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Refugee backflip misses what matters


Refugee BoatThe Government's decision to suspend the processing of future asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka raises many questions. As always when there are many possible points of discussion, it is important to ask what matters. In this case what matters is that asylum seekers find respect for their human dignity in ways consistent with Australia's proper responsibilities and interests.

This decision does not respect the dignity of asylum seekers. One of the reasons given for the delay in processing is that it will deter others from coming by boat to seek asylum in Australia. The tired and brutal logic of deterrence involves inflicting avoidable suffering on an innocent group of people in order to send a message to others. It treats human beings as things, and is inherently lacking in respect.

Not only the reason for the decision, but also the suffering entailed by delayed processing diminishes the humanity of asylum seekers. The delay will extend the time they spend in detention. My experience over many years as chaplain in a small detention centre is that most asylum seekers (who come by air) arrive alert and with bright eyes. After three months their eyes become opaque and they are often frustrated and angry. After six months they become listless and show signs of depression.

Those working with refugees commonly say that the effects of detention do not end when they gain residence, but still impair their lives many years afterwards. As Australian of the Year, Dr Pat McGorry said detentions centres are factories for producing mental illnesses. And that, despite the best efforts of staff in the centres.

The human cost of delay will be ravaged lives and greater callousness directed towards them. This was nicely symbolised in the simultaneous decision to send federal police to Christmas Island to deal with the aftermath of the decision.

The decision also raises larger questions whether the processes for determining asylum seekers' claim to protection on Christmas Island guarantee respect for their human dignity. Respect centrally involves fairness. At present Australian policies towards people who arrive by boat to claim asylum are quite unsatisfactory, although, in contrast with the previous government, they are administered in a generally fair way. But the decisions made by Government officers and the review of negative decisions are not subject to statutory review. The justice of the decisions depends on government and ministerial good will, not on law.

Now that the Government has bent to the populist winds fanned by an opportunistic Opposition, there are grounds for fearing that the claims of asylum seekers will be judged in a way that unduly reflects the interests of the Australian Government. The Australian Government will have an interest in minimising the number of asylum seekers who are found to be refugees. It will have an interest in recognising Sri Lanka and Afghanistan as countries in which citizens, including minorities, can live safely, and to which asylum seekers can be deported.

This interest will be shared by many other nations, particularly those thatlook to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is now reviewing their guidelines of refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and will certainly come under strong pressure to issue a bland and optimistic report, which officials will then be able to use in rejecting claims for asylum. If decisions were to be based on unrealistic assessments, the truth of the asylum seekers' lives, and so their dignity, would prove to be expendable.

If the processes of decision making lack integrity, the repatriation of asylum seekers whose claim for asylum is rejected will also put in jeopardy their human dignity, and indeed their lives. Recently, some refused asylum seekers have been deported to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. If we cannot trust the processes by which they have been refused protection, and by which countries have been adjudged to be safe, we shall deport them unsure whether we have respected their rights to life and security.

These are immediate concerns raised by the recent decision. It also prompts some saddening reflections on asylum seeker policy. The present policy of processing people who arrive by boat outside Australia's deemed immigration zone is designed to disrespect their dignity. Even when softened by humane administration it is vulnerable to manipulation in times of controversy with resultant hurt to the lives of asylum seekers.

But to move to a principled and comprehensive policy, particularly when such a policy needs to be based on negotiation with other nations to protect the persecuted at each point of their journey, requires great political courage and leadership. That is unlikely when an election is close, when the majority of Australians want people who arrive by boat to be treated harshly, and the opposition party is a mouthpiece for the most brutal elements of this majority.

We may wonder whether we shall ever again see Government leaders with the courage to defend the humanity of people who belong to unpopular minorities.

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

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees, asylum seekers, refugees, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, detention centres



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Existing comments

In the midst of decisions and commentaries characterised by political opportunism, fear and inhumanity, Andrew Hamilton has reminded us what really matters in this situation and has challenged us to be individuals and a nation that act with humanity, integrity and compassion.

