People with rights, or the right people?

I am sure you didn’t come here tonight in the expectation that I would tell you about problems that are just too wicked – about which nothing could be done. If I had wanted to do that, then we might just as well now go home or retire to the pub.

But the issues that I want to raise tonight are depressing, in at least two respects, and there would be little point in denying that. According to the UNHCR, there were more than 65 million forcibly displaced people at the end of last year. That’s almost three times the number of people living in Australia. The 65 million included more than 21 million refugees, almost 41 million internally displaced people, and more than 3 million asylum seekers. According to the same statistics, in 2015 only 107,051 refugees were formally resettled. In other words, last year only one in every two hundred refugees was provided with the opportunity to resettle. These figures draw attention to one of the two issues that could cause us to despair: namely, the scale of forced displacement (which, however, is not unprecedented).

The other depressing issue is that Australia currently incarcerates men, women and children who have sought its protection, in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, that it turns back boats with asylum seekers and on occasion hands them over to the authorities of the country they fled, and that both major parties have endorsed mandatory detention, offshore processing and boat turn-backs.

Now one could say: “This is terrible”. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with people who say “This is so terrible that we couldn’t possibly do anything other than to say ‘this is terrible’.” And I have even more of a problem with people who say: “This is terrible because it makes me feel terrible.”

I would like to make four suggestions: first, to put what’s happening in Australia in perspective; second, to ask appropriate “why” questions; third, not to take what is happening for granted; and fourth, to engage with specific details of government and popular responses to asylum seekers and refugees.

Across the Seas (print)First suggestion: let’s relate the two depressing issues. Australia’s political establishment, purportedly in an attempt to represent the views of a majority of Australians, claims that the detention of people on Manus and in Nauru is necessary because we couldn’t possibly want a repeat of what happened in 2012 and 2013. In those two years, Australia experienced the arrival of almost 38,000 asylum seekers by boat. That’s fewer than 19,000 per year on average – one for every 169 asylum seekers counted by the UNHCR last year, or one for every 3456 forcibly displaced persons counted by UNHCR in 2015.

The number of boat arrivals in 2012 and 2013 is small also in other respects. It’s small in comparison to Australia’s population (approximately one in five people currently in Lebanon is a refugee). It’s small in relation to the size of Australia’s planned annual permanent migrant intake (one boat arrival for every ten planned migrant arrivals).

In 1949, Australia was comfortably able to resettle more than 75,000 refugees (one for every one hundred Australian residents) – why then should it be so difficult to accommodate fewer than one forcibly displaced person for every one thousand Australian residents today, when Australia is so much more affluent than it was in 1949?

When suggesting that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in 2012 and 2013 was relatively small, I am not endorsing the government’s argument that its offshore processing and detention regime has been responsible for the fact that in the last three years very few asylum seekers have arrived by boat. A harsh detention regime does not deter forcibly displaced people from trying to reach Australia by boat. Temporary protection visas and long delays in processing asylum claims are equally ineffective in that respect. We saw that between 1999 and 2001. It’s extremely unlikely that the number of boat arrivals would significantly increase if the government decided to close the camps on Manus and in Nauru, and speedily deal with the backlog of claims and provide permanent visas to all those found to be refugees. It’s the turn-back policy that has been “successful” – but it too is extremely problematic, because it arguably violates the human rights of asylum seekers and disregards Australia’s international legal obligations.

My second suggestion: We need to ask “why” questions. Why have Australia’s leaders adopted such harsh policies, and why do these policies have the support of the majority of Australians?

In order to try answering this question, I would like to briefly consider what happened when a majority of Australians and the Australian government were last welcoming towards refugees. That was in early September 2015. On 2 September, a dinghy carrying sixteen irregular migrants from Iraq and Syria capsized just off the Turkish coast. Twelve people, including the wife and two young sons of the man captaining the boat, Kurdish-Syrian Abdullah Kurdi, drowned. Their bodies were found washed up on the shore. Pictures that Turkish press photographer Nilüfer Demir then took of the younger of the two Kurdi children went viral and prompted a world-wide outpouring of public sympathy for Syrian refugees.

