Election year open season on refugees


Duck in gun sightsFor refugees election years are like duck hunting season. Even dragon flies tremble. So it is not surprising that Bob Carr brought out the big guns that the Rudd Government will use before the election. He claimed that most asylum seekers are economic migrants, come from majority religious and tribal groups, and are too easily given protection visas by the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Carr's comments should be seen in context. They are a political response to an intractable situation. On the one hand, the vast majority of people who have come to Australia by boat to claim asylum are found to be fleeing persecution and are given protection visas. Their claims are judged under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory. The Convention looks to the situation and needs of the people who seek asylum.

On the other hand both political parties are convinced that they must offer a credible policy to stop the boats. This pressure has been intensified by the need to deal with the vastly increasing number of people seeking asylum after the introduction of the no advantage policy. This pressure has to do with perceived Australian interests.

The challenge is to reconcile Australia's international and humanitarian responsibilities under the Convention with the political imperative to stop the boats. The Coalition policy rests in part on turning back the boats before they enter Australian waters and can make a claim for protection.

The alternative solution is to redefine the people who come to Australia in such a way that they are not entitled to protection. This is the point of Carr's speech. If the people who seek asylum are economic migrants they are not entitled to protection on the grounds of persecution. But that blanket description may not persuade members of the Refugee Review Tribunal who must judge each case on its merits. So the members of the Tribunal may be directed to accept rulings given by the Department of Foreign Affairs on the reality of persecution in the local areas from which the people who seek asylum come. Persecution is redefined.

Once people who seek asylum and the persecution they claim to flee are redefined, the boats might stop, particularly if conditions in Australia for those seeking asylum are made increasingly difficult. And if that does not work, the commitment to protection can also be given a special narrow Australian sense.

That is the context of Carr's remarks. The proper and decent response to them is to ask about the human reality represented by the people who seek asylum. The fact that almost 90 per cent of people who arrive by boat have been found to be refugees after examination of their claims suggests that they do face persecution in their own nations. It confirms the common sense judgment that most people need more than the desire for economic betterment to make them leave their homes and risk their lives on leaky boats to come to Australia.

Nor is it true that most belong to dominant tribal or religious groups. Tamils live under a Singhalese Government in a nation from which come continuing reports of discrimination and persecution. Hazaras have suffered a long history of persecution as a minority group in Afghanistan. Many Iranians who have sought in Australia are members of minority religious groups.

And even membership of majority tribes does not mean that one is not persecuted. Many people from majority religious groups have claimed that they were persecuted for not being religiously observant enough.

In a healthy environment this human reality should control the way people are spoken about, and not be denied for political interests. Manipulation of language to the detriment of human truth for political ends disrespects the humanity of people who seek asylum. And it demeans those who use it.

In the duck hunting season it may be legal, if regrettable, to shoot ducks. In election season it should not be open season on the good name and the truth about people who claim protection from us.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Duck image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr, Indonesia



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Existing comments

What we also have to do is stop treating Indonesia as a state of Australia and Frank needs to stop peddling the notion that we can deport asylum seekers without a fair hearing back to Indonesia. No other country in the world wastes so much time and energy whining about so little and torturing innocent people in the process. IN fact the Iranians he claims are economic migrants are 96% refugees if they fly here and 96% refugees if they come by sea. His claim is meaningless and the media have to stop enabling the abuse and letting clowns come up with solutions that have no questions.

Marilyn | 02 July 2013  

Bob Carr is a product of the NSW right. He has never lifted a finger to put a stop to the thuggery and corruption that permeate that faction. His pronouncements should carry no more weight than those of Graham Richardson.

Ginger Meggs | 02 July 2013  

Agreed it is duck season. Relabelling people as "economic migrants" does not change the push factors creating asylum seekers in the first place.They will continue to flee. but by then the election would have been won, and duck season will be over. I wish the majority of people the electorate realise they're being played with. by major parties on this

NIko Leka | 02 July 2013  

Cruel, cold politics, from the man who as NSW Premier said NSW was full and could not settle more refugees, and DIAC diverted more elsewhere. We need a sharp tightening of the terminology to distinguish humanitarian newcomers from immigrant newcomers. A refugee is not a migrant. And the current "good refugee" and "bad (asylum seeker) refugee" must be unpacked. for the electorate. The planned, managed annual Migratiion Program designates a quota for Humanitarian Entrants , subdivided into refugee and humanitarian. Immigration SELECTS the refugees for resettlement from very large UNHCR pools of refugees . Call them "refugee migrants" to distinguish them from asylum seekers who pay their own way across the border and are assessed to meet the exact same criteria of persecution, defined in the UN Refugee Convention. Politicians have chosen to link these self funded refugees with the fully funded refugee migrants in a quota with a cap. Why? Asylum seeking falls outside planned, managed migration. By its nature it is spontaneous, chaotic, desperate , a humanitarian crisis which deserves a humanitarian response. We act with compassion and generosity when a tsunami destoys all in its path. Why not the same response for fellow human beings forced to flee from war, persecution and fear like most of us cannot even imagine?