Marlette Black | 12 April 2010  

We must not forget the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps all over the world in horrible conditions. These people are waiting often well over 10 years to get a visa to a third country. The people smuggling industry is emotionally supported by well meaning people from the loony left of politics and some church groups. The people smuggling industry is unfair to all the people having to wait much longer in much poorer conditions because some people with enough funding can jump ahead of the rest. The call for the Government to become more pro-active in protecting our security is actually far more human and fairer. It is unfair to all these genuine refugees in camps all over the world; they have to wait longer and may never ever succeed to leave their camps. What about their mental health? What about their lives? I fail to understand why people smugglers still manage to manipulate and exploit educated, but naïve people from churches and welfare organisations.

Beat Odermatt | 12 April 2010  

Accommodate the overflow in the grounds of Xavier and Riverview then see the reaction!!

philip | 12 April 2010  

For a start, let's get one thing very clear: opportunism is the stock in trade of politicians. It's a companion to the phrase "playing politics"

But much more importantly,I am very deeply offended by Andrew's assertion that "..the majority of Australians want people who arrive by boat to be treated harshly, and the opposition party is a mouthpiece for the most brutal elements of this majority"

That harshness claim must be validated and quickly.Comprehensive and detailed evidence is demanded...and its very absence is very troubling indeed from such a commentator.

Fair-minded people would also charge that those people who have a hostile attitude to refugees are not reliant on a political opposition party to vent their views. Talk back radio is the blitzkrieg of the moment in that regard....and the attitude of federal Labor is self evidence that no political party has a monopoly on abhorrence. The silence in Labor ranks is as dreadful as the clamour of those baying for an abandonment of compassion and real justice...but that too is given no regard.A pity!

Brian Haill | 12 April 2010  

I was about to write to our local federal member when I read this article. I simply forwarded your article to her with the comment that 'this says it all for me' and asked her to bring her influence to bear on the PM to reverse his decision. So thanks to Andrew Hamilton for his lucid articulation of what is at stake!

Veronica Lawson | 12 April 2010  

Thank you, Brian, for challenging my statement that 'the majority of Australians want people who arrive by boat to be treated harshly, and the opposition party is a mouthpiece for the most brutal elements of this majority'.

On reflection, I accept that the sentence is too sweeping as it stands.I should have qualified it to say that 'the majority of Australians wants people who arrive by boat to be deterred from coming, even if that deterrence involves harsh treatment'. I am happy to wait for evidence from the next poll on the suspension measures or more general asylum seeker issues to substantiate that claim. If the polls show only minority support for harsh action to deter asylum seekers, I shall be delighted to apologise and retract my statement.

That said, I suspect that the critical polls in this issue are those which both parties will have taken in marginal seats. I accept the judgment of many political commentators that these show a majority of voters hostile to asylum seekers.

Coalition spokespersons have variously called for a return to the Pacific Solution and promised to stop boats from coming. I would hope that these policies do indeed represent the most brutal elements of popular attitudes to asylum seekers. If not, the prospects of asylum seekers receiving humane treatment in Australia are indeed bleak.

Brian's question about majority attitudes is important. I believe that the great failure of those of us who want a just and sustainable policy towards asylum seekers has been to commend it to the Australian public. Without firm majority support for decency, decent policies and practices will always be vulnerable. Shockjocks are the spark that ignites the petrol vapour. The larger challenge is to deal with the vapour.

Andy Hamilton | 12 April 2010  

The only way to express integrity and compassion is to help refugees in sub-standard camps all over the world and by stopping criminals from people smuggling. This can be only achieved by having the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHR) managing the Christmas Island facilities. UNHR can assess refugees and negotiate their settlement options. This may or may not include settlement in Australia.

Beat Odermatt | 12 April 2010  

Governments are, by definition, elected to lead as well as to listen to the electorate. In the matter of the backflip on asylum seekers, the Rudd government has chosen to 'listen' to the Australian electorate that are suspicious of migrants, particularly those of non-European, Anglo-celtic background. The White Australia mentally is still embedded in the minds of many.

