03 November 2018

Deporting or imprisoning desperate refugees is a shame on all Australia

Over the years in this blog, I have tried to show how Australia’s most creative and productive citizens were once terrified refugees and migrants, forced out of their own countries and waiting to be accepted by Australian society eg Judy Cassab: from HungaryScottish migrants,  the Evian Conference of 1938,  Holocaust survivors from Poland,  child deportees from Britain,  recent boat people, the Dunera BoysNicholas Winton’s train loads of children and Viennese refugee Richard Goldner. Australia would have been a very bland, conservative country, if it was not for the large minority of Australian citizens in every generation who were not born here (26%). My year at school would have had five children in it, rather than the 120 I met in 1953.

Jane McAdam is law professor and director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at NSW University. McAdam and Fiona Chong’s new book Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum Is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not (UNSW Press, 2014) was published just a few years ago.  This book should be read by all Australians concerned about the inhumanity demonstrated by successive federal governments when dealing with refugees seeking our protection. I hope schools will introduce young Australians to such issues. The book reveals not merely the abandonment of Australia's cherished "fair-go", but shows how we have breached international law.

small boat filled with asylum seekers, Christmas Island
photo credit: ACBC Media Blog

As the Refugee Council of Australia has said, permitting asylum-seekers to enter a country without travel documents is similar to allowing ambulance drivers to exceed the speed limit in an emergency. International law recognises that desperate people have a right to seek asylum. This book explains, using case studies, why some people fleeing persecution have no choice but to risk their lives at sea rather than face certain death at home.

Some families fled persecution in Myanmar & won refugee status from the UN 8 months after arriving in Indonesia, yet had to await resettlement for long periods. We can scarcely imagine their emotional suffering. Yet Conservative prime minister John Howard increased such suffering by denying family reunion to small boat arrivals. Consequently, entire families risked their lives at sea. As the case studies demonstrate, it is the last choice of desperate people.

From the time the Keating Labour government introduced mandatory detention... to the Conservative government’s current stand, Australia has adopted many policies in breach of international law. Citizens with an ounce of humanity were and are disgusted.

Temporary protection visas do not fulfil our obligations under the Refugee Convention. Mandatory detention behind barbed wire breaches intern­at­ional human rights law. The contrast with the bi­partisan policies of the Fraser and Hawke governments could not be greater. The authors outline the need to restore a functional refugee status determination process, with merits and judicial review. Australia used to be recognised as having one of the best systems, but successive governments have sought to restrict access to the courts.

Statistics quoted in this book also help place the issue in another important context. In 2012 Australia received 17,202 asylum-seekers by boat, its highest annual number. Yet this represented only 1.47% of the world’s asylum-seekers. The Abbott government may have stopped the boats, but at what cost to a fraction of the world’s asylum-seekers? And at huge cost to taxpayers. Research by the Kaldor Centre puts the cost of Australia’s onshore and offshore detention system — $3.3 billion — as equivalent to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ entire budget for projects covering 51.2 million people of concern worldwide. So much for morality and budget prudence :(

At the same time, we have an annual intake of 190,000 legal migrants. Surely we must also debate whether asylum-seekers should be processed in regional nations and, when declared to be refugees, be invited to Australia as part of the immigration intake. That was the policy of the Fraser and Hawke governments and refugees made outstanding migrants. This book exposes myths about asylum-seekers, such as that those arriving by boat pose a security risk. The statistics show this is not so. Yet they have been placed in barbaric conditions on Nauru and Manus Island and may be sent to Cambodia or any other country that will have them; they will not allowed to settle in Australia. The children suffer the worst.

Nauru and Manus Island are arguably the poorest islands in South East Asia. Papua New Guinea granted refugee status to some men on Manus Island, but has also amended laws to allow asylum seekers to be gaoled without trial.

Successive governments have continued to pander to paranoia by demonising people who have no choice but to flee persecution. So the authors explore alternatives to the present situation. The chapter on the need for a regional framework is essential reading. One of our diplomatic priorities should be to persuade those of our neighbours who have not signed the Refugee Convention to do so and help our region meet the humanitarian goals of the UN. We should have used our moment (2013-14) on the UN Security Council to achieve this.

asylum seekers in a Malaysian detention centre 
photo credit: The Daily Telegraph

Nauru Detention Centre, 2016
photo credit: Social Vision

In another important recent book, Walking Free, Munjed Al Muderis writes of his reasons for fleeing Iraq, his hazardous journey to Australia, his detention and ultimate acceptance as a refugee. As a doctor, his community contribution has been inspiring. So are the stories of countless other refugees who have been welcomed into Australia. We must influence our politicians from the grassroots! McAdam and Chong’s book should help to achieve that.


I asked 20 Australians why they believe it is appropriate for our governments to tow boatloads of refugees back into the open ocean or lock them up behind barbed wire in remote Pacific islands. The answers were – they eat smelly foods, they are not Christian, they don’t speak English, they will steal our jobs and especially they might be Islamic terrorists! My response? Settle the refugees in safety in a proper Australian building, with health care and English lessons, and ensure the Immigration Department does thorough background checks.

