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Sudanese refugees: The year the doves got smart (includes Andrew Hamilton's reply to critics)


An old timer once told me about politics in his home town. The town council used to review its workers every few years. The park keeper, who was pretty smart, saw he might be thrown out of his job. So when review times came he used to drag a dead rabbit around the park and then whistle up the dogs. They would catch the scent of blood, scratch at rabbit holes and tear at any rabbits they found.

In the park there were also many doves. They had a lot of time for the rabbits. So they fluttered their wings at the dogs and billed and cooed in sympathy. But all they did was to make the dogs bark so loudly that all the dogs in whole town rushed in to hunt out the rabbits. Then the park keeper did his bit. He warned of the diseases that rabbits brought, quieted the dogs down, and showed himself to be indispensable. He always kept his job.

One year though, the old timer said, the doves got smart. When the job review began they stayed in their trees. They ignored the dogs, who realised they had been had and so left the rabbits alone. The park keeper lost his job. Whether the rabbits fared better under the new park keeper is not known.

The moral of the story, the old timer said, was to be as wise as doves.

The decision of the Australian Government to reduce the intake of refugees from Africa is in itself uncontentious. Australia takes a relatively large number of refugees by international standards, although small in absolute terms. Its intake should reflect the changing needs of refugees throughout the world. There are certainly good arguments for doing more both for Burmese and Iraqi refugees.

If it is true, too, that the quota of African refugees has been filled before the year’s end, it is reasonable to defer other refugees from the area until the following year.

These decisions about quotas and timing are painful. Whether the African component of the quota has been reduced too sharply is a matter of judgment. But it is part of the necessary business of government to evaluate the relative need of different groups, and also to ask which groups of refugees will best be helped by resettlement.

The earlier experience of Indochinese refugees might be illuminating in this respect. Those accepted as refugees included many unaccompanied minors. They were at particular risk in the camps. But the early experience of resettlement revealed that it was not sufficient simply to bring them to Australia and to place them in schools. When many withdrew from schooling and became involved in petty crime it was recognised that they needed more systematic support. As a result unaccompanied minors were accepted less undiscriminatingly and better structures of support were quietly put in place. During the process the government continued to promote stronger links between refugees and the wider Australian community.

Thus in its welcome to refugees the Government balanced resources and needs. Throughout the process it spoke of the problems that refugees faced, never suggesting that refugees themselves were a problem.

This experience suggests that it is not unreasonable to reduce the proportion of refugees from Africa in order to meet the currently more pressing needs of other groups of refugees. Nor is it problematic to reflect on the distinctive experience of recently arrived African refugees. If we do not understand their experience we shall be unable to assist them appropriately.

As in any immigrant group the young will be particularly vulnerable. Little in their background will have prepared them for the challenges of Western education and of gaining employment.

The business of government is to ask how all the resources of society can be best deployed to help the refugees live fruitfully and harmoniously within the broader community. This implies firm and intelligent policing, support for community organisations and the availability of youth workers, and social workers. All these things need to be coordinated.

These things are necessary, and governments attend to them routinely. They normally have bipartisan support. Governments have rarely targeted refugee communities for political gain. This is something of which Australia and its governments can be proud.

Even in dog days when doves best sit wisely in their trees, they can remember much to bill and coo about.



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Existing comments

This is a disappointingly superficial and at times illogical analysis in support of a flawed policy shift.

As someone who participated in programs for the education of unaccompanied minors from IndoChina back in the early 1980s, my experience is nothing like that alleged here by Andrew Hamilton. Where's the empirical evidence that "many withdrew from schooling and became involved in petty crime"? And how many is 'many'? Or is just another example of ethnic slander to justify a policy change?

Furthermore, if it was indeed the case that "it was recognised that they needed more systematic support...and better structures of support were quietly put in place", would it not be valuable to note the outcome of that improved level of services before concluding that a reduction in the numbers of unaccompanied minors was justified? After all, that was Andrew Hamilton's starting point: "The earlier experience of Indochinese refugees might be illuminating in this respect." Let's really analyse that experience rather than make mere assertions about it.

Andrew Hamilton is supporting the unwarranted leap in the Government's argument from (a) some people are having trouble settling in (let's accept that's true for the moment); to (b) the best course of action is to cut them out of the program. Yet Mr Hamilton is aware that the issue may be the paucity and quality of settlement services and the requirement to do more in that direction.

Finally, and more importantly, this is not just about an instrumental argument about what would 'work' best, is it? Surely there's a strong argument that refugees should be chosen on the basis of greatest need, not who is going to fit in easiest. Surely the need principle is closer to the core argument for having a refugee program at all.

And a PS: I for one can do without the jingoist self-congratulations about how proud we can all be that "governments have rarely targeted refugee communities for political gain." That's bumkum! Where was Mr Hamilton during the shameful era of vote-winning allegations about queue-jumpers and chilldren-overboard, and sexual abuse in detention? Surely his memory is not that deficient?

