Asylum seekers and Leaderlessness

In the lead up to the 2010 election, Malcolm Fraser quit the Liberal Party citing general dissatisfaction with the party’s direction, but making special mention of the party’s attitude toward asylum seekers. He wanted to remind people that when he was Prime Minister there were many more boat people arriving in Australia than today. In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, war had destroyed people’s lives. From Vietnam alone about 2 million people fled in boats looking for a safe place to live. Fraser reminded Australians that back then our political leaders understood the situation these people were in. Australia had an obligation toward them not only because we had participated in the Vietnam War, but also because we are signatories to the United Nations Convention on Refugees. We were adherents to international law. At the time, Australia took 137,000 refugees from Southeast Asia.

Fraser’s old adversary put it succinctly. “We’re all bloody boat people,” said Hawke.

Recently asylum seekers have come here from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Congo, Somalia and Burma. The news is full of hellish stories about what’s happening to people in those countries.

Last month’s Four Corners story Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields is typical of the reporting coming out of these countries. We use the euphemism ‘push’ factors, but when confronted with such graphic imagery the perception that ‘pull’ factors have any bearing on people’s decision to flee their country is just plain dumb. The story showed graphic footage of Sri Lankan government forces performing summary executions and mistreating the dead bodies of people who were clearly civilians, many of them women and showing signs of torture, rape and mutilation. Soldiers were recorded on video boasting of mutilating a young woman’s corpse. The story also explored evidence that Sri Lankan government forces deliberately bombarded the makeshift hospitals established to cater for the many thousands of casualties, overwhelmingly civilian and a large proportion of them children, not once or twice, but specifically following hospitals wherever they were established. The story described how the UN eventually had to suspend its practice of providing the GPS coordinates of hospitals. Traditionally the UN provides combatants with the location of hospitals so that under the terms of the Geneva Convention, a reflection of fundamental codes of decency common to all civilized human beings, they be excluded from military strikes. The UN belatedly realised Sri Lankan Government forces were using the information for the opposite purpose. Too late. The whole idea of hospitals had to be abandoned.

Faced with such evidence it is difficult to form an opinion which doesn’t incorporate the concepts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and a word not to be bandied around – genocide.

In Australia it’s hard to imagine a situation where we would need to run for our lives leaving everything behind. That is the truth for these people. They are not queue jumpers, opportunists, terrorists, illegal immigrants, criminals. They are not coming to take your job or infect your neighbourhood with their foreign languages, foreign religions and foreign food, nor to vandalise the prisons you choose to lock them up in. They are literally running away from their homes and their countries to save themselves and their children from murder. Just like in those movies you and I like to watch, or like some terrifying nightmare, only it’s real. They are running to escape and to save their children. To recognise this is not to succumb to bleeding-heart mumbo-jumbo, to dramatise or exaggerate.

When we treat asylum seekers as though they have no right we are more or less complicit in the crimes being committed against them. This type of injustice pre-dates Nazi Germany but as that is the yardstick we like to fall back on… picture a family fleeing the type of brutality suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Then picture yourself turning that family away or locking them – man woman and child, in detention. Imagine persecuting them, denigrating them, vilifying them. Whose behaviour is closer to the criminal, you or the asylum seeker?

There’s this notion – a naïve nationalistic vanity, that asylum seekers come here due to our level of terrificness and the luckiness of our wonderful country. They want to grab a share of it – the ‘pull’ factors. If that were true then, cripes, we don’t measure up to the rest of the world very well. Compared to other countries Australia doesn’t receive many asylum seekers at all. Australia isn’t among the top ten countries for the number of asylum seekers who arrive. In 2009 for example, Australia received less than 0.6% of the world’s asylum seekers. That year Canada, a country with about one and a half times the population of Australia, received 33,250; Sweden, less than half our population, received 24,190; Austria, about one third our population, received 15,830. Asylum claims in Australia that year were high – 6,170. Only 2,726 of those came by boat. Compared to some countries Australia does have a high proportion of arrivals by boat because we are surrounded by sea, with no land borders. But the preoccupation with boat arrivals is yet another misconception when, at most, little more than a third of all asylum seekers arrive that way.

For those of you who can’t understand why a person would climb aboard a rickety boat and risk their lives on such a perilous journey, those of you who can’t put yourselves in the shoes of an asylum seeker, let me try it for you. As an asylum seeker I’d be thinking I need to get to a place where you won’t terrorise or murder my child, rape my wife and slice the tits of her dead body, then kneel me down and put a bullet through the back of my head. Congratulations Australia, that’s your ‘pull’ factor. But hang on, don’t feel smug and heroic just yet.

Unlike Australia, most countries do not have a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers. In fact Australia is the only country in the world with a policy of mandatory detention throughout the determination process. Could this in fact be part of our problem? The thing about detention centres is you have to build them and run them, whether they’re onshore or offshore.