While this is not a racist country, it harbours many who are prejudiced and misinformed about people with darker skins. So, what's the alternative? If we abandon Rudd and chose Abbott, it's like cutting one's nose to spite one's face, that is, politically speaking. Hamilton's treatise provides those of us who are genuinely concerned with the way Rudd is going some hope. Let the asylum matter be one of the major election issues, together with a host of other domestic concerns, economy, housing, health and so on. Unlike Howardism, Ruddism is better at listening to our collective voices of dissent. Labor did win the election on some humanitarian ideals. Contrary to the News Limited media, Rudd is definitely not a Ruddock.

Alex Njoo | 12 April 2010  

Thank you for your christian consideration and humanitarian concern for these underdogs. The opposition is quite pagan in its aggressive attacks. Tony's negativity hurts me. Down with Tony and the Liberals. They are unworthy Aussies. Viva Eureka!
Bien A` vous de la part de Kevin Aryeh Hatikvah Smith, Balgowlah, NSW []

Kevin G. Smith | 12 April 2010  

One is reminded of the dictum, all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Do we object to the memorial for Oskar Schindler, the famous people smuggler from another conflict, in Israel. Thank you Andrew Hamilton for reminding us of the need for humanity. Where is the queue for the people forced to travel by boat.

Andrew Clarke | 12 April 2010  

Excellent point, Philip.

Isn't it interesting how democratic points of view, views held by many or even a majority of Australians, are labelled "populist" by commentators who do not like those views but who appeal to "democracy" when it suits.

I am puzzled by the Sri Lankan "asylum" seekers. Most I understand are Tamils, Sri Lankans of Indian ethnicity. If they feel they are persecuted in Sri Lanka and want to escape by boat, why do they not go to India, where they would be welcome and safe and which is less than 100 kilometres away. Instead, these people choose to travel three or four thousand kilometres to Christmas Island. Doesn't make sense. What are these people really seeking and if it is not asylum why do they lie to us?

Sylvester | 12 April 2010  

The following is part of a letter I had published in The Australian years ago. Maybe it's worth repeating.

My suggestion is that the Australian Navy should be used to transport asylum-seekers from Indonesia to Australia. The advantages of this are:
1) It puts people-smugglers out of business;
2) It eliminates the risk to the lives of people who might otherwise be desperate enough to try to come here on unseaworthy boats;
3) It puts us in Indonesia's good books;
4) It gives other countries more reason to respect us;
5) It gives us some control over who we pick up (but this should be exercised liberally, so that people don't see themselves facing years in refugee camps);
6) It does something for people like me who would like to be able again to be proud to be Australian.

This need have no effect on the queue whose jumpers the [then-]minister likes to talk about. You just add the people brought in by the Navy to the quota. We're a rich country, we can afford to, with a bit of sacrifice. Or is that a dirty word?

Gavan Breen | 12 April 2010  

I wonder too when we will find a media with the guts to publish the law instead of internal policy.

The convention is given force in the Migration act and we still ignore it when it suits.

The disgusting reality is that on Thursday almost all Afghans were being granted status as minority Hazara shi'ites, just as they have been for 15 years and will continue to be.

Bringing back the disgusting logic of punishing to stop others - let's lock up every man in case some are rapists, stop all drivers in case some are drunk.

That'll fix them.

Meanwhile thousands of people are living the life of riley after deliberately deciding to stay without cause because they like the weather and we do nothing at all.

And Beat, none of those people you bleat about will ever get to Australa but that is not the fault of those who do.

In fact we owe them nothing under the refugee convention and we only accept a few as a last resort.

Go and read the DIAC site if you don't get it yet.

Marilyn Shepherd | 12 April 2010  

India is not signatory to the refugee convention but they have hundreds of thousands of Tamils in appalling conditions.

And the Sri Lankan navy is policing the straits to stop people leaving.

What is wrong with people who claim refugees should go anywhere but here when we only deal with about 0.01% of them anyway and squander hundreds of millions in the process?

Marilyn Shepherd | 12 April 2010  

Was overseas when this change announced. Still assimilating implications.

Fear your concerns are on the money. While peace is unsure in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other places who can blame people for taking a chance?

We need to reframe the whole asylum seeker issue.

