Barry Jones: asylum is the greatest moral challenge of our time

People die trying to come to Australia to join our society. Have we lost sight of what we value most? AAP/Dan Peled

We are never completely contemporaneous with our present. History advances in disguise; it appears on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene, and we tend to lose the meaning of the play. Each time the curtain rises, continuity has to be re-established. The blame, of course, is not history’s, but lies in our vision, encumbered with memory and images learned in the past. We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution.

Revolution in the Revolution: Régis Debray

There are some anomalies in Australian society: we are a multi-cultural community, one of the world’s most successful, but we are also monolingual, with a sharp reduction in the numbers of students attempting second languages, either European or Asian. The fact that non-European migration has been so significant since the end of White Australia ought to make us sympathetic to refugees, but I see little evidence that it has. I observe a phenomenon which perhaps we should call “arrivalism”, where groups which have entered the Australian community show little or no sympathy for the next generation of refugees.

I have been dismayed that, for more than a decade, populist politics (and reporting) have produced a deformed debate on refugees. Both sides of politics are now engaged in a virtual Dutch auction, insisting that tough action will deter the flow of refugees and smash the operation of people smugglers. The refugee issue has become profoundly divisive, with appeals to sloganeering , cheap rhetoric and characterising refugees as “illegals”, contrary to the wording of the UN refugee convention, to which Australia is a signatory.

The dilemma facing Australian society changing policy about asylum seekers must be seen in five contexts – historical, legal, moral, personal and political.

Historical context

Australia had a long history of discrimination in immigration, dominated by the White Australia Policy, until the 1970s. In 1938 at the Évian Conference Australia took a very tough line against boat people of the time – Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. The language used then was almost identical with abusive terms used in 2013 – “they should get back in the queue”, “queue jumpers”, with particular hatred directed towards the people smugglers of the time.

The terrible story of the MS St Louis was later the subject of a book (1974) and film (1976) called Voyage of the Damned. In May 1939 almost 1000 German Jews left Hamburg seeking asylum. Cuba took a few (29), Canada refused to take any, the United States the same. Ultimately the ship berthed in Antwerp: some passengers were able to get to the UK, others to France, the Netherlands and Belgium. 254 died in concentration camps.

Raoul Wallenberg is considered one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century. He was also a people smuggler. Wikimedia

But “people smugglers” fall into least two categories – economic exploiters and humanitarians. Some are evil, some are not. Jews were smuggled out of Germany in 1938 as human cargo – and many died because they were turned back from Britain, the United States and Palestine. Were people smugglers involved? You bet. Were they to be condemned? I don’t think so. Was Raoul Wallenberg a people smuggler in Hungary in 1944? You bet. And the people who smuggled Jews from Denmark to Sweden or from France to Switzerland? Waves of refugees don’t depend on the sales pitch of people smugglers – they depend on the degree of desperation in the countries of origin.

But doing it for money? Does that put it in a different category? I think it does. But it does not solve the major problem, of the push factors.

Legal context

Our refugees are held administratively, not judicially. They are treated as outlaws, outside the protection of the law. We created our own Guantanamo Bay in Nauru, outside the jurisdiction of our courts. We had the absurd situation where Christmas Island is inside our jurisdiction for some purposes, outside it for others, and our boundaries move in and out at the Government’s whim.

The suspension of the rule of law for refugees held in administrative detention was indefensible. In the Al-Kateb case in 2004, the High Court of Australia ruled (4-3) that detention imposed by ministerial discretion, even if for a lifetime, was not appealable. It disturbed me that the judgment was based on legislation introduced by the Keating Government, and which I must have voted for as MP, without realising its implications.

Evidence? Rationality? Judgment? Compassion? – all have been downgraded.

Arbitrary, mandatory detention is objectionable in principle, on three main grounds – it is extra-judicial, generally not subject to legal review, does not depend on conviction for an offence.

Moral context

I am relieved that the abolition of the death penalty has been a settled ALP policy for a century, one of our core beliefs, because there might be some difficulty in getting a principled policy up now if the opinion polls did not support it.

The ALP sometimes seems to be torn between principle and pragmatism. However, Labor can’t outgun the Coalition on pragmatism – its whole policy approach is totally opportunistic.

But compassion, like honour or truth, can’t just be a matter of calculation – “if it’s popular, we’ll do it, if not, not!”

Personal context

The refugees are nameless, faceless, stateless, homeless, without a voice and without a history.

Our institutionalised sadism is designed to destroy human dignity. In our detention centres, there are no longer “suicide attempts”: they have been redefined out of existence and are now called “attention-seeking incidents” or “blackmail”. A cause for compassion is now treated as a cause for humiliation, derision, censure or condemnation. Refugees are mere numbers, deprived of access to MPs, lawyers, media – and me as a citizen. But I am deprived of access to the refugees – I can’t get close enough to feel the shock of recognition: are they like me? I can’t get close enough to tell.

