Fellow humans in tragic straits deserve better.
By Greg Sheridan FOREIGN EDITOR.
25 October 2001
The Australian

The Government's systematic trivialisation and demonising of refugees is a slander THE death of 353 asylum-seekers bound for Australia from Indonesia should remind us of one thing above all others - that in refugee policy we are dealing with human beings, we are not talking, as so much of the discussion suggests, about the best place to store or dispose of surplus bales of wool.

The spat between Kim Beazley and John Howard does neither of them any credit. Beazley's comments were unexceptional - the policy to discourage boats from coming from Indonesia has manifestly failed.

That much is just stating the obvious.

Beazley's assumption, however, that he could easily fix the problem by talking to Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri is also flawed. Beazley would certainly do better with Jakarta than Howard has done but there is no guarantee, or even much likelihood, that this would be enough to solve the asylumseeker problem.

But having so spinelessly capitulated to the substance of Howard's brutish refugee policies he is left with nothing else to say.

Meanwhile, the real lessons of this appalling and terrible incident need to be drawn.

What does it tell us for sure? That the people who got on board the boat were certainly desperate, at the end of their tether. They knew it was an unsafe boat; a substantial number who had paid for passage refused to proceed with it. But such was the desperation of the 400 who set sail that they took the risk. The way the Government has systematically trivialised and demonised these people is shown in the starkest terms for the slander it has always been.

Second, some of the boat's passengers had already been categorised as genuine refugees but had no prospect of resettlement. Where is Philip Ruddock's queue now? The high number of women and children is also telling. Among the Government's many acts of calculated cruelty to asylum-seekers is the grant of the temporary protection visa. If you arrive in Australia without a visa and subsequently are classified as a genuine refugee, you are given only a three-year protection visa, whereas other refugees qualify for permanent residency visas.

After three years you must apply for a new temporary visa. Among the many disadvantages of such a visa is that you are not entitled to English language training, surely the single most important factor in enabling refugees to look after themselves and make a positive contribution to society.

You are also denied any opportunity for family reunion. In all the history of refugees throughout the past blighted century, it has been common for one family member, normally a man, to go ahead and try to bring his family after him. This is not queue jumping, destination shopping or any other derogatory term the Government wants to dream up. It is simply human behaviour in a loving family. A number of the people on the boat from Indonesia had relatives in Australia. They should have been entitled to come here under normal family reunion.

Altogether Canberra is spending some hundreds of millions of dollars a year persecuting refugees, equivalent perhaps to 30 per cent or 40 per cent of our aid budget, far in excess of the paltry aid we give Indonesia, for example.

For Howard to blame Indonesia for the boatpeople, and for Beazley to say that Indonesia is the solution to the boatpeople, shows both men being disingenuous at best. Indonesia has well over 1 million internally displaced domestic refugees. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It is facing two big secessionist movements. Its survival as a nation is by no means assured. It, too, would rather asylum-seekers did not come to its country and add to its problems.

Amid this sea of troubles, why on earth would it make it a priority to help out the Australian Government? And as a matter of simple law Indonesia, like all the other nations between Afghanistan and Australia, is not a signatory of the UN Convention on Refugees.

There obviously needs to be a big international effort to deal with this ongoing refugee tragedy. The parallels with the Vietnamese boatpeople of the late 1970s and early '80s are close. Only a tiny minority of the Vietnamese who came here as part of the boatpeople phenomenon came directly from Vietnam by boat and many of those who did had stopped along the way.

T HE vast majority came after processing in camps all over South-East Asia, in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere.

The first asylum countries, as these were known, were promised by the US that they would not be left with a large residual population of Vietnamese because resettlement countries, such as the US, Australia, Canada and France, would take them for permanent resettlement.

All of those who came here had family reunion rights and, to discourage perilous boat journeys, we even set up an orderly departure program for people with family in Australia.

The ethnic minority Afghans face an almost exact replica of the circumstances confronted by ethnic Chinese Vietnamese. Certainly for the ethnic minorities, Pakistan could not be regarded as a safe haven.

Naturally many refugees use false documents to get into Indonesia.

Many Vietnamese had no documents when they arrived in first asylum countries either. That has nothing to do with their genuineness as refugees.

This refugee tragedy is symbolic of a far greater failure of the international system, which seems indifferent to the human costs borne by innocent people from Afghanistan or Iraq. Once, perhaps, Australia was the sort of country that could have helped organise an international response.