June 2014

Nothing to fear from refugees and asylum seekers

Thirty years from now, an Australian prime minister will rise in the parliament and offer an apology to refugees and asylum seekers and their families for the damage that is being done to them today, says Phil Glendenning.

BY Phil Glendenning

Since 1788, when the first boat-load of unauthorised arrivals landed on Australia’s shores, we have all been boat people. We are all boat people. So what are we afraid of? The answer is probably that we are afraid of ourselves. History happened here in Australia. Ask an Aboriginal person. Unless we learn the lessons of our history, we are bound to repeat the sins of that history. Today, we are repeating the sins of that history.

We have known for a long time of the mental trauma and degradation that is meted out to asylum seekers in Australia. The Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychiatrists speak of a new form of mental disorder, “asylum seeker syndrome”.

The impact of this falls hardest on children. Regrettably, more than 1,000 children are being held in detention.

When a nation determines that it is appropriate behaviour to incarcerate children, then that nation has an ethical and moral problem at the core of its soul.

What has been missing in our country is the ethical rock on which our response to asylum seekers must be based. Cruelty is an unjustifiable abuse of the dignity of people we are obliged to protect.

People are an end in themselves, not a means to a domestic political result.

As we reflect on Refugee Week, it’s useful to compare our situation with that of Lebanon, a country of 4.3 million people, which earlier this year received its one-millionth refugee, with 50 per cent of them children. Rather than call in the military as Australia has done, the Lebanese have called for more teachers. They suspended the start of the school year so that double shifts could be organised to meet demand.

Lebanon’s experiences in hosting refugees tell us there are alternatives available to Australia’s decision-makers. The Australian Government does not have to resort to deterrence and expulsion of people who have asked this country for refugee protection. The policy positions of both major parties are flawed because they both require people to get in a boat before there is any policy response.

People need to be reminded that the Australian Government has spent in advance of $4 billion on mandatory detention. Last year, UNHCR spent $3.3 billion globally and only $103 million in South-East Asia.

If we applied some of the billions we spend locking up a few thousand people to working with the nations of the region to assist asylum seekers with work, education and health rights whilst being processed in the region, we would be a long way towards a durable solution.

The governments of former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke showed what was possible in the 1970s and 1980s when Australia responded maturely and humanely to the challenges of refugees fleeing Indo-China.

As we reflect on the cruelty that underpins asylum policy in Australia, we cannot be silent on issues of justice and human rights. The neglect of the human dignity of refugees and asylum seekers is not being cruel to be kind. It’s just cruel.

Thirty years from now a prime minister will rise in the parliament and, on behalf of the nation, he or she will offer an apology to refugees and asylum seekers and their families for the damage that is being done to them today.

Martin Luther King once famously said that silence is betrayal. We will not be silent. St Catherine of Siena said in the fourteenth century that we should speak the truth in a million voices for it is the silence that kills. It still does today.

We are seeing a growing number of people concerned about how we treat refugees and asylum seekers and they must ensure their voices continue to be heard by our political leaders who have squandered opportunities to build on Australia’s proud tradition as one of the first countries to accede to the Refugee Convention in 1954.

We have nothing to fear from refugees and asylum seekers. We will, however, have much to fear from ourselves if we as a nation continue to practise such cruelty and excuse it as necessary. It is not necessary. It is a choice.

The Australian Government has completely cut core funding to the Refugee Council of Australia despite allocating $140,000 in its 2014-15 Budget.

The Sisters of the Good Samaritan are proud members of the Refugee Council of Australia. Find out how you can support the Council’s work.

Phil Glendenning

Phil Glendenning is Director of the Edmund Rice Centre and President of the Refugee Council of Australia.

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