Robert Smith | 12 April 2010  


Political leadership demands courage. It also demands an ability to win over those who 'want the boat people to be treated harshly' through cogent argument based on the human rights of all. Fear of failure to win this battle for the minds of electors is what causes such inhumane policy decisions. Politicians will not commit political suicide: they need to know they have support to make courageous stands.Given that we live in a democracy, all of us concerned [appalled] at the Rudd Government's most recent decision should be writing to Senator Chris Evans to let him know that we the silent majority want this policy decision reversed. Should we fail to act the old dictum comes to mind: 'Evil triumphs when the good do nothing.'

Ern Azzopardi | 12 April 2010  

Why does India keep thousands of Tamils in appalling conditions? If the Sri Lankan navy can prevent boats leaving for India why can't they prevent boats leaving for Christmas Island?

Sylvester | 12 April 2010  

I am disgusted at the government's back flip on this. Asylum seekers should not be locked up indefinitely. However I feel I'm voiceless on this because I belong to the unpopular minority!

Corrina Moore | 13 April 2010  

Did anyone care what was happening in Afghanistan and Sri Lankan when Howard had the Pacific Solution in place and there were no boats coming to Australia with asylum seekers? Now we have boats coming people suddenly cry out that what Rudd is doing is wrong. So I ask were all these people trying to help these asylum seekers in there refugee camps in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka?

When are Australians going to stop and realise that Charity starts at home, When we have no Australians living on our streets and when our Indigenous Australians are living long and healthy lives and we have more housing then maybe we can look at helping other countries that are not as fortunate as us.

These asylum seekers are making those who have apply through the right channles wait even longer, and that is wrong.

Tanya Cook | 13 April 2010  

Congratulations on a fine presentation of the issues. The sheer effrontery of the Government's naming Pat McGorry Australian of the Year and then embarking on a course of action which is in profound conflict with what he has said on the issue of detention is breathtaking.

The amount of unnecessary and extraordinary suffering the policy will inflict is immeasurable.

The Government's refusal to recognise that asylum seekers are fellow humans in need of help is brutally illustrated by the fact that greater numbers of police officers are being sent to quell any reactions born of despair. There is no mention of extra doctors, teachers, social workers or even priests being sent to deal with this despair.

We are constantly told the leaders of both sides of politics are practising Christians. As an atheist, I can only say may their God forgive them.

Juliet Flesch | 15 April 2010  

I am sure that the vast majority of Australian prefer fairness to all refugees and the don't want people using criminal smuggling networks to be given first priority. Rudd had given a message that Australia is a "soft touch", which resulted in an incredible growth of the people smuggling crime industry.

In Australia we have a group of selfish people which benefits from this criminal people smuggling industry. Either they benefit from it financially because they work in the welfare industry or it makes them feel good by "fighting for the underdog".

Kevin Rudd must be a lot harder on the people smuggling industry. A short delay in processing will not deter the criminal gangs from soliciting paying customer and most people know that it is just an election stunt. I feel that it is disturbing that the interests of criminals, the loony left of Labor and Church groups may have different motives, but the same goal.

Beat Odermatt | 16 April 2010  

Fr Andrew, thanks for these thoughts. It's a difficult issue.

What, in specifics, do you think an Australian government's policy should be?

hugh | 18 April 2010  

The refugees who arrive here are entitled to protection under the refugee convention, those we import are not.

Simply stating over and over again that we can deny obligations for the sake of a bogus and pretend protection program does not make it true.

DIC's go on to state that the off shore program is:

beyond our international obligations and have been introduced to enhance our assistance to those in need.
The number of applications for resettlement received is far greater than the visas available each program year. For instance, in 2007–08 more than 47 000 persons applied and around 10 800 were granted visas.

No-one ever bothers to ask why if they are the most needy 80% of them are rejected and what happens to them if they applied in good faith?

The Humanitarian Program has two components:
• The onshore (asylum or protection) component offers protection to people in Australia who meet the refugee definition in the United Nations Refugees Convention.
• The offshore (resettlement) component offers resettlement for people outside Australia who are in need of humanitarian assistance

Marilyn Shepherd | 20 April 2010