Some Thoughts on Asylum Seekers
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in an Amnesty International campaign objecting to the suspension of asylum applications from people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. It’s one of these things where you fill in your details and they give you the outline of a letter. Of course, you can personalise the wording and I do so. I figure if I care enough about an issue to send an email, then I should care enough to think about what actually goes in it. I was rather surprised and impressed that my local member (or at least his office) replied very shortly after receiving my emails. Got to give him credit for that. It is years since I’ve received a quick reply from a politician in relation to an organised campaign. He seems to be a decent bloke. Most people are, as individuals.
For those of you who missed it, on 9 April this year the federal government announced that they were suspending the processing of asylum applications from people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka on the grounds that the situation in each of those countries was improving and is under review by the UNHCR and that the government had denied an increasing number of applications from people from those countries in recent months. The government also intends to reopen the Curtin detention centre, as the offshore centres are overflowing.
Now obviously I have problems with the suspension, but I also have problems with the practice of routine detention, still recognising that a period of quarantine while health checks are carried out is probably in everyone’s interest. What especially gets my goat is the way that asylum seekers have been used as a political football by governments and media in a process that brings out the worst in us as Australians and deters the public expression of compassion.
So, here are some thoughts on asylum seekers:
1. We should not be suspending processing of applications by people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka or repatriating them.
The UNHCR may be reviewing the situation with these countries, but this is still in process and suspending applications anticipates the outcome and repatriation. Yes, things are improving in these countries and our federal government is to be commended for providing them with civilian aid to help establish security and address poverty. Nevertheless, even the UNHCR claims that Afghanistan is struggling to cope with the integration of returning refugees. Both countries have widespread poverty, hundreds of thousands of returned refugees and internally displaced persons, lack of basic infrastructure, and an inability to assure the security of civilians. Internal tensions and unexploded weapons, including land mines, add to the dangers in Sri Lanka, a country which is not even a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and has no national policy or legislation to facilitate their reintegration.
Widespread poverty and inequality exacerbate existing tensions in a country and increase the risk of new ones. Many problems in these countries date back decades and are due to political interference by the West or internal ethnic conflicts. They are not problems that are going to be solved easily, and neither the immediate cessation of hostility nor supervised democratic elections necessarily make them safe for refugees. It will take many years of co-operative work and trust building to address these issues. The additional stress of forced repatriation before the countries are able to cope runs the risk of delaying progress or tipping the scales back towards conflict.
The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory, clearly defines who qualifies as a refugee on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution for particular racial, national, religious or political reasons. My problem with this is that there is no allowance for claims to protection based on the very real possibility of insecurity, injury, death, torture and persecution that are the fallout of war and conflict within the region but not necessarily related to racial, national, religious, or political causes. That is, we don’t protect civilians against the chaos and devastation of conflicts; we call them collateral damage, a term that denies their humanity.
To my way of thinking, meeting legal obligations is insufficient. If we were truly a compassionate country we would take account of the fears and needs of individuals and protect the vulnerable because they need help and protection, not just because they are fortunate enough to meet a particular definition or make it into a predetermined quota.
I’m not stupid enough to think that we can just comfortably take everyone who may wish to come to Australia. But what we face are global problems and, relatively speaking, Australia is a wealthy country. However, if we want to be a just and compassionate country we need to prioritise these values above an ever-increasing, materialistic standard of living for affluent and middle-class Australians. Perhaps we need to rethink the balance of our migration policies to accept more refugees, contribute more aid (0.7% of Gross National Income would be fantastic), and actually get serious about climate change. A little internal rebalancing of wealth and opportunities wouldn’t go astray either.
2. We should not be keeping asylum seekers in detention.
An article by Zachary Steel and Derrick M Silove in the Medical Journal of Australia outlines clearly the humanitarian reasons why we should not be detaining asylum seekers. They review a number of studies which have found that asylum seekers in detention have a high incidence of significant mental health issues arising from previous experiences of torture and trauma. They strongly suggest that the experience of detention and delayed application processing increases both the trauma experienced and the severity of mental health issues. Rather than detention, these people need psychological help. Steel and Silove point out that “in Australia, there is no policy in place to systematically assess the psychological needs of detainees who have suffered trauma or to offer them special consideration in relation to early release,” and an emphasis on security undermines the balance between detention and care. Providing appropriate services is difficult given the commercial arrangements between the government and the private contractors who run the centres, and the security around such facilities. The Curtain centre, which the government intends to reactivate, is extremely isolated making appropriate care even more difficult.
Steel and Silove quote reports that have found that long-term detention also leads to extreme behaviours and self-harm, anger, frustration, and resentment in addition to increased mental health issues. Yet over 85% of detained asylum seekers are found to be entitled to asylum and must be settled in the community. And then we wonder why they have trouble “integrating.” Surely this is common sense. Anywhere where you have overcrowding and lack of meaningful activity there is going to be unrest. Sometimes we call it cabin fever. But as anyone who has spent a rainy week confined in a house with small children can tell you, even the happiest and healthiest of them go stir crazy after being cooped up for too long.
The suspension of processing applications from asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka risks increasing the psychological damage to people who are already stressed and in many instances traumatised by their experiences in their own country and their journey here. Furthermore, it ignores the UNHCR’s advice that fast and fair determination of status acts as a disincentive to people who know they cannot rightfully claim refugee status.