Frank Golding | 11 October 2007  

Kevin Andrews has acted correctly-by seeking proper simulation of refugees--he has a deep thinking rational approach to ministerial matters

Peter Kerrins | 11 October 2007  

The dove/rabbit analogy is neither clever nor helpful. Does Hamilton mean that in view of an injustice we are to sit on the fence and bill and coo ie do nothing and Andrews will magically lose (deservedly) his job?? Doesn't fidelity to Catholic social justice principles and our humanity demand that we "proclaim by word and deed the Gospel message of love and justice: to denounce existing injustices; and to recall, to keep recalling, the ethical principles and norms that should govern the establishment of a just social order."(Pedro Arrupe)

Hamilton's piece is a whitewash of the Howard government's disgusting political opportunism:"With a federal election imminent, the case has prompted claims that the Government is using Sudanese refugees to play a race card, a claim Prime Minister John Howard rejects as a "contemptible suggestion". However, new data from the 2006 census supplied to Inquirer reveals that a swag of marginal electorates also appear in census data as seats with the largest Sudanese communities in each state. The seats include marginal Liberal electorates that would be certain to fall on present opinion polling -- including Moreton in Queensland -- but also key Labor marginals such as Parramatta in NSW and Isaacs in Victoria that may be vulnerable if a strong campaign is run. These are the seats that could be the difference between the Coalition retaining government and going into Opposition." (The Australian 6-10-07)
Why not simply suggest the obvious - that the government take responsibility for its collusion in the creation of the great human tragedy in Iraq and expand its refugee quota at this crucial time given over 1.5 million are now living in Syria, and over 1 million refugees inhabit Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Turkey.

Can we really take seriously the Australian government's sudden concern for Burmese refugees when it's done virtually nothing over the past decade to alleviate the strain of more than half a million Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in neighboring countries AND refuses asylum to the 8 (Muslim) Burmese it detains on Nauru.

Finally, the government says the refugee quota of 30,000 is filled annually, but it doesnt pay for the airfares to Australia. Where do 30,000 refugees get the funds??? Or is the filled quota another myth ?

Dr Vacy Vlazna | 11 October 2007  

Africa is a continent of many nations, with people of many ethnicities and diverse circumstances. Using the term "African Refugees" glosses over this and is liable to "dog whistle" those in our society inclined to judge people by what they look like, in ill-informed, racial ways. It is a danger better avoided.

George Emeleus | 11 October 2007  

I am disappointed by Andrew Hamilton's article. It is naive to suggest that Government's dont' target refugee groups for political gain. Also I would have thought that any article by a Catholic thewologian (which I think Andrew is) should be couched in theological language. To me his argument fails the common sense theological test, which is that any government decision must pass the "love thy neighbour" test.

Peter Burger | 12 October 2007  

Not sure I can see where you are coming from here Andy. While I disagree that you are attempting to be an apologist for the Federal Government, I think your dove/dog analysis is confusing.

Tom Cranitch | 12 October 2007  

My thanks and apologies to the correspondents who have made it abundantly clear to me that what I intended to say was not clearly said. Perhaps I can best respond by returning to my argument in a more discursive way.

My article was an attempt to respond to the publicity aroused by Mr. Andrews’ comment that the cut in the quota of African refugees reflected their failure to settle into Australia. The remarks and the publicity they received raised two questions, both ethical:

1. How ethically sound has been and is Australia’s off-shore refugee programme, including particularly the way in which refugee quotas have been determined?

2. What ethical principles should govern the way in which governments speak of refugees, and the way in which those of us concerned for refugees speak of governments?

I believe that the ethical criterion that should be decisive in both cases is, as Frank Golding said, what is the needs or the good of refugees. Considerations based on political advantage, the prejudices found among Australians or difficulties in resettlement should not be decisive. The first should not even be canvassed.

By those standards I maintain that in general we Australians can generally be proud of our off-shore refugee programme. It could certainly be larger, and under the present Government settlement has been inadequately supported. But the overriding criterion by which off-shore refugees have been allocated places in Australia has been on the basis of need. Specifically, I believe that, despite the minister’s comments, the Department had actually arrived at changes in the quotas next year on the basis of need. They had put weight on the needs of refugees from Burma and Iraq. It is surely an agonising decision to draw up quotas knowing that every refugee accepted, whether from Africa, from Burma or from Iraq, will mean that another refugee, also in great need, will not be accepted. Changes to quotas need widespread consultation and bipartisan support. They have generally had both.

That governments speak well of refugees and encourage the wider community to welcome them generously is also demanded by the good of refugees. Since large numbers of refugees began to come to Australia after the 1939-45 war, governments have generally behaved well when speaking of off-shore refugees. I see in this too a reason for pride. The present minister’s comments about people who came to Australia as off-shore refugees are an aberration, although they are in keeping with the Government’s equivocal language about immigrant communities, particularly when they are from Muslim countries.

