It can’t be right to compound their suffering
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