In Australia, political leaders, including New South Wales premier Mike Baird, demanded an increase of our intake of Syrian refugees. In a Facebook message posted a couple of days after the publication of Demir’s photographs, Baird wrote:

I don’t know how you felt when you saw the image of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless, face down in the sands of a Turkish beach. I felt sick with overwhelming sorrow. And despair. And anger. … I found that as the feeling of anger dulled, my next response was…. surely we can do more. … And we should do it now.

The federal government initially offered to accommodate more refugees from Syria and Iraq, without, however, increasing Australia’s overall humanitarian intake of 13,750 people per financial year. One week after Alan Kurdi’s death, the prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott, caved in to mounting pressure from within his own ranks and declared that Australia would resettle an additional 12,000 refugees.

Now, more than nine months after the events (and with only a few hundred of the 12,000 additional refugees having arrived thus far), time lines can easily become blurred. Didn’t Australia’s response to the drowning of Alan Kurdi happen at exactly the same time as Germany’s response to Syrian refugees who were trying to transit Hungary? Almost, but not quite. The pivotal event that shaped the German public’s – and the German government’s – response to refugees was not the drowning of Alan Kurdi, but racist riots in Heidenau, a small town in the southeast of Germany, where locals protested against the accommodation of a few hundred refugees in a former hardware store. After German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Heidenau, she said that there would be “no tolerance towards those who question the dignity of others.”

Dignity resonates powerfully in Germany. Article 1 of the Basic Law of 1949 begins with the words, “Human dignity shall be inviolable”. This and the next eighteen articles of the Basic Law constitute a German bill of rights; for West Germans, in particular, the rights enshrined in the Basic Law have been an important part of what it means to be German.

Importantly, the human rights of an asylum seeker in Germany are the same as the human rights of a German citizen. The Bundesverfassungsgericht, Germany’s equivalent of the High Court, confirmed this principle in a landmark ruling in 2012 when it decided that the government had to increase the benefits paid to asylum seekers to reflect their human rights under Article 1 of the Basic Law.

In Australia, the outpouring of compassion triggered by the photo of Alan Kurdi stopped soon after it had begun. Compassion, much like other emotions, is fickle. In Germany, too, the enthusiasm with which Germans greeted refugees arriving by train in late August and early September 2015 has long dissipated. What has remained, though, is a discourse about dignity and the rights of refugees.

Australia’s response to asylum seekers is shaped not least by the absence of a robust human rights discourse. Germany’s response last year, and Merkel’s stubbornness since then, have partly to do with the fact that the public is familiar with and often respects the language of human rights.

I now come to my third and fourth suggestions, not to take what is happening for granted, and to engage with specific details of government and popular responses to asylum seekers and refugees. Both could involve having a very close look at the past. History allows us to understand that the present is not something unchangeable or normal. And it is often easier to examine processes and chains of events in the past – to take a somewhat distanced and analytical approach to politics and policies, which could inform our understanding of, and our response to, the present.

I want to give you just one example (which isn’t mentioned in my book) to illustrate my point. I arrived in Australia in June 1985. The very first newspaper article I read in Australia that dealt with refugee issues appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 2 July 1985. Under the curious title “Australia fears refugees want asylum”, the article reported that the Australian government was worried that five men from the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, who had arrived by canoe on one of the Torres Strait Islands, “may be tempted by human rights activists to claim political asylum in Australia”. The article referred to “well-grounded fears” in Canberra that the five “represent only the first of many Irianese refugees likely to make their way [to Australia] to claim asylum”.

I find the story of the five men interesting not least because it is one of those stories that do not feature in the histories that Australians tell themselves about their past responses to refugees and asylum seekers.

The outcome of this case was determined by two factors that have shaped Australia’s asylum seeker policies for decades: the relationship with Indonesia, and fears of a “flood” of people arriving uninvited on Australia’s shores. It is exemplary also because other factors that could have played a role – namely the men’s protection needs and Australia’s international legal obligations – mattered little.

