It can’t be right to com­pound their suf­fer­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ian McPhee

Refugees: Why Seek­ing Asy­lum is Le­gal and Aus­tralia’s Poli­cies are Not By Jane McA­dam and Fiona Chong UNSW Press, 240pp, $19.99 THIS book should be read by all Aus­tralians con­cerned about the in­hu­man­ity demon­strated by suc­ces­sive fed­eral gov­ern­ments when deal­ing with refugees seek­ing our pro­tec­tion. I hope schools will in­tro­duce young Aus­tralians to such is­sues. For Refugees: Why Seek­ing Asy­lum is Le­gal and Aus­tralia’s Poli­cies are Not re­veals not merely the aban­don­ment of our cher­ished “fair go” but shows how we have breached in­ter­na­tional law.

As the Refugee Coun­cil of Aus­tralia has said, per­mit­ting asy­lum-seek­ers to en­ter a coun­try with­out travel doc­u­ments is sim­i­lar to al­low­ing am­bu­lance driv­ers to ex­ceed the speed limit in an emer­gency. In­ter­na­tional law recog­nises that peo­ple have a right to seek asy­lum. This book ex­plains, us­ing case stud­ies, why some peo­ple flee­ing per­se­cu­tion have no choice but to risk their lives at sea rather than face cer­tain death at home.

A typ­i­cal case is of a Ro­hingya fam­ily that fled per­se­cu­tion in Myan­mar and re­ceived refugee sta­tus from the UN eight months after ar­riv­ing in In­done­sia yet stills await re­set­tle­ment. We can scarcely imag­ine their emo­tional suf­fer­ing. Yet John Howard in­creased such suf­fer­ing by denying fam­ily re­union to boat ar­rivals. Con­se­quently, en­tire fam­i­lies risked their lives at sea.

Novem­ber 29-30, 2014

As Paul Bar­ratt, for­mer sec­re­tary of the De­fence Depart­ment, ob­served, “peo­ple-smug­glers are sim­ply sup­ply­ing an un­ful­filled de­mand for re­set­tle­ment be­cause gov­ern­ments choose not to do so”. As the case stud­ies demon­strate, it is the last choice of des­per­ate peo­ple.

From the time the Keat­ing gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced manda­tory de­ten­tion to the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment’s stand, Aus­tralia has adopted many poli­cies in breach of in­ter­na­tional law.

Jane McA­dam is a pro­fes­sor of law and di­rec­tor of the An­drew & Re­nata Kal­dor Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Refugee Law at the Univer­sity of NSW. Fiona Chong, a re­cent law grad­u­ate, is her re­search as­sis­tant. In this book they ex­plain the rights of asy­lum-seek­ers who ar­rive in a for­eign coun­try and how, from the Keat­ing era on- wards, our obli­ga­tions to pro­vide th­ese rights have been in­creas­ingly ig­nored.

For ex­am­ple, tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion visas do not ful­fil our obli­ga­tions un­der the Refugee Con­ven­tion. Manda­tory de­ten­tion breaches in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law. The con­trast with the bi­par­ti­san poli­cies of the Fraser and Hawke gov­ern­ments could not be greater.

The au­thors out­line the need to re­store a func­tional refugee sta­tus de­ter­mi­na­tion process, with mer­its and ju­di­cial re­view. Aus­tralia used to be recog­nised as hav­ing one of the best such sys­tems, but suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have sought to re­strict ac­cess to the courts.

Statis­tics quoted in this book also help place the is­sue in another im­por­tant con­text. In 2012 Aus­tralia re­ceived 17,202 asy­lum-seek­ers by boat, its high­est an­nual num­ber. Yet this rep­re­sented only 1.47 per cent of the world’s asy­lum­seek­ers. The Ab­bott gov­ern­ment may have stopped the boats, but at what cost to a frac­tion of the world’s asy­lum-seek­ers? And at huge cost to tax­pay­ers. Re­search by An­drew Kal­dor puts the cost of Aus­tralia’s on­shore and off­shore de­ten­tion sys­tem — $3.3 bil­lion — as equiv­a­lent to the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees’ en­tire bud­get for projects cov­er­ing 51.2 mil­lion peo­ple of con­cern world­wide. So much for moral­ity and bud­get pru­dence.

Mean­while, we have an an­nual in­take of 190,000 mi­grants. Surely we must also de­bate whether asy­lum-seek­ers should be pro­cessed in re­gional na­tions and, when de­clared to be refugees, be in­vited to Aus­tralia as part of the im­mi­gra­tion in­take. That was the pol­icy of the Fraser and Hawke gov­ern­ments and refugees made out­stand­ing mi­grants. This book ex­poses myths about asy­lum-seek­ers, such as that those ar­riv­ing by boat pose a se­cu­rity risk. The statis­tics show this is not so. Yet they have been placed in bar­baric con­di­tions on Nauru and Manus Is­land and will soon be sent to Cam­bo­dia and not al­lowed to set­tle in Aus­tralia. What kind of na­tion have we be­come?

The au­thors ex­plore al­ter­na­tives to the present sit­u­a­tion. The chap­ter on the need for a re­gional frame­work is es­sen­tial read­ing. One of our diplo­matic pri­or­i­ties should be to per­suade those of our neigh­bours who have not signed the Refugee Con­ven­tion to do so and help our re­gion meet the hu­man­i­tar­ian goals of the UN. We should use our mo­ment on the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to achieve this.

Many Aus­tralians feel ashamed at the poli­cies of our gov­ern­ments over the past 20 years. This is re­flected in votes. Lib­er­als who crossed the floor against Howard in­creased their votes when he lost gov­ern­ment and his own seat. Yet suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have con­tin­ued to pan­der to para­noia by de­mon­is­ing peo­ple who have no choice but to flee per­se­cu­tion.

In another im­por­tant re­cent book, Walk­ing Free, Mun­jed Al Mud­eris writes of his rea­sons for flee­ing Iraq, his hazardous jour­ney to Aus­tralia, his de­ten­tion and ul­ti­mate ac­cep­tance as a refugee. As a doc­tor, his com­mu­nity con­tri­bu­tion has been in­spir­ing. So are the sto­ries of count­less other refugees who have been wel­come to Aus­tralia. We must in­flu­ence our politi­cians from the grass­roots. McA­dam and Chong’s book should help to achieve that.

Refugee sup­port­ers in Bris­bane

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