A country with a particularly innovative, inquisitive, industrious people always thrives. History is replete with examples of countries undermining their own potential by banishing groups of people with greater potential to serve the greater cultural, scientific or economic good. Host countries, like Australia, would be lunatic not to accept refugees who were once the cream of their own nation, before they were forced to flee.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, People everywhere seem to be members of the "we were the last ones in; no more allowed after us club." In America, ethnic minorities from Europe (Irish, Polish, etc.) a long time ago received a rough welcome from the Mayflower types. Now, we simply regard these groups (for the most part) as part of America's rich heritage, and attend Greek Festivals, Explore the heritage of Little Italy, etc. Yet so many people (read 'certain' people) want to close the gates when all sorts of atrocities are causing people to seek asylum. Even odder is the rejection of students and skilled workers who will bring money in and add immediate value to the country.

Andrew said...

The clincher for me is in this sentence. It is how it should work, that is larger percentage of our immigration should be made up of genuine refugees, and we have plenty on our own doorsteps who will fit well into Australia.

"At the same time, we have an annual intake of 190,000 legal migrants. Surely we must also debate whether asylum-seekers should be processed in regional nations and, when declared to be refugees, be invited to Australia as part of the immigration intake."

Hels said...


I have never heard anyone say "we were the last ones in; no more allowed in after us" but I know _exactly_ what you mean. In New World countries, there were the indigenous populations, and then generation after generation of migrants. There was never a time when newcomers didn't flood in, either from the home country (Britain for us in Australia), then surrounding countries (eg Netherlands, France, Sweden, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia), then Eastern Europe and the Middle East, then every other country on the globe. The idea that some migrants are of higher quality than others is a bit snooty.

The rejection of students and skilled workers who will add immediate value to the country, in terms of skills and culture, is even sillier *yes*.

Hels said...


Asylum-seekers might be able to be processed in regional nations, IF a neighbouring country is willing to provide a safe space for families fleeing their homeland. But where is a safe haven in the meantime? If Syrians survive massacres and rapes at home, and escape to a regional centre in Lebanon, will they be safe there? Will Indonesia provide a safe regional holding centre?

"When declared to be refugees, they can be safely invited to Australia as part of our total immigration intake." Yes indeed. Security checks are always essential.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - we are certainly in uncharted waters ... but totally agree we should treat all humans as beings and in the way we wish to be treated ourselves. Certainly Britain is a great country with its mix of peoples ... and we've always benefited ... as have other countries.

I posted details re a film I'd seen by Ai WeiWei - the Chinese artist - entitled Human Flow - the post gives more information ... it was quite extraordinary - you may have seen it - if not I know you'd appreciate the views and ideas he expresses ... an amazing man -


I just always try and think ... if the boot was on the other foot - how would I feel ...

Yet I've just learnt about the fishmeal production in Mauritania ... that has destroyed the local fisher way of life ... and they are going north to cross to Europe by sea - if they can find a way across ... humanity - does not help itself. The fishmeal is sent to feed fish stocks elsewhere with no thought as to loss of work, or loss of the fish in the sea ... greed rules today ...

Sorry this was way longer than perhaps necessary - but I'm sure you'd be interested ... cheers Hilary

Deb said...

I didn't know we were on the UN Security Council.

Hels said...


No blogger ever wrote too many comments or comments that were too long :) I live for it.

Not uncharted waters. I was so proud of Britain when Catholic King Louis XIV expelled half a million Protestant Huguenots in a very short time, keeping their assets in France :( Netherlands, Protestant Germany and other Protestant countries took a lot of these refugees, but Britain took in _hundreds of thousands_. These Frenchmen were given their own churches in London and Canterbury, were taught English and were welcomed into the silk, silver and decorative arts guilds.

Surely we have learned since then that desperate refugees must be saved from certain death or starvation.

Hels said...


The Australian Government report on our Security Council (non-permanent) membership was glowing:
"Australia established a strong reputation as an active, pragmatic and outcomes-focused Member of the Council. This hard-fought and well-earned reputation was based on our ability to build consensus for action to address highly complex security issues and in support of our direct national interests.

Australia put the need to protect civilians and establish robust humanitarian responses to conflicts at the forefront of decision making by the Council. Australia worked to make peacekeeping missions mandated by the Council more effective.

Australia brought about ground-breaking initiatives on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, strengthened international cooperation to counter terrorism and improved the implementation of sanctions. It led the Council in managing the security transition in Afghanistan and worked tirelessly to bring the appalling human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the Council. Australia authored and led negotiations on a resolution on small arms and light weapons, the first of its kind".

Hmmm no mention of saving the lives of asylum seekers who can never return to their homelands.

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Hels said...


Thank you. I hope you enjoy the history blogs.

Andrew said...

Hels, massacres and rapes surely qualify anyone as a refugee. But you must concede there is also a queue of economic refugees. I don't blame them for wanting to come to Australia to live. I certainly would be in the line up. It is a difficult thing to talk about, along with acting with compassion but also practical common sense.

Hels said...


I went to a dinner on Sunday night, a day after this post appeared. I was the only person out of 12 born in Australia, but the other 11 talked about arriving in Australia sometime between 1950-1959. They had all escaped dire poverty in their own countries, and so were economic refugees, as you say. But they all stayed in a tent camp for up to 3 years, waiting for a visa to one country or another. Their parents never got over the pain, but these post-war children did.

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...


thanks for the comment, but you didn't mention the desperate refugees.