The destruction of personal identify is unconscionable and acquiescence in it diminishes us all.

Political context

The period 1947-96 involved political bipartisanship on immigration which was constructive and optimistic. When Malcolm Fraser gave permanent residence to more than 50,000 Cambodians and Vietnamese after 1977, and Bob Hawke followed suit with 20,000 Chinese students after Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Opposition went along. In the financial year 2010-11, the number of irregular arrivals by boat was 4700. In 2013-14 it is likely to exceed 20,000.

Australia recognised thousands of Chinese students as asylum seekers after the Tianenmen Square protest. Would we have accepted this man? Wikimedia

Now we have negative bipartisanship, based on fear. Tony Abbott settles the Coalition policy – but to some extent he shapes Labor policy in 2013 as well.

Racism was not an element in the practice of politics: it was avoided, by consensus. Now racism is a powerful element, both explicit and implicit.

Having privatised detention centres makes them one degree further removed from direct knowledge by bureaucrats or ministers and/ or moral responsibility. (‘I was not informed…’)

On July 8, Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, a tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia, where 8000 refugees and asylum seekers have arrived since the beginning of 2013.

What is characterised as the refugee crisis is seen and discussed currently as a political, economic, security, criminal and legal issue, in which moral factors are at a discount and what results is a classic case of ‘blaming the victim’, with the concept of “fairness” (said to be a defining characteristic of Australians) used against them: “They are queue jumpers”; “We had to follow orderly processes – and so should they”.

Australia, in my observation, is deeply divided geographically on the refugee issue. The greatest hostility is in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the least hostility (but perhaps more indifference than positive sympathy) in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. I accept the conventional wisdom that in some areas – Western Sydney, for example, with (or despite?) its high migrant population, the reaction to refugees is lethal.

The dehumanisation of refugees, who become faceless, nameless and rightless, is our greatest moral stain since the campaigns to hunt down and kill Aborigines.

Jon Stanhope, former Chief Minister of the ACT, now Administrator of the Indian Ocean Territories (Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island), emphasises the moral bankruptcy of failing to name the boy who was drowned ten days ago with the loss of a boat carrying refugees. Without a name, the baby is no longer a human, just a statistic.

Was it a Freudian slip back in 2004 when Philip Ruddock referred to Shayan Badran, a child traumatised in the Woomera Detention Centre, as “it”.

I recognise, reluctantly, that the arrival of 16,000 refugees by boat from January to July 2013 is such a hot issue politically, exploited ruthlessly by the opposition, especially Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, is enough on its own to sink the government, any appeals to rationality and proportionality notwithstanding. Two or three boats sinking, with loss of life, in the next six weeks would be a fatal blow for the Rudd Government. The priority right now is, “How do we stop refugees getting on the boats?”

Dr Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt, ALP leader and key architect of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

I can see an argument for reviewing the 1951 refugee convention, as amended by the 1967 protocol, providing that humanitarian considerations are not suppressed for short term political advantage. The convention was introduced in 1951 to protect Europeans fleeing World War Two and was updated in 1967 to remove geographical and time limits. It would provide an opportunity to ensure that a regional strategy is adopted, especially if Malaysia and Indonesia could be persuaded to adopt the revised Convention.

The 1951 convention was essentially a response to the social dislocation, suffering and destruction of World War II, and the major phenomena which followed: the Cold War and the end of Empire – events of global significance in which whole populations were involved – and events such as the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia were part of how World War II remade the world.

The current situation is extremely complex. The Cold War is long since over – we now see the factors which create the refugee problem as a by-product of localised factors, civil war, complicated by religious fundamentalism, jihadism, tribalism, racialism, the reaction against modernity, the imposition of Western values, for good or ill, which include liberation and education for girls and woman, the rejection of patriarchy, the fear of terrorism and the development of “the security state”.

The largest numbers of refugees listed by country of origin are – in order: Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Myanmar, Colombia, Vietnam and Eritrea. Sri Lanka ranks as No. 16; Iran as No. 22.

In terms of the numbers of refugees listed by country of destination, Australia ranks No. 47, just ahead of Belgium, but well behind Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, none of the mainstream parties complain of being swamped, although they do feel some strain.

The most serious impact of refugee movement is seen in the Middle East – where millions of people have been dispossessed and move across the borders of near neighbours: Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia.

The prime minister’s announcement of the agreement with Papua New Guinea has come as a shock and I would need to spend more time reflecting about it before I formed a judgment, but I have been amazed by the enthusiasm that Peter O’Neill has expressed for it and I can see that it might destroy the people smuggling trade which has some revolting aspects in it, and where the mounting loss of life is horrific.

It may be that the welcome mat from PNG is – to use the prevailing cliché – a game changer which destroys market appeal. Let us hope so. If we are to engage with our neighbours in working out regional solutions for the refugee push this could be valuable.

This is an edited transcript of a speech delivered in Melbourne at the opening of the Face to Face with Asylum Seekers exhibition by Pat Waters.