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Knowing the needs of refugees

  • 27 June 2012

For a brief moment last week, we were spared the usual bluster about asylum seekers from politicians and commentators. But with the gloves now off we learn that the recent deaths at sea were the fault of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Fraser, social justice advocates, the moralising left, the right, the Greens, the carbon tax, and apparently me.

Trying to shame people with blame in the aftermath of a tragedy can be a self serving exercise and much of what is written serves only to reinforce tired political agendas. But all of us must accept some responsibility for the debacle that is Australia’s approach to asylum seekers and we must work together to find solutions.

In Saturday’s Age, Nick Dyrenfurth took aim at refugee supporters, who he claims have failed in their moralising about refugees. But Dyrenfurth is just another in a long line of commentators to preach his own brand of morality and to denounce others with the claim that he knows something the rest of us have failed to notice. One thing I learnt quickly when I entered the refugee debate many years ago was that everyone is an expert.

But it should be mandatory for anyone writing on the subject to spend solid time in detention centres before calling on others to sugar coat their views and to research the multitude of campaigns and contributions to a debate lasting more than a decade. Dyrenfurth ignores the hard and sometimes invisible work of Australians who have given up time, money and personal lives, to try to shift public perceptions – often successfully - and assist refugees over many years. 

But more problematic is the refusal of our politicians to acknowledge or take steps to address a refugee’s dilemma before he or she steps onto a boat. Too poll driven to even explain the human desperation that leads to boat journeys, our major parties swing with the most favourable political breeze. 

When Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007, many Australians hoped he would position boat arrivals within the global context that John Howard had refused to provide. But Rudd failed to live up to expectations, preferring to appeal to voters on all sides of the debate with his focus on the ‘vile’ people smugglers. 

The Coalition has been similarly motivated and with each tragedy comes the message that Coalition policies aim to save lives. But only the naïve could believe that