Frederika Steen | 02 July 2013  

I am not so sure we are agreeing on the fuzzy concept of "economic migrants". It is a loose mental conjection and needs clarification by the people who have introduced it in their push to push THEM out.

Tony | 03 July 2013  

Seems if you are already a citizen it is beholden on you to seek economic advantage. Those who do not are losers, or worse, spongers on society. Strange that the qualities we so encourage in our own we use as insults for others.

Janet | 03 July 2013  

Dear Andrew, first a disclosure, wild duck from King Island I like. Classification was the problem Lot faced in dealing with God over Sodom and Gomorrah and perhaps the same tactics will work on our local MPs. What about the children? What about their mothers? Conversations to avoid classification need to begin with individual stories. As Andrew points out our local MPs are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Kim | 03 July 2013  

Was Bob Carr firing a big gun or was he flying a kite? Foreign Affairs Indonesian desk officers are probably working their butts off to make the PM's visit to Indonesia a success. He must have something positive to show the Australian people what can be achieved throught diplomacy. It is one area where Mr Rudd is superior to the Opposition (and Abbott in particular). Let's hope he has more than a Chamberlain piece of paper to wave when he returns.

Uncle Pat | 03 July 2013  

Seen the reports on Pope Francis's coming visit to the refugees on Lampedusa? Compassion in action! And they aren't Catholics, in the main. How does that make our pollies look?

Michael | 03 July 2013  

As Andrew says, the facts prove Bob Carr to be wrong. However he and the Government now hid behind another fact--that for close on 12 months now no processing has taken place and therefore no-one knows how many of those who arrived during that time have a genuine fear of persecution in their home-land. It is tragic to think that our parliament is so hell bent on stoping these people that they will again resort to telling lies to the community. On top of this the Foreign Ministers and now the PM's statements show a contempt for our public service staff charged with the responsibility of deciding who is a genuine refugee.

Blll Armstrong | 03 July 2013  

Thanks Andrew for an excellent articulation of Australian governments very sad and ultimately illegal treatment of asylum seekers. While Australia has two major political parties (you referred to them in the article as both political parties) it also has the Greens who are standing up, over and over again for asylum seekers.

Tom Kingston | 03 July 2013  

This whole issue needs to become more rational and de-emotionalized. I have read Andrew, as well as Greg Sheridan in the Australian, on this issue. Having considerable respect for the integrity of both my suspicion is that the answer lies somewhere between both approaches. My feeling is that border protection and stopping the dangerous and criminal activity of people smuggling are of long term national importance. I think that all refugee claimants are not equally deserving or genuine. Some really genuine and deserving potential refugees will continue languishing in those wretched Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Middle East with nary a chance of ever making it here. Ditto most Rohingya trying to flee genuine ethno-religious persecution in Myanmar. I am concerned about stories of "buy a passage to Australia" from Teheran or elsewhere. I am also concerned of stories related by Greg Sheridan of collusion amongst asylum seekers with standard template applications which may, or may not, apply in all cases. He also relates that those processing applications are pressured by the sheer administrative weight of the system. The legal and financial costs are a genuine concern. We need to develop a sensible, rational, compassionate but firm and realistic national consensus.

Edward F | 04 July 2013  

I find Leunig's poetry most helpful when assessing political motives. His "Duck Study" poem is always worth a read. It should also give us pause to consider that dragonflies tremble.

Pam | 04 July 2013  

No Edward. Sheridan is dead wrong. The law is that everyone has the right to seek asylum, the rest is lies and distortions so we can try and deny people that right.

Marilyn | 04 July 2013  

You can neither claim that your opinion is fact re Sheridan nor that the Law on the subject - as explained by Frank Brennan in another article in ES - is what it is not, Marilyn. Mere polemic does not substitute for reasoned argument.

Edward F | 04 July 2013  

There is no debate though. The refugee convention has been binding Australian and international law since April 1954 and neither party has withdrawn so the debate is done and dusted.

Marilyn | 07 July 2013  

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