Another year, another round of asylum vilification - but with a crack in the people smuggling debate?
It's May 2009, and the year has seen a number of small boats arriving on our shores, some in rapid succession.
It seems we had another round of asylum seeker vilification. The howls of 'being overrun by boatpeople' came rapidly, and predictable, from the usual camps of sensationalist reporters and shock-jocks.
Remarkably though, the storm lasted just two weeks. While Liberal-National coalition frontbenchers tried to get traction for silly suggestions of re-introducing Temporary Protection Visas and the Pacific Solution (warehousing asylum seekers on remote islands), the backbenchers, who had pushed so hard for policy changes, came to the fore, berated their party, and the storm becalmed.
The ultimate credit of this early 2009 period surely must go to the remarks by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who opined that 'people smugglers are evil' and 'vile' and 'scum of the earth' and Rudd wanted them to 'rot in hell'.
Kevin Rudd, with his media remarks, had escalated the issue of people smuggling, and remarkably, a crack appeared in their vileness. For the first time, maybe a first in Australian history, media opinion started to turn against Kevin Rudd's line, and reporters and opinion writers started to open the issue and, almost unaware of it, started to 'humanise' people smugglers. Thank you, Prime Minister!
This page brings together some of the media reports and opinion around this issue. And, to give a complete picture of our country, we cannot exclude the tripe brought to us by our National Newspaper The Australian, whose editor on April 29 brought all hell and condemnation together and unleashed it on the newspaper's 'fictional left' and the long-vanished 'latte set': David Marr, A Just Australia, the evil lefties of the ABC's Four Corners and South Australia's feisty and furious advocate Marilyn Shepherd.
For your dietary balance we include a 'leaked' internal Memo about asylum seeker reporting standards from the ABC's National Programs Chief Alan Sunderland.
Enjoy your reading!
Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.
By Kim Huynh
Monday, 27 April 2009
With details about the cause of the explosion leading to the death of five people and more than 40 casualties on the Suspect Illegal Entry Vehicle (SIEV) 36 unlikely to be revealed for some time and speculation still lingering, it's worth reviewing the scorecard in this fervent political blame game. In other words, "Who is responsible?"
First, there are the asylum seekers. Government officials report that the asylum seekers doused the boat with petrol believing that they would be dragged back out to sea. One time Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was quick to bolster West Australian Premier Colin Barnett's suggestions of sabotage by pointing out that asylum seekers have commonly disabled boats by "putting cocktails into engines" and "knocking a hole in the hull".
There is no doubt that asylum seekers can be calculating individuals; to survive the persecution and conflict that they have fled often demands it. However, Ruddock's comments echo more dubious claims from 2001 that boatpeople are holding the country to ransom, do not respect life like we do, and therefore should not be allowed into the country.
These claims demonise boatpeople and radicalise their actions which are better understood in the context of personal desperation and within an historical pattern that has seen Jews, Vietnamese, Haitians and Rohingyas, among others, shooed back out to sea to their deaths.
Second, there are the smugglers whom Prime Minister Kevin Rudd regards as the "vilest form of humanity". By this account, people smugglers exploit asylum seekers for large amounts of money and are constantly scanning for chinks in Australia's armour. It is politically expedient for the PM to suggest that they should all rot in hell because he can project an image of uncompromising toughness without targeting the defenceless. However, vitriol is a blunt rhetorical weapon and so some of it will invariably rub off on the asylum seekers. After all, the asylum seekers may often be deceived by the exact nature of service that they seek, but they are not being trafficked.
Moreover, not all people smugglers are as vile as Rudd suggests. Some of the recent smugglers are impoverished fishermen who are so desperate to make a living that they are willing to risk imprisonment. The case of Ali Al Jenabi who was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for people smuggling is also instructive. An Iraqi refugee who organised boats from Indonesia, he maintained that he never made a profit and only sought to help his family and other asylum seekers in their pursuit of freedom. This is not to say that we should change our people smuggling laws; only that smugglers like everyone else should be judged on their particular circumstances.
Third, there's the Government who according to the Opposition has given a green light to asylum seekers by rolling back mandatory detention, temporary protection visas and the Pacific Strategy. In the event that mistakes were made while rescuing the SIEV 36 passengers or inadequate procedures were in place, then the government must take some responsibility for this tragedy. However, the Opposition's claim that the deaths were attributable to its "soft" approach to border security is sullied by the well-documented consequences of the Howard government's "hard" approach. These consequences include the death of 353 people on the SIEV X, the severe trauma experienced by those who were mandatorily detained or transferred to Nauru and Manus Island, the detention of Cornelia Rau and the deportation of Vivian Solon.