Whether we should speak or keep silent is also a decision that has an ethical component. If we are motivated by the desire to support refugees, the criterion for our decision must be whether silence or speech will better help refugees. As my story suggested, I believe that to respond to ministerial provocation by beating up on the Government simply lengthens and intensifies the furore, gives a voice to the vicious, increases the fear and outrage of the communities affected, and wins political support for those who first stir the pot. If this is so, it is difficult to see how it is in the interests of the refugees to engage in public debate. Better to dismiss the provocation as one of the games that children play, and to concentrate our energies on supporting the communities quietly.

This is what I wanted to say. I should also make explicit what was left implicit, namely that praise and pride should be confined to Australia’s off-shore refugee programme. They should not extended to our treatment of on-shore asylum seekers. Successive governments have mistreated on-shore asylum seekers and spoken abusively of them. Even when they are found to be refugees, they have their future put on hold. Their good has always been subordinated to more abstract and sometimes more cynical ends. This is ethically indefensible.

Finally, I should respond to Frank Golding’s question about the treatment of unaccompanied Vietnamese minors. He criticises my account on two grounds – questioning its accuracy, and denying that the government should be praised for limiting numbers in order to facilitate resettlement. In the context of the argument of my article, the second criticism is the more serious

My evidence for the account I gave is anecdotal. At the time I spoke often with committed Department employees responsible for promoting the settlement of unaccompanied minors. What I described is what I understood them to say of their recognition that a group of refugees experienced problems and of dealing with it. I was interested in this group because I had seen their great needs in the Thai camps and was suspicious of what the Department might be up to. The questions that Frank raises about the accuracy of my account therefore stand.

But assuming for the moment that what I heard is true, I would still argue that what the Government did was morally legitimate precisely because it served best the needs of refugees. The good of refugees cannot be identified simply with their need for resettlement. Nor can a refugee policy consist simply of accepting the greatest number of people we can admit. It must also work to ensure the conditions under which they can live with dignity and have the opportunity to take responsibility for their lives. As I understand it, these conditions were under threat for some minors who came to Australia. Part of the Government’s response was rightly to seek ways to improve substantially the support made available to them. I would argue that in such circumstances it was also justifiable to adjust the number of unaccompanied minors in order to put in place the necessary support systems.

This point is not simply of hypothetical or of historical interest. Unaccompanied minors without strong support are vulnerable to the harsh policies of subsequent governments. The severe laws passed by this government have meant that too many refugees who arrived in Australia twenty years ago face deportation to countries with which they have no real association. They became involved in drugs and eventually had their visas cancelled on character grounds. The tragedies of refugees do not always end with their resettlement.

Andrew Hamilton | 15 October 2007  

I think Andrew Hamilton, in his long "discursive" response to comment, still misses the point that many of the comments were making. It is not Kevin Andrew's decision to shift the source of refugees from Africa to other places that has generted such heat but the reasons he gave for that decision, i.e., that African refugees have trouble fitting-in and that they are over-represented in crime statistics. The first is arguably not a valid reason, and the second is demonstrably untrue. One can only conclude that Kevin Andrews is either incompetent (probably true) and/or deliberately loose with the truth (probably also true) and/or unwittingly racist (probaly also true). And Kevin Andrews is supposed to be a Christian?

Warwick | 16 October 2007  

The problem with quotas is that it is hogwash used to lull us into thinking that this government is actually helping "those in the most need" when in reality we only help those who can help us. Frank Brennan has addressed this a gazillion times as has Malcolm Fraser.

There are 20 million refugees today and we helped to create the newest 4.5 million in the largest stampede around or out of a country since WW11 and we have not done a single thing about it.

The stupid quota is a miserable 6,000 of those 20 million or 0.0003% of them and they have their airfares paid. For the last 5 years we have 'taken' 6,000 humanitarian people who suffer human rights abuses or so we are told.

In reality this program is now used soley for the purpose of reuniting the families we have deliberately kept apart for up to 11 years, even from the two countries we have bombed to bits and occupied for the last 6 years.

We spent about $3 billion locking up a few thousand people to pretend that the above program was all moral and righteous but in fact it is neither when we use inflexible criteria against people who have been in camps in third countries for as long as 20 years in preference to those who have escaped a few weeks ago.

We could airlift 15,000 Iraqis and Afghans every year for 10 or 20 years if we so chose but we can't be bothered.

We rely on a mean quota.

Marilyn Shepherd | 16 October 2007  

Andrew's argument is flawed in that he ignores the way that Kevin Andrews put his case to the public - implying that Sudanese refugees are more likely to be involved in gangs and crime in general, which is simply not true. He's stirring up xenophobia to try to win some last minute votes from the extreme right wing and completely ignoring his responsibilities as immigration minister in the process. It make me sick.

Hannah Ekin | 22 November 2007  

Hi am Faisal Said Somali and refugee so i ask Australian government to help us not to hate refugees because we left our country with a reason.

faysal | 29 November 2007  

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