#Xenophobia and #Asylum Seekers in #Australia: Reality Denied by Fear

Source: 2009 Global Trends. Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, 15 June 2010. Annexes (Excel tables) available for downloading.

The reality
What’s prompted me to write again on this topic is the tragedy of the mass drownings off Christmas Island. I’ve no desire to comment in any detail on the tragedy itself but I won’t avoid commenting on the broader issues in play.

Australia currently has 0.24% of all the worlds asylum seekers with their cases for refugee status pending. The imagined flood of boat people has the significance of a dripping tap in the global context but reactions in Australia are completely disproportionate in the face of these global realities.

Current Australian Perceptions
After David Marr’s incisive comment in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, 18 December, it’s difficult to add much more of substance to this discussion, but some things do need both emphasis and clarification.

In the land that’s girt by sea fear of the unknown has both resonance and traction conferring significant political advantage on those skilled in the dark arts of xenophobia.

A cable obtained by WikiLeaks and provided to Fairfax says an unnamed “key Liberal Party strategist” told US diplomats in November last year that the issue of asylum seekers was “fantastic” for the coalition and “the more boats that come the better”.

Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was particularly skilled in dog whistling up the dark currents of xenophobia. Support for his government peaked every time he managed to inoculate the minds of electors with fear and insecurity and then proffered his own particular brand of political snake oil to remedy the problem.

In no area has the fear been more effective and less rational than in the case of asylum seekers who come to Australia by boats. In the Howard doctrine asylum seekers were ‘boat people’, queue jumpers and illegal, perhaps even terrorists, their collective efforts to get here merely people smuggling. At the level of immigration policy the doctrine excised off shore islands from our immigration zone and transferred asylum seekers who came by boat, to Nauru a small country that was not a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees. This last initiative involved a significant abrogation of Australia’s international treaty obligations.

So potent is the fear, and so strategically distributed in key marginal electorates, that the subsequent Rudd and Gillard Labor governments are apparently paralysed in the face of it. Fairfax press, drawing on material from WikiLeaks reported that US diplomats claimed that . . . Labor insiders regarded it as “politically dangerous” for the party that had promised a more humane approach before the 2007 federal election.

The same source said the Labor Party . . . which was burnt by this issue at the 2001 election – is fearful of being viewed as ‘soft’ on border security,”.

The Howard doctrine lingers on. As David Marr observed, there is a similarity between the words of Pauline Hanson in 2001 and present commentary from Australia’s Opposition. Marr observed:

In 2001 Pauline Hanson called on Australia to push back the boats: ”We go out, we meet them, we fill them up with fuel, fill them up with food, give them medical supplies and we say, ‘Go that way.”’ That now tops the opposition’s list of strategies for stopping the boats: ”Where circumstances permit and vessels can be safely secured, the Coalition will return boats and/or their passengers to their point of departure or an alternative third country destination.”

Avoiding International Obligations
Another feature of the Howard doctrine was a willingness to eschew Australia’s international treaties and obligations, when electorally advantageous. Australia’s current Liberal Party shadow minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, is squarely in this tradition when he resurrects the ‘Offshore solution’ affirming that:

It’s not a precondition that Nauru is a signatory to the refugee convention. Nauru is a participant of the Bali process that the Coalition established back in 2002.

Scott Morrison ignores the fundamental issue of Australia’s treaty obligations. Under the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 33 is quite explicit on these obligations

Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)
1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.

Other political reactions
Tragically the Gillard government, also seeks an offshore solution in Timor L’Este, chosen because it is a signatory to the convention.

This week Andrew Wilkie seemed to be the only politician with a clear focus on the basic and immediate problem of discouraging people from attempting perilous journeys across our northern waters in unsafe craft.

The International Framework
A map of states party to the 1951 Convention and/or the 1967 Protocol, from Wikimedia Commons and compiled by the UNHCR.

Refugee Convention: Signatories to the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol

Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Islamic Republic of Yemen, Israel, Philippines, Japan, Korea, Republic of Iran, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste.

Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Island, Tuvalu

There’s a lot more to come on this topic.

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