Moreover, placing all the blame on the Rudd administration fails to take into account "upstream" factors which include the lack of legal and physical infrastructure in Indonesia and Malaysia (which the government has moved quickly to address) and worldwide phenomena such as globalisation, resurgent identity politics, ongoing conflict, and the global financial crisis which have at once increased the number of people fleeing their countries of origin while decreasing the willingness of countries to take them in.
The fact is that no one comes to this issue with clean hands. The problem is that when there are multiple parties to blame, it is easy to blame someone else. As a result, asylum seekers are left in precarious circumstances on the high seas and are "utterly superfluous" when it comes to their political power and rights.
However, the multi-layered nature of blame can also be a reason for taking common responsibility. But to do so we have to move beyond the hyperbole that is based on a simplistic view of the world in which there are only sinners and saints.
We can in fact recognise that forced migration requires comprehensive plans of action without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of this issue. In part this is because forced migration does not materially affect Australia in as profound a way as it does countries like Italy, Pakistan Canada, Jordan and South Africa. Home Affairs Minister Debus acknowledged that "thousands" of people are in Indonesia hoping to seek asylum in Australia. One estimate places this figure at 2,000 which is well within the capabilities of the Australian and Indonesian governments to deal with in a humane fashion, particularly given that in 2008 Australia processed almost 4,800 asylum applicants (most of whom came by air).
As a mature and thoughtful nation we can be both cognisant of our historical anxiety about our borders, but also proud of how we have overcome that anxiety to serve as a positive force in international affairs, taking in over 600,000 displaced people since the end of World War II.
Of course we decide who comes to this country and the means by which they come. The issue is how we make our decisions and whether they are the right ones.
About the Author
Dr Kim Huynh teaches Refugee Politics at the Australian National University. His chapter "Us and them: National identity and the question of 'belonging'", appears in The Culture Wars: Australian And American Politics In The 21st Century.
Sydney Morning Herald
April 17, 2009
A crackdown by the Federal Government on illegal fishing in its waters has provided an added incentive for Indonesian fishermen to offer their boats and expertise to take asylum seekers to Australia, even if they know they risk a prison sentence.
Fishing boats have set out south from West Timor and nearby islands for centuries, reaching as far as Ashmore Reef, inside Australian territory, the outcrop where many boatloads of asylum seekers have landed, including the boat that exploded yesterday. Fishing has never been lucrative but a vigorous effort by Australian Customs to catch perpetrators has closed off a traditional source of food and income for Indonesian fishermen.
Australian authorities have sought prison terms for illegal fishers, and confiscated boats, resulting in many Indonesian fishermen being more inclined than ever to take the large sums on offer by people-smuggling syndicates. "There's a tendency for the fishermen to hope for someone to rent their boat to smuggle people, because if they get caught fishing across the border, they are facing the same consequences anyway," said Rudenim, an official at the immigration detention facility in West Timor.
The chances of completing the journey and returning home without being detected were slim, but Rudenim said poor fishermen believe it is a price worth paying. Syndicates pay between 10 million ($1271) and 50 million rupiahs for the trip, plus fuel. While that amount is shared between the boat's owner and its crew, it is still a small fortune for people who typically live on $3 to $4 a day.
"Fisherman tell their family it might be four to six months, depending on when they get deported," Rudenim said. "But with the money they make and leave behind, it's enough to cover their family's cost of living, and even have some left, until they are back."
Millions of Indonesians work overseas, often staying away for years before reuniting with their families. A stretch in an Australian prison for a couple of years is not viewed as particularly harsh compared to working in dangerous jobs on construction sites in, say, the Middle East.
Many younger crew members are deported rather than prosecuted. Boat owners, however, have been sentenced to prison terms of up to six years.
with Amilia Rosa
Thursday, 23 April 2009
Guy Rundle writes from Berlin:
Three years ago Kevin Rudd favoured us with the first of his now regular communiqués via the medium of The Monthly -- a practice that has only recently come to resemble the news from Pyongyang. In it he spoke of the influence on his life of the German Lutheran priest, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis weeks before the end of WW2, for his small part in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
Though I don't doubt for a moment that Rudd is sincere in being inspired by Bonhoeffer, I don't believe for a moment that he has been a pole star in his life, in the way he was for his most famous disciple, Martin Luther King. Shortly before his death, King made the decision -- condemned by many of his associates -- to denounce the Vietnam War. For the struggling civil rights movement, already accused of being a Communist front, arguing against the War was simply giving proof to all who needed it that every lunch counter sit-in was being run from Moscow. But for King there was no choice -- the war was not merely mistaken, but evil. To ignore that in the belief one was protecting one's own movement was the deepest error possible.
