everyone does every thing what they can, will a solution be found. The earth is miniscule compared to the sun, but the earth does not simply revolve around the sun. Both the sun and the earth revolve around their common centre of gravity. So one small planet can influence the might of the sun. It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.We have seen many examples of how the stand taken by one individual can provide the spark to bring about great changes.

Robert Liddy | 19 June 2012  

HH, you don't seem to understand any better than our lazy pollies and media do that there is legislative framework - it's called the 34 legally binding provisions of the refugees convention that we simply choose to ignore.

Marilyn | 19 June 2012  

When Joseph, Mary and infant Jesus fled Egypt, they were genuine refugees, because King Herod was planning to kill the infants of that area. They didn't Flee to Egypt for a better life style, they were persecuted. There is a difference between true followers of Christ protecting genuine refugees and protecting illegal immigrants searching for a better life.

Ron Cini | 19 June 2012  

Thank your for your comments. A bit hard to provide a detailed legislative framework in a few words, but equally needed are a good regulatory framework, a framework of international responsibility and a culture of political honesty. The substantial Australian legislative framework generally meets HH's requirements. It provides that asylum seekers' claims are assessed fairly and only those found to be fleeing persecution on specified grounds are given protection. That amounts to about 80% of people who arrive by boat. I assume that it common ground that Australia should offer protection to those who make a claim on us with a well-grounded fear of persecution. The legislative framework is deficient in its insistence on mandatory detention. This is destructive of human beings and costly, and should be removed, not simply finessed. The elaborate excisions of Australian territory from the immigration zone should also be rescinded, since they do not achieve their reprehensible goal of excluding judicial review. The regulatory framework does need examination, particularly the delays facing people found to be refugees in bringing to Australia dependent and vulnerable family members. But the greatest needs lie outside both local regulatory and legislative frameworks. International cooperation is required to ensure that those requiring protection are treated humanely wherever they are, and that they are accepted with rights to begin a new life. Australia as a wealthy nation is rightly involved in discussions with other nations, but with too narrow an emphasis on excluding claims on Australia. In Australia there needs to be an honest political language that recognises the legal rights of asylum seekers to make a claim,the conditions that force people to risk their lives to make a claim on Australia, the comparatively few asylum seekers and refugees on Australian soil, and our responsibilities as an international citizen.

andy hamilton | 20 June 2012  

Well, Mr Ron Cini, your name certainly doesn't sound Aboriginal, so obviously someone made a sacrifice somewhere to allow you to live the life you enjoy today.

AURELIUS | 20 June 2012  

Another commentator on Australia’s refugee policy, Bruce Haigh, has recently reminded us demonising so-called boat people simply demeans us.

Here in Canberra, the compassion of a Bosnian refugee who is becoming an Australian doctor is helping to heal old wounds.

She commented that ''knowing what it feels like to be from a civil war country, it certainly gives you a different perspective on the circumstances these people are actually coming from''.

My mother was a boat person - from Ireland in 1930, soon after its civil war. She was always grateful for the second chance given her by Australia.

With courage let us all combine, to advance Australia fair - and provided a fair go for all who arrive here.

Peter Graves | 21 June 2012  

Fr H, thanks. I refer to your last statement. Your opinion is that there are comparatively few asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia. O.K. So I suppose the question is this: What is your proposed level of asylum seekers/ refugees that Australia should accept, and, in the light of current policies that are obviously resulting in perilous boat arrivals, what in your opinion would be a legislative/regulatory/etc framework to achieve that level of genuine asylum/refugee intake WHILE AT THE SAME TIME (excuse shouting - no other way to emphasise here) deterring a doomed flotilla? You see, it seems to me that the demonised Howard government had competently deterred that flotilla, with all its perils and vagaries, and it was thus in a wonderful position to ponder increasing its intake of genuine refugees from across the world, including safe passage, to the extent the Australian people were amenable (and I for one would have strongly urged such an increase). As a Christian, and humanitarian (in my opinion) I lament we squandered that opportunity and even today are counting the dead as a consequence. Should I be excommunicated for supping with the Devil on this account?

HH | 22 June 2012  

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