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Friday, June 20, 2014

Refugees represent the vanguard of their peoples

Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.

- Hannah Arendt 1943

Many people who flee their countries represent the highest of their peoples. They may have been forced out because of their education, politics or religion. But regardless of the reason for their lives being in danger, these people have great determination to seek safety for themselves and to rebuild their lives regardless of their circumstances.

It is the small-minded in the supposedly 'advanced' nations who fear them. The same people who consider themselves better than those in developing nations because of their education or occupation. Yet, their fear is grounded in ignorance. People fear what they don't know. People rooted in materialism, selfishness and greed fear, what they may lose.

The most polarising argument regards asylum seekers who arrive by boat and then claim asylum. To prevent this, the Australian government operates off-shore detention camps at Christmas Island (Australia), Manus Island (PNG) and Nauru, while also refusing to resettle asylum seekers in Australia. The government has also literally towed boats back to Indonesian waters.

The Abbot-led government has boasted that these harsh policies have meant that not one boat has reached Australia in months. However, this doesn't explain how many boats have made it into Australian waters, only to be pushed or towed back to Indonesia. The government simply refuses to release this information, claiming that it would prejudice the military-run Operation Sovereign Borders that it uses to wage war on asylum seekers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, boast of stopping the boats and credit their inhumane policies with this. These policies keep asylum seekers locked up in indefinite detention with a promise to never settle them in Australia.

In essence, the government is using asylum seekers as human scare-crows, by hoping the indefinite detention and inhumane conditions that they are keeping asylum seekers in, will deter others from coming.

In an effort to torpedo the critics of this harsh policy, the government states that there have been no deaths at sea since it was implemented. While a lack of drownings is good, the policy does not genuinely care for the asylum seekers. What is the government turning these people back to? A life without hope. A life in which they are in constant danger.

The government coerces asylum seekers to return to their country of origin by assuring them that they will never be settled in Australia and if they want to leave detention, all they have to is sign documents requesting to leave. There are still thousands of people languishing in Australian detention centres. Many are being forcibly returned to their country of origin, which may include Sri Lanka or Iraq for instance. Countries which are not safe. The government even donated a Navy frigate to the Sri Lankan government to round up people trying to flee the cruelty and persecution.

The Australian government may well be breaching the UN Refugee Convention by indefinitely detaining asylum seekers in inhumane conditions. Article 31 requires members states to not impose penalties regardless of how a refugee arrived. Articles 32 and 33 also prohibit states from refouling or returning asylum seekers to countries in which they are in danger. (1) Yet Australia continues to breach the Convention.

The government continues its rhetoric that asylum seekers are illegal in an effort to delegitimise claims and manipulate the mind-set of voters into thinking that asylum seekers arriving by boat are not 'genuine'. Asylum statistics produced by the Department of Immigration for the March 2013 quarter showed that on average more than 90% of so-called 'irregular maritime arrivals' were 'genuine'. That's assuming that the ones whose requests were denied, are not genuine. Given that many are being returned to countries such as Sri Lanka and Iraq, it's likely that those denied visas should have been given them. The following is a summary of the 'genuineness' of the asylum seekers arriving by boat in the last few years:

The government has perpetuated the belief that many asylum seekers destroy their identity papers or are queue jumpers. Believe it or not, but some people are stateless. Kurds for example. This means that for many, no nation claims or recognises them and therefore refuses to give them papers such as birth certificates. Others don't have time to grab papers when suddenly fleeing their homes in fear of their lives.

Refugees arriving by boat are not 'queue' jumpers. Queue jumping would be if they were lined up at McDonald's and someone pushed through to the front. There is no orderly queue for refugees. In 2012, there were 45.2 million displaced persons, with refugees accounting for 15 million of these. The UNHCR received 893,700 applications for asylum and processed 113,000 claims (2).  Based on this it would take around eight years for a claim to be processed. Considering that many refugees do not apply for asylum immediately, it could mean that from time of displacement to having an asylum claim heard could be much longer than that.

That's years out of a person's life. Years out of a family's life. For children, that could mean their entire childhood being held in a refugee camp with inadequate education and health services. The camps themselves are not particularly safe, with attacks being made on them by local Armies or militia.

It is no surprise that refugees flee for safer countries. Heading east from countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma the first country they come to that is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention is Australia. They could stay in India, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on, if they want their lives put on hold indefinitely. None of these countries allow refugees to settle and build lives. So some come to Australia.

In 2013, Australia took around 5,000 refugees who had arrived by boat (3). The country hasn't fallen apart. However, for those who have been given community detention their lives are still on hold. They can't work, they can't study and they live with the fear of being sent back to their country of origin. It really wouldn't hurt for Australia to grant permanent residency and to lift the intake. Refugees represent a fraction of total migration numbers (as at March 2013, net overseas migration was 238,000) (4).

Australia really needs to review it's approach to asylum seekers. The 'out of sight, out of mind' policy of imprisoning people on remote islands is inhumane and cowardly. It is time for the major parties to show some mettle and defend these persecuted people instead of caving to populist policy in order to get elected. Both Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison claim to be Christian, yet their policies and behaviour are decidedly not Christian. Martin Luther King said, 'He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it'.

Abbott, Morrison and the entire Australian government are not just passively accepting evil, they are perpetrating it. The ALP hasn't done much better. When in power they implemented inhumane policies, although it was mainly in response to the incessant bleating of Abbott with his mindless 'Stop the Boats' slogan and fear-mongering lies about the dangers posed by asylum seekers. Abbott showed that he'd do anything to get elected, including committing crimes against humanity.

Haile Selassie stated, 'Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph'. Australians must stand up against the evil that is being perpetrated against the world's most vulnerable. What would we do if faced with their decisions? To stay and face persecution, hopelessness and death, or make an attempt for a better life?

Refugees who come to Australia are here to make a better life for themselves. In so doing, they will contribute to Australian society and the economy. Yet, it is the Australian government that is preventing them from working and becoming part of our society.

As Hannah Arendt said, refugees represent the vanguard of their peoples. Sadly, it is the Australian government that is the antithesis of this. Rather than being leaders with integrity and compassion, changing the political debate, the LNP government is following a racist, xenophobic trend to shore up their own careers. They are dehumanising asylum seekers, referring to them by their boat numbers rather than their names. They are demonising asylum seekers to generate fear and hatred of them.

The Australian government's behaviour is designed to cauterise the community's collective conscience while masquerading as the defenders of Australian liberty. What a disgrace. Lying, using and abusing the world's most vulnerable for political gain.

Refugees have more integrity than many of our politicians. Release asylum seekers from detention and let them settle in Australia. Have compassion, empathy and understanding instead of being manipulated by government-run fear campaigns. It will benefit asylum seekers and it will benefit the nation.


1. United Nations, Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951),

2. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Facts and Figures about Refugees,, accessed 19 June 2014.

3. Refugee Council of Australia, Statistics on asylum seekers arriving in Australia,, accessed 19 June 2014.

4. Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Fact Sheet 15 - population growth,, accessed 19 June 2014.