Whatever that is, it's not being a team player or an organisation guy -- and Rudd has always been both of those. He entered the diplomatic service after university, and whatever diplomacy is, and however much it is necessary, it is not the path of ethics before all. Bonhoeffer's dissent from his own supine official church had begun long before the start of the Second World War. Indeed his acute understanding of what was happening in Nazi Germany came primarily from years spent in the US, where he saw how racism could become institutionalised and fundamentally reshape an entire culture.
Though he is most famous for being part of the 1944 assassination plot, Bonhoeffer had actually been arrested for helping Jews -- the assassination plot was a departure and a challenge, since it meant participating in killing. For someone who'd studied with Ghandi that was a break, demanded by the situation.
The challenge for Bonhoeffer's most famous Australian follower is vastly smaller, but no less real. Having successfully overcome and bypassed the culture wars so successfully, the re-appearance of boat-borne asylum seekers is obviously his worst nightmare come true. It's a messy, fag-end sort of thing, with all sorts of people who may be chancers or worse, it's an interruption to the bigger game of making a better country, it's some terrible apparition from the early 2000s, like hearing Madonna's American Pie all over again.
But whatever it is, it can't be ducked. Not again. Rudd's use of "people smugglers" as hate figures to deflect attention away from actual asylum seekers is the same sort of smart, effective politics that he employed in his argument about Howard's Hayekian "brutopia". It's no substitute for the main game -- the deep-seated and irrational Australian fear of boat-borne immigrants -- and the way in which it has hitherto been used to license evil acts and sentiments. This has to be talked back to and talked down by a leader who interprets their role as something other than getting in front of whatever parade happens to be passing by at the moment.
That the coalition appears to be getting no purchase from the issue is no reason to minimise the issue -- nor should it be taken as a sign that the right thing to do can be pursued safely. The decision has to be made separately from any of those (dis)incentives. It's because, not despite, the fact that the numbers of people are so small and the whole issue is so marginal to the main game, that it has to be brought, morally, to the centre of debate, by the leader of the country.
Such an approach will be dismissed by the usual suspects -- the wearying cynics who present their own fear of taking a moral position as anti-elitism. They're the Austrian social democrats of the 1890s who wouldn't speak back to anti-Semitism because it had a following in their base; the US Democrats who wouldn't challenge Jim Crow racism because it had the support of poor whites; and many others. Doubtless there was as much snobbery and self-satisfaction in the opposition to those earlier institutions as there has been in the apparently inexhaustible supply of refugee drama projects over the last decade.
But that is of no importance whatsoever. Ghandi was probably unbearably smug, but the anti-colonialism movement was right, as was the anti-slavery and anti-racism movements. As was the anti-mandatory detention movement. If we were the Roman Empire we could slaughter boat-borne arrivals on the beach and march their children through Martin Place in chains and feel great -- but our society and we as individuals are not constituted on that basis. To act against the values that found our sense of what being human is, simply corrupt us, as the increasingly sadistic and nihilistic acts and remarks around the 2001 election proved. The numbers engaged in this sort of error is irrelevant.
There is no moral force to the idea of a fairer Australia, for working people in particular, if it does not express an idea about how we treat people in general. How else would it even be possible to say that there is something wrong with the market red in tooth and claw, if it did not also dictate a rejection of indifference to the plight of people on the high seas who might be about to become a real problem?
So Rudd, as a leader and a human being, will stand or fall on deciding that this is the moment to explicitly talk back to the myriad of half-conscious fears that hit Australians whenever they see a ship on the horizon -- even if those fears have diminished over recent years, even if the are not much in evidence now. The government's response so far has been consonant with the basic humanity they were elected to implement (and makes the Howard years seem even worse in retrospect). But now he has to go further. It's his Vietnam (in the Martin Luther King sense).
If he ducks then not only does he do party and country a disservice, but he renders most of what he appears to have believed about himself mere chin music. The only time a belief in clear ethical action matters, or even exists, is when there is every good reason not to act on it. Bonhoeffer said, in his Letters From Prison, that he was becoming more comfortable with the company of atheists, and couldn't bear the empty prating of self-proclaimed believers. Rudd, who has spoken extensively about bringing religion back into public life with a progressive twist, will have to decide which side of Bonhoeffer he is on.
Oh, and if not for the 1944 plot, how did Bonhoeffer get arrested? Well, he was helping Jews escape to Switzerland (who were none too happy to get them, the poor ones anyway). In the end, Rudd's hero was a people smuggler.
Sydney Morning Herald
October 20, 2009
Kevin Rudd's hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a people smuggler. And our prime minister knows it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian put to death for his complicity with those who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, was ''a theologian, pastor and peace activist ... a man of faith ... a man of reason'' - and a people-smuggler. As Rudd himself wrote further in the October 2006 edition of The Monthly, Bonhoeffer ''organised the secret evacuation of a number of German Jews to Switzerland''.
