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Friday, May 25, 2012

Sympathy for the devil

People smugglers may not belong to the world's most respected profession, they may be trading on tragedy, but they exist to fill a human rights need which governments have both caused and failed to adequately and humanely address.

Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister said 'people smugglers are the vilest form of human life, they trade on the tragedy of others, and that is why they should rot in jail and, in my own view, rot in hell.'

This seems a little harsh. There is an argument to make that they have actually saved many people from a life of despotism, persecution or languishing in a dead-end refugee camp with no hope for the future. Yet the 'smuggler' is charged with criminal offences, even though it is not illegal to enter a foreign country in order to apply for asylum. So if it isn't illegal to apply for asylum, and the asylum seekers are by and large granted asylum, then why are the 'smugglers' being so demonised?

Rudd accused people smugglers of 'trading on the tragedy of others'. People smugglers certainly do profit from tragedy, but the tragedy shouldn't exist in the first place. People smugglers haven't caused the tragedy that the asylum seekers are fleeing from, they are merely opportunists taking advantage of it.

Politicians of all persuasions should take the plank out of their own eyes before trying to take the speck out of someone else's. Politicians in Australia gain considerable political mileage through raising the 'threat' of a 'refugee invasion', vilifying asylum seekers while exploiting the nation's fears and racism. It is the politicians who trade on the tragedy of others for political point-scoring. Elections have been won and lost on this very issue.

Many years ago a successful businessman stated to me that his business model was based on the adage, 'if you see a need, fill it'.  Today's people smugglers are successful because they have seen a need and are filling it. This is a need that has often been created or nurtured by rich and powerful countries sponsoring despots for geopolitical reasons. For instance, Hussein, Pinochet, Suharto and Pol Pot were sponsored by the United States while Idi Amin, Gaddafi and Mubarak were sponsored by the Soviet Union.

The use of these regimes to further the geopolitical hegemony of powerful nations has resulted in much of the refugee issue we see today. It is these nations which traded on the tragedy of others. As people were massacred by despotic regimes in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia and so on, American corporations grew rich and the US government spread its influence. As the US and USSR fought wars by proxy in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, South East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, innocent civilians were massacred in the name of democracy or socialism.

Now that the Soviet Union is no more, the United States is prancing across the globe forcing 'democracy' on people at gun-point while allowing western corporations to profit  through the economic rape of vulnerable nations. It's not actually democracy that the US is forcing on nations; democracy is the guise under which capitalism is being forced on these nations for the benefit of American corporations.

This is the true trade on the tragedy of others.

As Wendell Berry, a farmer and writer, stated "how would you describe the difference between modern war and modern industry - between say, bombing and strip mining, or between chemical warfare and chemical manufacturing? The difference seems to be only that in war the victimisation of humans is directly intentional and in industry it is 'accepted' as a 'trade-off'. "

Berry also stated, "We seek to preserve peace by fighting a war, or to advance freedom by subsidising dictatorships, or to 'win the hearts and minds of the people' by poisoning their crops and burning their villages and confining them in concentration camps; we seek to uphold the 'truth' of our cause with lies, or to answer conscientious dissent with threats and slurs and intimidations ... I have come to the realisation that I can no longer imagine a war that I would believe to be either useful or necessary. I would be against any war."

Refugees who escape war or life under a despot often end up either living indefinitely in a refugee camp with little hope or being held in soul-destroying indefinite detention as applications are processed. These are people who have not committed a crime but are being treated worse than a convicted criminal.

Who can blame someone for commissioning a 'smuggler' to help them escape such desperation. The majority of these people are found to be genuine refugees and granted asylum. From there, they go on to become worthwhile members of society.

During the second world war, people smugglers were applauded. Back then they were assisting Jews and other persecuted people to escape Nazi Germany, often for a fee. What is the difference between them and those who assisted people to escape persecution from Saddam Hussein or the Taliban?

Most people smugglers are not in business for philanthropic reasons, being solely interested in the money earned. Whilst many of them charge exorbitant sums, they are taking huge risks with the lives of themselves, the crew and the asylum seekers and they are running the risk of being arrested. Sadly, some of these journeys end in tragedy through the deaths of hopeful asylum seekers.

Ironically, many people who criticise people smugglers do so, not because of any altruistic concern for asylum seekers, but because they just don't want the asylum seekers in their country.

To suggest that people smugglers should 'rot in jail' or 'rot in hell' as Kevin Rudd suggested is to completely misrepresent the gravity of the situation and to demonise scapegoats for political gain. No-one forces asylum seekers to use people smugglers. Asylum seekers have a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea!

True criminals are ones who force injustices on others, such as theft, kidnapping, rape, torture, murder ... the sort of crimes that some States and corporations sanction in their pursuit of power and money.

Rather than politicising the tragic circumstances of these victims of injustice, governments across the globe could take steps to assist in the resettlement of refugees in a more humane and timely manner.

If governments are genuinely concerned with stopping people smuggling, they would take steps to prevent the situations that create the problems. This would require nations to stop waging war or supporting despots and stop exploiting the economies, natural resources and people of developing nations. Governments need to cooperate with their regional neighbours to assist in quicker processing of applications and ensuring that asylum seekers are not dehumanised or imprisoned indefinitely, but instead treated with respect and dignity.

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