In 2001 the number of asylum seekers worldwide was the highest in 20 years. That year 5,516 boat people risked their lives to reach Australia. Australia didn’t have enough detention centres to lock the all up.

John Howard’s government decided to send asylum seekers to pacific island countries to be processed. This was very popular with those Australians who don’t like asylum seekers. In Nauru for example, the Howard government built an $80 million dollar detention centre. It cost $2 million per month to run. Most asylum seekers sent to Nauru were eventually assessed to be a genuine refugees and were resettled in Australia. However most had been detained in prison-like conditions for an extended period, up to three years.

During that time the number of boat people arriving in Australia dropped sharply, but it’s hard to gauge how much to attribute this to the Howard government’s policies because all over the world the number of asylum seekers dropped by 50% in the same period. It’s fair to say though, considering we receive comparatively so few asylum seekers, maybe they did succeed in enhancing our reputation for being inhospitable.

Recently, asylum seeker numbers have increased again worldwide. In 2010 the number of people seeking asylum in Australia was up to 8,250 while in the US, for example, the number reached 55,500.

Australia’s refugee intake in the past decade has averaged about 13,500 refugees per year no matter where they applied for asylum, how they got there, or who was in government. The Gillard government’s agreement with Malaysia to redirect 800 asylum seekers their way in return for 4000 already assessed to be genuine refugees, will have no bearing on the overall number of refugees resettled in Australia. If sending these asylum seekers away was designed to placate the asylum-seeker-hating trash media and those who read and listen to them, it certainly missed the mark. The trash media and their readers and listeners don’t discern between asylum seekers and refugees – they’re all foreigners we don’t want in our neighbourhoods. All they see is 800 undesirable dirt traded for 4000. It didn’t win the Gillard government any friends among refugee advocates either.

Back when John Howard announced the date for the 2001 election he said “more than anything else this election will be about leadership”. Nobody could have anticipated the way in which he was thereafter proved correct. When the MV Tampa sailed over the horizon, Howard stayed true to form and led the Australian people sincerely according to his principles, xenophobic and steeped in a racist past as they were, while Beazley tried to second-guess the polls in a remarkable display of followership. In the face of those first polls coming out of commercial television, Beazley oscillated, wrong-footed and stumbled. Instead of leading according to his conviction and affecting the polls, he tried to be guided by them. Perhaps he allowed his minders to convince him this was his job. It’s the Australian Labor Party after all. Such speculation is seldom if ever directed at the other side of politics. Either way, this is clearly not leadership, it is followership. With the unfortunate exception of Mark Latham, it nicely encapsulates Labor’s electoral approach in the past decade and a half. The same gutless leadership is the reason why the Gillard government doesn’t simply have no mandate to implement their climate change policies, but has a mandate not to implement a price on carbon pollution, no matter how right the policy may be. In 2010 the ALP took the small target strategy to new depths of nothingness, when what was needed was bust through or bust. What was required was simply leadership.

Howard and his senior ministry began articulating myths like ‘sleeper cells’, and rumours such as Philip Ruddock’s one that asylum seekers were spending up to $20,000 to be smuggled to Australia. That particular misrepresentation painted a very unrealistic picture, yet people swallowed it. The same furphy is now being repeated by Labor’s current immigration minister. That’s 25 times Afghanistan’s per capita GDP. They could buy five business class airfares for that amount. Peter Reith’s contribution to the demonization and dehumanisation of the world’s most powerless people is much celebrated – what type of people throw their children overboard, he beseeched us. Not asylum seekers, even on a leaky boat, as it turned out. The Australian Navy’s advice to Reith was that it just wasn’t true. Sorry, not listening was the reply.

The asylum seeker ‘problem’ is not that people come here by boat or plane or go somewhere else first. The problem is we’ve complicated things too much. The problem is an inefficient and unproductive bureaucracy which does not complement the mandatory detention policy at all, rendering it unsustainable in the current global climate. People end up staying in detention absurdly long periods while the bureaucracy processes them, until after months or years of figuratively bashing their heads against the wall they begin to do it literally. Most of us have suffered the dehumanising indignity of dealing with Government departments. Imagine if years in detention were the outcome, after you’d been terrorised by murderers and risked your life crossing perilous seas to escape.

We can expect more asylum seekers. Look at what’s happened in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. For every soldier, fighter, gun, warplane, bullet or mortar you see on TV there are dozens of people running from them. What are we going to do, keep building detention centres here and overseas? Keep trading asylum seekers for refugees at a rate of 1 to 5? Our refugee intake is guaranteed to rise over time but that policy’s got to be the dumbest – unless asylum seeker numbers drop a refugee intake of 13,500 would blow out exponentially in a very short space of time. Unsustainable.

There is a clear alternative but it requires… leadership.




Thanks to my son Bryce MacNamara as much of the research and content is borrowed from his speech for the 2011 Wideview Public School public speaking competition.