In that essay, in which Rudd reveals himself as a clear thinker who can write, he argues thus: ''Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst.''
It is the combination of these two assertions - that Bonhoeffer smuggled Jews to safety and the acknowledgement of the obligation owed to the vulnerable stranger - that makes the panic of Rudd's government over the arrival of more asylum seekers so dismaying. For Rudd knows better.
So far this year 33 boats carrying asylum seekers have arrived on our shores. As in their right, as Rudd acknowledges, thanks to our signing the UN convention protecting those seeking refuge, which, as Rudd further acknowledges in the same essay, was a response to the Holocaust, when the world turned its back on the menaced Jews of Europe.
Rudd has done what he can to ensure that 33 boats do not become 34, with the latest boat, carrying 78 refugees, and the one before it, carrying 250 Tamils, ending up Indonesia - which has not signed that UN convention - instead of being allowed to continue their journey to Australia. The stranger has been turned away, before he is even in our midst. Those 330 people will in all likelihood live a squalid life for years to come, without work or education, with no certainty about where their eventual home will be.
Rudd has used unusually intemperate language twice to denounce people smugglers, calling them the vilest form of life. He has convinced no one, least of all himself. I think what he is trying to do is create a demon - and make that demon the object that soaks up all the fear and hatred that otherwise can attach to the refugees themselves. Which is what our previous prime minister did, except that he targeted the refugees themselves.
Rudd's lack of belief in what he says about people smugglers is betrayed by his overreaching rhetoric, his uncustomary language, his tin ear. He doesn't believe. He knows what Bonhoeffer did. The government line that it is following the letter of international law betrays the fact it is not following the spirit. The government has kept most of its promises in relation to asylum seekers - but getting Indonesia to take them before they get to Australian waters subverts everything else.
There is, of course, no straight moral equivalence between Bonhoeffer risking his life for 14 Jews and a professional people smuggler risking others' lives for his own profit. But the motives of the smuggler matter little to those fleeing danger - they will take help where they find it. And it is precisely such help that Rudd is now denying vulnerable strangers.
In his essay, written while still in opposition, Rudd wrote that one role of the church is to speak truth to the power of the state. Now that he embodies the power of the state, Rudd needs to be reminded, perhaps by the church, of that truth.
He wrote also that ''a core, continuing principle ... should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the 30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed''. Rudd needs to get back in touch with his principles and knock off the politics. His current actions betray not only his own principles, but the people who put him in power. On this topic he is failing as a politician and as a Christian.
National affairs editor
April 23, 2009
PERHAPS it is an instinctive Australian feeling of vulnerability that has triggered the disproportionate attention to a few boatloads of people who want to stay here as refugees.
Certainly, many politicians react as if by reflex to the insecurity that is supposed to stem from a small, largely European population in a big country at the bottom of Asia. Kevin Rudd scrambled last week to catch up with this sentiment by condemning people-smugglers as "the vilest form of human life ... (who) should rot in hell".
Although most people-smugglers are motivated by a quick buck rather than compassion and sometimes put their clients' lives at risk, there are many worse crimes.
But perhaps we are out of date. The Newspoll conducted for The Australian last week found more evidence of indifference than xenophobia. Asked who was better able to handle the issue of asylum-seekers, 27 per cent said Labor, 26 per cent the Coalition and 33 per cent were uncommitted.
There is little sign here of traction for the Opposition's line about weak government policies drawing increased numbers to our shores.
Nevertheless, much of the debate seems to proceed on the basis that we are wide open to mass invasion. The reality is very different: very few slip through the multiple layers of the border protection net.
Although we were one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees after World War II, we have gone to great lengths to limit the opportunities for invoking it.
Our controls on people who move by air, which is the main way most would-be refugees come to Australia, are among the strictest in the world. Visas are required from every country except New Zealand. Last financial year, 23 Australian embassies overseas had immigration compliance officers who collect intelligence on people-smuggling. Immigration Department airline liaison officers work in airports overseas, particularly in Southeast Asia, to check on passengers to Australia. They target nationalities who are most likely to apply for refugee status. Australia has some of the most advanced methods in the world for detecting fraudulent documents.
The irony is that all this contributes to a small minority of people trying to get here by boat. People fleeing from conflict or a government or group that is persecuting them seldom can obtain legitimate travel documents.
Young Hazara males continue to be targeted by the Taliban in Afghanistan because of ethnic and religious differences. (They are Shia Muslims, while the Taliban are Sunnis)
"In the fundamentalist mind, one way to get to heaven is to kill Hazara," says refugee advocate and lawyer David Manne.