Initially, the Hawke Labor government tried desperately to keep the five men’s arrival a secret (and get rid of them before that secret was revealed). It then decided to circumvent its own refugee determination process, and made policy decisions as if this process did not exist. On 17 July 1985, Cabinet decided that the immigration minister “advise the five Irian Jayans as soon as possible that they will not be granted permanent residence or refugee status and seek their early return to PNG”.

Immigration minister Chris Hurford was somewhat obsessed about the prospect of a flood of West Papuan refugees. “If it was learnt that Australia was a soft-cop and you could just land illegally on one of these islands some of which are only 400 metres off-shore, we would find a great number of people coming across for the higher standard of living and going on Australian social services”, Hurford told PM in July 1985. “I know that those people would be quite attracted to living up there in North Queensland, or Torres Strait, or one of those islands on Australian social services, near people of the same race and creed and origin, able to slip in their boats and go back to whatever village they came from. If they think that they’re going to end up in Austria or the United Kingdom or somewhere like that, I can assure you that they won’t be so attracted.”

The five West Papuans’ story highlights some of the long-running themes of Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers. So far I have talked about government responses. I could make a similar point about the responses of refugee advocates. In the second half of the 1980s, they demanded that the five men be allowed to settle in Australia. One argument put forward in the five men’s favour was that they were “excellent” workers and “really decent blokes”. Refugee advocates could expect this argument to resonate because when the government had initiated Australia’s first refugee resettlement program in the 1940s, it had instructed Australian selection teams to handpick refugees who could be expected to immediately join the workforce. People who were over a certain age or had a disability were excluded from the scheme. So were, initially at least, Jews – because the Australian immigration authorities knew that many Australians were anti-Semitic and could not be expected to imagine that Jewish Holocaust survivors included many “really decent blokes”.

Unfortunately, the argument that refugees ought to be accommodated because they would contribute to the Australian economy or because they are essentially good people, is still prominent. Last year, Tony Abbott said in relation to refugees from Syria and Iraq: “It is important that we bring in people who are going to be contributors to the Australian community. It is important that we don’t bring in anyone from this troubled region who might ultimately be a problem for the Australian community as far as we humanly can.” Refugee advocates who are campaigning for an increase of Australia’s humanitarian intake also routinely claim that Australia ought to resettle refugees because they will contribute to the Australian economy.

Whether or not they will, should not matter. Forcibly displaced people have rights irrespective or their gender, age, religion and employability. And there are other good reasons why Australia ought to adopt a different approach towards forcibly displaced people who are seeking its protection. When arguing for a different approach, we may want to take into account Australia’s capacity to assist people in need of a new home, its responsibility as a regional power, its legal obligations as a member of the international community, and, most importantly, the precarious circumstances of the men, women and children who are seeking Australia’s protection.

History allows us to see the present in a new light – highlighting how extraordinary Australia’s current response to refugees and asylum seekers is, but also drawing attention to the fact that the current approach echoes the policies of previous governments. History has the potential to unsettle the present (or at least to unsettle us, who live in the present).

History can of course have the opposite effect: it can confirm long-held views and make us feel comfortable. Histories that evoke the good old days (when Australia was supposedly more generous than other nations in its response to refugees) or the bad old days (when Australians were supposedly all racists) have that comforting effect.

The issues that we are dealing with are depressing. There are no short-term solutions. That’s not to say that nothing could be done. Let’s allow ourselves to be unsettled. And let’s then try to come up with an informed response to the wicked problems of forcible displacement – a response that acknowledges the genealogy of Australian government policies and a response that is cognisant of our propensity to barrack for some refugees and be disinterested in the fate of others. Personally, I hope for a response that recognises the rights of others, and is less guided by our own feelings.

Klaus Neumann is the author of Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees (Black Inc., 2015). This is the text of a talk delivered at the Fitzroy Town Hall on 28 June 2016.


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