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On keeping a distance from governments


Villawood Detention CentreOne of the most challenging issues for community organisations is whether and how to cooperate with Government policy. Responses can range from endorsement, to limited cooperation in order to minimise harm, to total dissociation.

Organisations working with asylum seekers will have reflected hard about how they should respond to the Government policy towards on-shore asylum seekers. Government commitment to a policy that would have asylum seekers housed and processed fairly by a regional agreement has attractive features. But on closer examination it proves impossible to endorse.

The difficulty with the search for a regional processing centre lies in the presuppositions on which it is built. The Government identified people who arrive in Australia by boat as a problem, not as people who have a problem. So the purpose of the regional processing centre is not to find the most equitable way of receiving and adjudicating the claims of asylum seekers in the region. It is to ensure that they are not received in Australia.

By any reasonable standards people who apply for asylum in Australia are not a problem. Australia is a wealthy enough country to receive them, to judge their claims and to offer protection to those found to be refugees. The Convention to which Australia is a signatory commits it to this. And despite the present increase of applicants, the number of asylum seekers in Australia is relatively small.

The problem that asylum seekers face in being received fairly and compassionately in Australia is one of irrational prejudice pandered to for political gain. The regional processing centre was proposed in order to minimise the political damage caused by the influx of boats. The Government decided to treat people who arrived by boat as a problem and linked this 'problem' to the claustrophobia experienced by people in marginal electorates.

Governments do what Governments do. But those concerned for the dignity of asylum seekers and for a compassionate Australian response to them ought not to accept that Australia has an 'asylum-seeker problem', any more than there was a 'Jewish problem' in Germany in the 1930s or that there is a 'Gypsy problem' in France today. Nor should they accept the proposal of a regional processing centre.

This is not to say that Australia should not try to build regional cooperation for a more humane treatment of asylum seekers. But it cannot be based on excluding them from coming to Australia. That is not cooperation but self-interest. The present proposal of a regional processing centre is unacceptable. It should not be endorsed.

The correct stance towards the regional processing centre is that which has been adopted towards indefinite detention, whose repeal was announced in Government policy but never legislated. It has always been criticised by refugee groups. But many of those groups have cooperated in limited ways with Government in order to minimise the harm that detention causes. They have simultaneously publicised the extent of the human destruction entailed in detention and argued for the abolition of the policy. That is a proper stance.

It is significant that the focus on the regional processing centre has been accompanied by more demeaning and harsher forms of detention, including that of women and children. By halting the processing of Afghan claimants, the Government has extended the time which people will spend in detention in harsh and isolated places. It is time for this costly, damaging and counter-productive system of detention to be abandoned. It is broken.

To be adamantly opposed to bad government policies while at the same time ready to help mitigate the damage done to human beings by those policies is a difficult stance to hold. That is especially so when one is beating into the wind of public opinion. But sometimes that is what humanity demands. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, asylum seekers, mandatory detention, villawood, boat people



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Existing comments

Let's form PASM.

Process asylum seekers in Melbourne.

Jim Jones | 27 September 2010  

Surely, as opposed to "On keepinbg a distance from government", the vital challenge has to be on how to be actually right in the government's face,right up close and personal and demanding...especially given the reality (and blessing in this case) that the government in question is a minority one beholden to The Greens and the Independents!

In addition, the absolute absurdity of the goverbnment considering the establishment of a so called processing centre in East Timor, one of ther world's poorst and most fragile nations, has to be completely abd swiftly demolished through ridicule...and an avalanche of corespondence sent to Foreign Minister Rudd who is publicly known to oppose this particular proposal...himself an achille's heel for the government.

Another issue that must be urgently pursued is the government's duty of care towards asylum seekers in its custody...for example the securing of the detention centre rooftops, not only to deter would be suicides but also the great risk..especially for pregnant women..of accidental falls.

Let's hear the church speaking up...I'm sure a clarion call from cardinal Pell (along the lines of Let's take ther death risks out of detention) would help to turbo charge the needed responses and rectification so urgently called for.From what I've seen, I'm the only person in this land who's put pen to paper(Letters in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age)to express anxiety on this issue...doesn't anyone else care?

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 27 September 2010  

Anthrapologically, it is understandable that human primates get anxious about the possibility of their territory being invaded by foreign hominid tribes. It is a primitive survival reflex, albiet not terribly relevent to 21st Century Australia! For politicians who know better to manipulate these crude fears for their own electoral advantage is disgusting. In reality it is quite bizarre that the wealthy, safe and comfortable, even in our pressurised outer-metro cities, should be scared by small numbers of the weakest and poorest, the powerless and displaced; perhaps that is a message out Bishops should be proclaiming loud and clear to people and pollies alike?

Eugene | 27 September 2010  

Andrew, we have tried that approach for 20 years and not a thing has changed. Torture? Deaths in custody? Lack of medical care? Locking up kids in terrible conditions?

The only change since 1992 is that we have helped to bomb to bits the two countries from where most refugees come.

Afghanistan and Iraq are our problem but we treat the refugees as problems.

And there is zero legal basis for a "regional centre" because there are 8 million refugees in the region and the region are not whining, only we are.

And with the jailing of Hadi Ahmadi for translating in Indonesia for other refugees and being illegally brought to Australia to do, we now have legal rendering of anyone who helps refugees in the region.

It's nazism, pure and simple.

Marilyn Shepherd | 27 September 2010  

Thank you Andrew, for yet another of your so necessary essays, so well argued; and so easily disregarded by anybody in politics and many people in the street on whose paranoia Australia's inhumane self-serving asylum seeker policies are based.

In these columns however, I prefer to believe there are readers whose humanity is stronger than any trepidation they might have about people coming to Australia in small boats, without official papers.

Jim Jones, your call to form PASM has an attractive ring to it. I'll continue to watch this space.

Meanwhile all of us, through whatever channels we have, can only continue to tell politicians that their policies shame Australia and shame us as Australians.

Brian Haill wants to hear "the church speaking up". The various papers and statements from church, synagogue, mosque and temple continue to be ignored by makers and perpetrators of policy because it is easy for politicians to ignore what they see as disparate calls from disunited groups of electors.

When temple, synagogue, church and mosque speak with one voice representing the people of faith in Australia the policy makers will begin to hear that many voters want humane policy, not self-serving chicanery.

Ian Fraser | 27 September 2010  

why can't we just get on with the business of settling these people into their new country instead of worrying about outcomes and possible outcomes if we take refugees.
lets just be human and keep working hard to do the right thing.

rhonda | 27 September 2010  

I am sure that security & compliance & processing systems at detention centres will be significantly increased after the recent roof top protests. As if detention is not punitive enough already. Also the protesters will surely be in high security Stage 1 now, for a long time. Yes Rhonda, we need to keep on keeping on ...& telling anyone who will listen about the facts as we know them.

Lesley | 28 September 2010  

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