A typical journey to Australia for a Hazara starts by going overland to Pakistan or Iran. Unable to acquire any legal status, their situation often becomes increasingly precarious.
The Taliban are active in Pakistan and Iran at best tolerates people staying without visas. But they often can obtain forged documents that pass muster for a flight to Malaysia or Indonesia. Settling in Indonesia, even if they wanted to, is not an option, except unofficially for a limited period. Indonesia is not a signatory to the refugee convention and has sometimes forced people out of the country.
This is where Australia's next layer of border protection comes in. Canberra funds Indonesia to warehouse asylum seekers and it funds the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to process their claims.
It can be a tortuous process. As of March 31, the UNHCR had 1057 people on its books in Indonesia. Of those, 441 had been assessed as refugees. Australia had agreed to take just 46 of them, subject to conducting its own checks, and the US, New Zealand and Canada a total of 17 others.
The rest were waiting for the UNHCR to find countries prepared to accept them. That can take a long time: in each of the past four years, the numbers of UNHCR refugees who have left Indonesia has varied between 48 and 92. That is why some people don't wait for the UNHCR or try to avoid it in the first place. And that is another reason why people-smugglers can recruit clients.
Under the terms of the refugee convention, there is nothing to stop asylum seekers going to Australia however they can get there. Australia does not automatically have to resettle them but it is obliged to assess whether they have a valid claim to stay on the grounds that they would face persecution or death if they returned.
People who flee to Indonesia and hope to end up in Australia are not queue jumpers in any meaningful sense of the term. They cannot always get to a camp in the Middle East or Africa to patiently wait their turn; and even if they can, they will not necessarily be safe or even be able to find a queue to join.
Perhaps asylum seekers in Indonesia would be better off waiting to be processed by the UNHCR rather than trusting their fate to the open seas and unsafe boats. Yet, however evil the people-smugglers may be, 90per cent of the people they bring to Australia turn out to be refugees.
The Australian Government has to accept this reality when it imposes the last layer of border protection. Once a vessel has been intercepted by a navy ship, the standard procedure is for passengers to be told they will be taken to Australia for health, security and other checks.
If this had occurred with the boat that blew up in the Indian Ocean last week, it would have made no sense to commit an act of sabotage in an attempt to stop being forced back to Indonesia. According to Border Protection Command head Rear Admiral Allan du Toit, the passengers were told they were being taken to Christmas Island. But HMAS Albany commander Barry Learoyd, who intercepted the boat, said the opposite. Shades of the initial confusion about children overboard. The navy seems to have a problem with getting its story straight in these situations.
Ultimately, the best way to deal with the contradictions that lie at the heart of our approach to refugees is to put more resources into tackling the problem at its root. This should include more help for countries that experience large refugee flows across their borders, and more processing of refugees in these areas.
Monday, 20 April 2009
Greg Barns writes:
The easiest target to hit is not always the right target. This might be said of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's desire to see people smugglers "rot in hell". People smuggling is a response to regulatory or policy failure on the part of developed world governments. Despite the fact that the global movement of people fleeing oppression and life threatening situations around the globe each year now amounts to around 20 million, the procedures that govern this movement are incapable of meeting the demand.
For example, if you and your family are living in a state of constant well founded fear each day in rural Afghanistan and you want to come to Australia, then to go through the official channel is simply impossible. There is no Australian embassy in Kabul, so you cross over into Pakistan and head to the Australian High Commission in Islamabad. It can take up to three years to have your case processed by the Embassy.
In the meantime you will be approached by a number of the thousands of people smuggling agents who work out of Islamabad, who will offer you a deal that no person in the position you and your family are in could refuse -- give us a large wad of cash and we will put you on a boat to Australia, via Indonesia.
If you get near Australia you will be taken to Christmas Island processed, and if you are like the vast majority of other people who risk their lives to reach Australia on a crowded boat in hostile waters, then you will be allowed to stay because you are accepted as refugee. In all you might be able to get to Australia in less than half the time it might take to process your case through the Australian embassy in Pakistan. It's a no brainer really.
While people smugglers are driven by nothing more than greed and exploiting vulnerable people, ironically sometimes their actions save lives because they remove people from danger zones more quickly than can be done through the official channels.
One of the reasons why people smugglers do such a flourishing business is because the developed world is grossly hypocritical in the way it deals with the issue. In the US and Europe government officials have for a decade been regularly turning a blind eye to people smuggling activities because migrants from Latin America in the case of the US, or Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics in the case of Europe, have been providing a useful cheap source of labour in industries like agriculture and construction.
