As the world’s attention shifts toward Myanmar and the violent expulsion of over 600,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh, we in Australia must also look closer to home when thinking about refugees.
As the numbers swell, there are well-founded fears of a new exodus of boats similar to 2015 when thousands of people died at sea in the Bay of Bengal after multiple countries pushed the boats back.
Australia has become world renowned for our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, setting a dangerous precedent. Not only are we mistreating the world’s most vulnerable, who seek to come to Australia by boat, we have legitimised other countries’ mistreatment of asylum seekers.
Our moral legitimacy in question, I only hope the current Rohingya crisis can spur action towards dismantling a system that has no justification.
Did we stop the boats?
Defenders claim that our harsh asylum seeker system stops the boats and thus prevents deaths at sea. It’s an elephant in the room that even the progressive side of politics has struggled to effectively refute.
The counter-argument has always been a moral one of the ends not justifying the means.
There is actually a much stronger argument: Our asylum seeker policies don’t stop boats or deaths at sea, they simply outsource them to other countries. Perhaps even increase them.
As thousands of Rohingya took to boats to flee persecution in 2015, neighbouring countries adopted our approach of turning back the boats. Engines were removed, sometimes drinking water provided, but the end result was the same. Boats were left to drift, thousands likely perished.
We gave a murmur, but we lost our moral authority with every person in indefinite detention and every boat we pushed back.
It’s known that there is no economic justification for our asylum seeker system. Our overseas detention centres are hugely expensive. We could support each asylum seeker arriving by boat with major business grants or even just welfare and it would be far cheaper.
In reality, most asylum seekers end up being economic (and social) contributors to Australia.
There is also no formal queue for refugees. Acceptance of refugees depends on recipient countries choosing from the tens of millions of refugees worldwide.
It is an inequitable system. Is time in displacement a primary selection criteria? Level of destitution? Family reunification? Or economic contribution?
Syrians ‘better’ than Afghans?
Germany should be lauded for accepting vast numbers of Syrians. However, it is not purely altruistic.
The economic imperative of formally educated Syrians gives them primacy over, say, Afghans. It will forever be an inequitable system to many refugees. That is no justification for our asylum seeker system.
Our rich history of multiculturalism and gradual integration of different ethnic groups (not without some challenges) also debunks any argument that a few thousand asylum seekers will disrupt social harmony.
Recent ethnic integration continues to be far smoother than the earlier British “integration”. Modern Australia is about diversity.
Myths debunked, yet here we are. A crisis on our doorstep and our morality in the doldrums.
So where do we stand?
If it wasn’t for the absolute destitution of the Rohingya who just fled Myanmar, we would likely see a major boat crisis right now. It may still happen, such as being enabled through family remittances.
Where do we stand in this time of crisis labelled by the United Nations as ethnic cleaning or maybe even genocide?
In September when the crisis was well underway, we reportedly offered Rohingya at Manus Island $US25,000 to return to Myanmar. I have never heard of another country, rich or poor, offering large sums of money to return people to ethnic cleansing.
Nor does the violent closure of the Manus Island detention centre abdicate our responsibilities.
Accepting the reality that our asylum seeker system isn’t even preventing deaths at sea, where do we go from here?
Politics at heart of heartless policies
Let’s start by not over-complicating the situation. The immediate closure of our existing detention centres and acceptance of all inhabitants to Australia is the start, including those on Manus Island.
We must then accept and own up to the reality that our asylum seeker system is a matter of politics. Pretences of some higher morality are false. Then we can genuinely discuss the best way forward.
I want to abdicate responsibility, but it is OUR system.
After more than 10 years working and volunteering on displacement and human rights issues across continents, my mind is crowded, yet also clear.
Society is only as just as it treats its most vulnerable.
We have made wonderful inroads in disability care and are on the cusp of marriage equality. I implore, beg or whatever it takes for us, as a nation, to extend that sense of humanity to asylum seekers and refugees.
Nations around the world are retreating from international humanitarianism, I like to think we can buck the trend, as we have many times before.