Time to rethink our approach to asylum seekers

Clare Condon SGS

Sending asylum seekers to be processed in another country is politically sanctioned people-trafficking, says Clare Condon SGS. It is a failure in the moral credibility of a wealthy nation.

BY Clare Condon SGS*

Some years ago I had the great fortune to live and work with young Vietnamese women who had arrived in this country alone. These teenagers, that is, ‘unaccompanied minors’, arrived by boat having escaped from their war-torn country with little or no material possessions. We called them ‘boat people’. These frightened young girls simply wanted a chance at life; to live in a democratic country and to know some level of freedom. They were welcomed into this so-called “lucky country” as Buddhists, Christians or of no-religion. Religion did not seem to be an issue pre-September 11!

August 26, 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of the Tampa crisis when a Norwegian cargo ship, the MV Tampa, rescued 433 asylum seekers from a sinking vessel in the Indian Ocean and the Australian Government refused them entry into Australia. This tragic event seems to have changed our national psyche. We seem to have learnt very little from it.

“Stopping the boats” is such an emotive and evocative issue in Australia today. I ask: have we lost the ‘fair-go’ attitude that has been a hallmark of our Australian identity? Or is a ‘fair-go’ only for selective white Anglo ‘true blues’? Why can’t refugees arriving on our shores be processed onshore in a timely manner as were the Vietnamese ‘boat people’? If they are genuine refugees, then surely they can be welcomed; if not they can be returned.

Our laws and bureaucratic red tape seem to have created the problems that leave people in detention centres for months on end without any resolution of their predicament. I had thought that, as Australians, we were capable of responding to such matters of humanity with both competence and compassion.

Our two major political parties seem to want to keep this issue firmly on the agenda and thereby continue to use ‘asylum seekers’ as a political football. While “stopping the boats” is at the forefront of national politics, our politicians can avoid dealing with other important national issues. It seems they are unable to bring this nation to a collective moral stance. Has our moral compass been so dented by world events that this three-word slogan – “stop the boats” – is all that we can take in?

Occasionally I meet up with my Vietnamese friends who are well-established and exemplary citizens, contributing to Australia’s national prosperity. Some have professional qualifications and have succeeded at tertiary studies. Some are married with young Australian children. Although they still cherish their first culture, this is their country as much as it is mine.

The current wave of refugees is not unlike people from Vietnam who also fled war zones and oppressive regimes. Surely we have some obligations to those who have been driven out of their war-torn country, particularly when Australian military forces are involved in some of these wars. Surely they, too, could become well-established and exemplary citizens who contribute to our national prosperity?

The so-called “Malaysian solution” of the current government and the “Pacific solution” of the previous government are no solutions for those desperate enough to get into a leaky boat and travel the high seas in search of freedom. These are inadequate responses aimed at the ‘people smugglers’ only and not at the needs of those seeking asylum.

Sending these people off-shore to another place is, to my mind, politically sanctioned people-trafficking. It is a failure in the moral credibility of a wealthy nation.

I am not naïve enough to think that some who seek to come our shores might not be legitimate refugees, but I suspect the vast majority are. That they sustain such an arduous journey through several countries and then travel in unworthy-sea boats suggests genuineness on the part of many.

Could I just dream for a moment? Could this ten-year anniversary of the Tampa be a time to rethink our nation’s whole approach to refugees, asylum seekers and boat people? Could we not introduce a more competent, humane and compassionate approach to those who come to our shores seeking a life free from persecution?

*Clare Condon SGS is the leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Oil, August 9, 2011. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

11 Responses to “Time to rethink our approach to asylum seekers”

  1. Gabrielle Morgan says:

    Well written Clare.
    One of the pieces of most resistance it seems to me, is the language of ‘illegal refugees’ no matter how many times that is refuted.
    We used to pray for the ‘conversion of Russia’: we need to pray today for the conversion of Australia in the area of fixed and wil-ful attitudes that appear to be based on fear and selfishness.

  2. jim marshall says:

    Well done. Having collapsed the “action space” to just that of “processing” refugees, your conclusions are inevitable and well expressed. Now do as goos a job on governments which do nothing to suppress the people smuggling bussiness. Then, as a third exercise, put teh two together. It is indeed a complex space, isn’t it. The clue is not to just speciaously reduce the action space to just opne of the problems because each influences teh other. Come on – sermonise on the problem that actually exists out there.

  3. tony paterson fms says:

    I agree with Clare in all that she has said. I am embarrassed by the current political approach to refugees. Would the government take the same stand if these people were from Britain or the United States of America?

  4. Elizabeth Murray says:

    Well said, Clare. Thank you.

  5. gwen bade says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of this article. Thank you, Clare for your insight and challenge to us.

  6. Diana Law says:

    Wonderful to have our congregational leader taking such a public stance against systemic injustice.
    Wonderful too to see the affirmation given to Annette in Leonora, where she is able to give the refugees such ‘good samaritan’ care.
    Thanks Clare!

  7. Rose Ingram says:

    Thank you Clare, your comments are very thought-provoking. May God continue to bless you for having the courage to speak.

  8. Clare, thanks for bringing to our attention the needs of the asylum seekers and the moral credibility of Australia on this issue. Marie

  9. Allyson Mascarenhas says:

    You are so right Clare: “Our two major political parties seem to want to keep this issue firmly on the agenda”. I am convinced more and more that it keeps other important issues off the agenda, which might not be so bad, if only our government responded with greater humanity!

  10. Diana Busch says:

    Hi Clare,

    I totally agree. I arrived as a refugee in 1950 and so many of the true blue Aussies have also come from other countries. We should definitely be rethinking our attitude to newcomers and not “passing the buck” so to speak

  11. Pauline Coll sgs says:

    I’ld love to think that the dreaming could bring different responses, Clare. It would be good to move from fear – even fear about re-election – to true compassion for those who flee their own countries.

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