In Australia, the Howard and Rudd governments bend over backwards to cut red tape and processes in allowing in Pacific Islanders and other temporary migrants to meet labour and skill shortages.
Mr Rudd and his colleagues in Canberra can fulminate about people smugglers but nothing will change until the developed world changes its approach to developing world migrants, including asylum seekers.
As Philippe Legrain, an international migration expert put it back in 2007, "our immigration controls, which are not only costly and cruel, but also ineffective and counterproductive".
Mr Rudd likes to strut upon the global stage. Perhaps his next project can be a global reform of processes and laws that will lessen the market opportunity for people smugglers.
Monday, 27 April 2009
Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland writes:
Somebody should give Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Australia Senaka Walgampaya a cabinet post, for he has just encapsulated the logic of Australian refugee policy into a few pithy lines. Discussing the prospect of Tamils fleeing the Sri Lankan army campaign, he assured the public: "These people don't have the financial resources to pay anybody to smuggle them into Australia. The people who have the financial resources have earlier left these areas".
Phew. That's all right then -- the poor are still stuck.
The remarks illustrate rather well how refugee policy has been shaped by two disastrous wars.
The first and most obvious is the Global War on Terror. Quite evidently, the countries producing the most refugees are those where, over the past few years, the West has devoted the most resources to killing people. Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously, but also Pakistan, a nation which the GWOT currently seems to be tearing apart.
As for Sri Lanka, the situation there might be more localised but you can also see it as an example of what a War on Terror looks like when it actually wins. Crushing the Tamil Tigers with military force? Check. Resolving the genuine grievances that supplied the Tigers with a popular base for so long? Not so much, no.
Not surprisingly, a humanitarian disaster is unfolding, with Human Rights Watch noting that "the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population". Its report continues:
High-level statements have indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks. Sri Lankan forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with civilians. This includes numerous reported bombardments of government-declared "safe zones" and the remaining hospitals in the region.
All displaced persons crossing to the government side are sent to internment centres in Vavuniya and nearby locations. As Human Rights Watch has reported previously, these are military-controlled, barbed-wire camps in which those sent there, including entire families, are denied their liberty and freedom of movement. Humanitarian agencies have tenuous access, but do so at the risk of supporting a long-term detention program for civilians fleeing a war.
If you were a Tamil in that situation, facing -- at best -- life in a barbed wire camp, how would you respond to someone offering you a place on a boat? Would you denounce them as "the vilest form of human life"? Or would you, in fact, seize hold of the opportunity with both hands?
The question highlights how much Mr Rudd's fulminations against people smugglers recalls the rhetoric from another conflict -- the equally disastrous war on drugs. Under that paradigm, the proliferation of drugs was seen not as a social problem but as the consequence of individual wickedness. Rudd's outburst about smugglers rotting in jail (and/or hell) might equally have been directed against "pushers", those seedy characters in trench coats who, we are told, turn kids onto pot at the school gates.
If the Laura Norder approach to drugs has invariably proved disastrous (the USA, where the policy reigns unchallenged, now holds 25% of the world's prisoners, with nearly a half there on drug charges), the criminalisation template simply makes no sense when discussing refugees. You can't "Just say no" to a humanitarian crisis. Where drugs are, at least, genuinely addictive, no-one seriously thinks that Afghanis get lured onto boats by the promise of a groovy trip. In fact, most would prefer to stay in their own country, with their friends and family. So why, then, do they leave Afghanistan?
Mr Rudd should know, given he once described their nation as a "hell hole" and a "Godforsaken place". On almost every indicator, the country's been moving backward for years, so much so that the Taliban now claims control of great swathes of the countryside.
In those circumstances, is someone offering a way out really going to seem "vile"?
That's why Senaka Walgampaya's probably wrong. You can't stop the poor from buying drugs just by making heroin expensive. In the same fashion, if people are desperate enough, they'll find some way onto a boat, no matter how dangerous and costly the voyage becomes.
That's why any real solution to the refugee problem depends upon improving the countries from which they flee. In a recent Salon interview, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed out that the war on Afghanistan has so far cost more than $250 billion. In other words, the West has spent more than $8,000 per Afghan, or close to $42,000 for an average family of five. Sure, Ahmadinejad's a demagogue, but the point still stands: there might not be quite so many people fleeing for their lives if we spent as much money on humanitarian projects as on military campaigns.
If we're not prepared to do that, well, it might make us feel better to rant against people smugglers. But that's all it will do.
11 May 2009, 09:30
So Moses, the people smuggler, is the scum of the earth is he, and Schindler the people smuggler, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, and Rick in Casablanca, and they deserve to 'rot in hell'.