3. Issues of asylum should not be used for political point scoring.
John Howard was notorious for using asylum seekers and border control issues in wedge politics to his own electoral advantage, and famously declared in his policy speech on 28 October 2001 that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come.” Tony Abbott has taken up his mantel.
The Rudd government’s 2008 New Directions in Detention inquiry held the promise that the government would take a more humane approach to asylum seekers. In recent months, however, this hope has been dashed as the government has caved in to relentless pressure from the Opposition and mainstream media over what they claim to be an increased flow of boat arrivals due to what they call Labor’s soft approach. In addition to constant criticism from the Opposition, in the months leading up to the government’s suspension of processing, a move which clearly concerns the UNHCR, the Prime Minister has faced hostile questioning on the issue from media. For examples of what I’m talking about, read the interviews with Ray Hadley (2GB) on 25 February, with Leon Delaney (2SM) on 16 March, with Simon Beaumont (6PR) on 25 March, and with David Koch on the Sunrise program (Ch 7) on 26 March.
With the Rudd government facing an election this year, and decreasing popularity in the polls, it is hard to see how the suspension is anything other than a politically motivated move in an effort to recapture the disaffected voters who kept Howard in power for so long before abandoning him in 2007.
Governments are not the only ones to cynically manipulate asylum and security issues though. Over the past week, sections of the media have been trying to elicit moral outrage over the accommodation of 79 asylum seekers in a motel in Brisbane. Callers to one radio program that I listened to were asking why asylum seekers are being kept in motels when our own homeless people are not. While it is commendable that there is concern for the homeless, the cold hard facts are that the accommodation of these people in a motel is a direct outcome of our policy of detention. If we didn’t insist on detention and high security surveillance for asylum seekers, then the government would feel no more obligation to give them shelter than they do for the homeless. Like the homeless, they would be left to the care of charitable organisations and support groups in the community. Still, the media would not be able to treat this situation as shocking and worthy of outrage if the whole issue of asylum seekers had not already been used in wedge politics by governments.
So why do I, as a reasonably well-off, educated Australian, even care?
1. Because God commands it.
Throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel were commanded many times to look after the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner in their land. It was written into their law (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:17-22, Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 22:1-5) along with systemic provision for their welfare. Israel was reminded that they too were foreigners while in Egypt and were exiled partly because of their oppression of “the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, [and] the poor” (Zechariah 7:8-14).
The Gospels, too, command that we love our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10:27), a command which occurs as part of the parable of the good Samaritan, making clear that our neighbours are not just our fellow countrymen whom we happen to get along with. Too often our culture thinks of love as a noun, a sentimental feeling, rather than a verb that inherently requires action. Welcoming the stranger and looking after the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, and prisoners are how we express our commitment to God (Matthew 25:31-46).
God commands it. That should be sufficient, but I have other reasons as well.
2. Because humanity demands it.
When we treat people in a legalistic manner or as a statistic, we harden our own hearts. Legality is not the same as justice. And when we deny people their rights or dignity, we diminish ourselves. I want to live in a country that is just and compassionate. It cannot be so unless these are the principles lived and demonstrated by our leaders. It’s not just as simple as treating others how you want to be treated, though that’s a good principle too, it is that we cannot be good as people or great as a nation unless we choose carefully those values and attributes that we believe in and live by them. If we are picky about who we deem to be “deserving” of our favour then we cannot give ourselves over wholly to what we might want to become.
Of course, it’s just possible that, collectively, what we want as a country is to become rich and powerful and isolated, and compassion and justice and sensitivity can go jump. In that case, I think we’re on track.
3. Because it makes practical sense.
We’ve fucked up. From colonial times more powerful countries have been interfering in less powerful ones, arbitrarily drawing boundaries, throwing together people who didn’t have a lot in common and separating those who did, and supporting or undermining foreign governments to suit the agenda at the time. One reason we’re fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan now is because of Western interference, starting with the first of several British invasions in 1838 to protect Britain’s interests in India against Russian imperialism. Following these were civil war and a Russian invasion in 1979 (SBS World Guide 5th ed.) during which the US sought to undermine the USSR by funding and supporting local war lords, including the Taliban.
At a national level we need to continue providing aid to countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, assist with rebuilding, and help to restore strong, sovereign, and peaceful government, not just because we have a moral duty to do so, but because civil unrest and insecurity creates a flow of displaced people and refugees. Trying to stop refugees from leaving, or repatriating them before the countries are really ready to cope, isn’t helping.
At a personal level, let’s have some compassion and understanding for fuck’s sake. We’re more at threat from continuing international unrest than we are from the traumatised people who have fled their country to avoid it.
In addition, we’re screwing this planet. Although it’s only just beginning, the effects of climate change are already creating movements of people who can no longer remain on their own land and increasing poverty in already poor countries. If we don’t get our act together, then on top of the current crises we’re soon going to be facing flows of refugees fleeing civil conflict due to climate change.
I have no doubt that a lot of readers are going to take issue with some of the things that I’ve written here. Please remember that constructive criticism and argument is welcome but personal abuse won’t be posted.