We're on difficult moral ground here. If it's right for us to go to war and risk our young men's lives to fight the cruel decapitating Taliban, and it's right for fearful Hazaras to flee Afghanistan in the hope of saving their children's lives, why are those who help them save their children's lives and give them a better life in a better place 'the scum of the earth'?
If 93 per cent of Afghan boat people reaching Australia prove to be true refugees and eventual worthwhile citizens, why are their rescuers, their saviours, 'the lowest of the low' who should 'rot in hell'?
They make money from it, it seems, the bastards, we're told, but so do Australian soldiers in Uruzguan, and so did Schindler, who made wads of money out of his Jewish factory workers, and so did Rick and Renault in Casablanca, and Rhett Butler, a gun-runner and people smuggler in Gone With The Wind, who spirited Scarlett and Melanie and her new-born baby out of a war zone to safety at Tara. The lowest of the low, apparently.
We're told they risk the refugees' lives in storms and leaky boats, but they risk their own lives too - as well as capture, and arrest, and 25 years in jail.
How can this be 'just doing it for the money'? It sounds pretty heroic to me, pretty selfless, pretty self-sacrificing. Like the border guards who helped the Holy Family flee to Egypt during Herod's massacre of Israel's first born. Or the Kentish fisher-folk who came in little boats to save the British army at Dunkirk, people smugglers whose memory still brings tears to Britons over 50.
The reason why the boats are leaky, and why they do not use better boats, is the Australian authorities burn them on the beaches after they arrest the refugees and their saviours. Those who drive the boats expect the journey to be only one way, knowing what arsonists Australians are.
Which means they expect to be arrested when they arrive, and spend 25 years in jail. Which means, must mean, that like Rick in Casablanca and Schindler in Schindler's List, they're not doing it just for the money. They're making an enormous personal sacrifice - 25 years in jail, or a big risk of that - to save Hazaras from being sent back by Indonesians to torture and death at the hands of the Taliban, whose power is increasing every day.
Death by decapitation or, in the case of the women, stoning.
They're making an enormous sacrifice I think, and they're probably good people, heroes even. They're making as big a sacrifice, pretty much, as the Australian soldiers we're sending off soon to battle the Taliban in a war Obama says we're losing.
Or am I wrong? Am I wrong to suggest this might be so?
What other explanation is there?
That they risk their own and other people's lives for the fun of it? That they hope to swim home? That they, too, were duped by the 'travel agents' who are laughing all the way to the bank? That the money goes to their families while they go to jail?
Some of us are divided on this question. Some of us think the French Maquis, and the Dutch and Swedish secret agents who spirited shot-down airmen out of the Third Reich were 'the scum of the earth'.
And some of us don't.
Including, I suspect, the Afghan people whose boat sank and who ended up on the Tampa, 400 or so of whom are living as free Australians in this good country now. I suspect, though they dare not admit it, they're grateful to their saviours for their present happy lives.
Are their saviours in jail? Should they be? Can evil men do good? Can scum do the work of our better angels? Should they rot in hell anyway?
And should the Prime Minister, whose hero Bonhoeffer favoured the smuggling out of Jews, reconsider his view of these 'lowest of the low'? Should he ponder the possibility of awarding them an amnesty, a pardon? A medal? An AO?
And, in special cases, an apology?
By this I don't mean exclusively to target the Prime Minister, but all those other intelligent Australians who no longer think things through. Who believe, for instance, the Stolen Children had no white fathers who were legally obliged to feed, educate and care for them, and were children who arrived by a kind of Virgin Birth. Who believed, if only for a while, that parents threw their children into the sea, and their children did not weep and beg them not to. Who believed that 32 Christian countries invading a Muslim one would win the scared, bombarded Muslims' 'hearts and minds'. Who believed that Qantas sacking hundreds of staff would not lessen Qantas's airborne safety. Who believed that putting children behind razor wire and shaming their parents before them would do them no psychological harm. Who believed that union members who 'rorted' their entitlements were morally worse than CEOs of crumbling banks on tens of millions a year.
Has the habit of thinking ceased in our native land? Has it been replaced by soothing babble on mobile phones? Or replaced, perhaps, by Piers and Gerard and Janet and the ailing Alan Jones? Is consecutive thought a 20th Century thing face down in the trash-bin of history now and robot-thinking, like Rudd's on people smuggling, its post-post-modern replacement?
April 29, 2009
The Left does not have a monopoly on conscience
Bless us Jonathan / David / Robert / Dr Marcus Einfeld / emailing banshees for we have sinned - or so the self-appointed arbiters of the nation's conscience tell us. In the face of balanced coverage of contentious issues of importance, The Australian is admonished frequently by the liberal-left sodality who know that nobody else's views are worth countenancing, and that nobody, including mainstream Australians, feels pain as they do and that nobody else is as concerned about "social justice". From their lofty nirvana, however, their arguments are curiously illogical, weak, myopic and repetitive.
Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes's current obsession is the use of the word illegals by this newspaper and others in describing boatpeople. The Press Council, Holmes scolded, has "passed on complaints this time around about the use of the word 'illegal' to a number of papers". It has - ignoring the point that the vessels on which asylum seekers arrive are SIEVS, suspected illegal entry vessels. The Press Council would prefer us to splash with a snappy headline from commonwealth immigration legislation - "unlawful non-citizens".
Holmes's mantra was familiar. A Just Australia's national co-ordinator, Kate Gauthier, chants ad nauseam form the same songsheet. In repeated emails, Ms Gauthier has chided The Australian's editor, Paul Whittaker, urging him to "caution" journalists for using the word "illegals" and "let me know of any action you intend to take". Splitting hairs, the term "unlawful entrants" would be acceptable to her. A Just Australia also riled against an article informing readers that 38 asylum seekers were "well-dressed" (how dare we tell people?). Ms Gauthier cited a "highly inflammatory" reference to "sneaking in". Those waiting for decades to enter Australia through official refugee programs might disagree vigorously with her view. Perhaps she will turn her politically correct wrath on Kevin Rudd next for referring to the "illegal movement of persons" in a press conference last week. Tsk tsk.
At least A Just Australia no longer lists Dr Marcus Einfeld among its luminous patrons, given the small matter of a pair of less than rock-solid PhDs. The embarrassing oversight was pointed out in Strewth after one of the organisation's many missives to the paper earlier this month. Urban elites can rest assured, however, that Professor Robert Manne, is on the patrons' list if they feel our "sins" - as they see them - need another airing.
Adelaide busybody Marilyn Shepherd's hysterical emails to editors also point the finger at The Australian. Her brand of reasoning claims that "people are dead, people are injured, more might die because the Australian Government and media would not stop whining". Forget the tragic fire on the boat off Ashmore Reef. The deaths are "on our heads", she shrills, for ignoring her "increasing alarm about illegals and so on". She asks: "Are you journalists hard of reading and hearing?" No, we value mature, reasoned debate over reems of drivel.
Fairfax's David Marr, another staunch critic of the term "illegals" is also adamant about who is to blame for the deaths of the five asylum seekers. On the ABC's Insiders, he blamed the Opposition for the fact that the desperate souls who might have spilled the petrol believed that the Howard government's "harshest of harsh rules" were still in place. Marr is also a critic of mainstream Australia's "ancient fears about boatpeople" and argues that "behind the uproar over refugees is the notion that these are not the sort of people we would want". This newspaper, too, supported a softening of the Howard government's hard line on asylum seekers. But we also recognise that for the safety of those on board, the boats must be stopped and that the nation's official refugee program is generous. If Media Watch wants to contribute something useful to the issue, it should investigate why the media has had so little success finding out what happened on that ill-fated boat.
Another issue screaming for its attention is how Four Corners went so astray in its support of political assassin Phuong Ngo. It should ask whether Debbie Whitmont and Morag Ramsey should hand back their Walkley for best television documentary. If Media Watch is to justify its boast of being our "leading forum for media analysis and comment" it must do better than recycling the soft Left's obsessions. They'll elicit no mea culpa from us on "illegals".
(The text below was "leaked" to Project SafeCom - it's an internal Memo from the ABC. Thanks auntie!)
Friday 17 April, 2009
The relevant section of our Style Guide says:
We use the term "asylum seekers" for people who arrive in Australia (or Australian waters) without travel documents, claiming (or apparently claiming) refugee status. If the Australian authorities decide they have a valid claim for protection, they would become "refugees". Don't use inappropriate modifiers with the term "asylum seeker", such as "unlawful asylum seeker". There's no such thing as an "unlawful" asylum seeker because under international law anyone can apply for asylum.
We use the term "illegal immigrant" for anyone arriving in Australia without proper papers who is not claiming refugee status or whose claim for protection has been rejected; or anyone whose visa has expired and who is therefore not legally entitled to stay in Australia.
We do not use the term "boat people" and we do not refer to "illegal refugees".
[Extracted from Style Guide (August 2006), News & Current Affairs Style Guide]
The only other point of clarification is that some programs and stories in recent days have referred to "suspected asylum seekers". This is not our preferred nomenclature, for two reasons. Firstly, there are negative connotations attached to a word like "suspected" (see the Macquarie Dictionary) and secondly, given the nature of their arrival, it is not in any way an unreasonable conclusion to reach that they are, in fact, seeking asylum.
So a simple "asylum seekers" is the way to go.
Head of National Programs