Last evening, on a social media site, I was part of a debate around the left's collective outrage in response to the government's asylum seeker policy and "we've stopped the boats" claim, a triumphant claim immediately followed by the arrival in Australian waters (we think, since the government won't talk about it) of two boats carrying around two hundred refugees. This was written by one participant in the discussion:
Ok... So to clarify...are we speaking about illegal asylum seekers...eg boat arrivals? If we are I find it interesting that what you are all advocating is an open door immigration policy where right of passage is granted to the highest bidder. After all, that is exactly what is happening is it not? Those that can afford it pay for illegal passage to Australia whilst those that can't afford it rot in some cesspool of a refugee camp somewhere while they wait for their spot. Hardly sounds fair to me...
First, I don’t know anyone credible who is advocating an "open-door immigration policy". No one - not Labor, not the Greens, not even the asylum seeker advocates I’ve spoken with. What a great many are saying is that the off-shore processing should end, on-shore expedited processing should occur forthwith, and that having unattended kids (or in fact any kids at all) in detention is unacceptable. Now, Labor has disappointed many by not voting against offshore processing, myself included. But you can oppose the govt’s approach without aligning with the ALP’s approach.
The greater concern at this stage is that it seems clear that the government is using the harshness of the conditions under which asylum seekers are detained as a disincentive to seeking asylum. This suggestion seems to be reinforced by the stern tenor of the recently-leaked Scott Morrison video message to detainees on Manus. This is further reinforced by the incidents mentioned above - the kids taken from school, and the detainees at Villawood being moved in the early hours of the morning, clearly to avoid detection and protest from concerned citizens.
Furthermore, we have an Immigration Minister who is saying that unless a person's chances of being tortured or murdered on their return are 50% or higher, they'll be returned, all whilst not telling us anything about the operations being undertaken by our navy in our name, while boats of up to 150 people, down to 20ml of water per person after two weeks at sea, and with sick and vomiting kids on board, basically disappear. In other words, policy and politics trumping kindness and compassion. Not to mention “there are no boats to report” despite several journalists and advocates having actual conversations with people on board those boats. Unless they’re all lying, but this govt is daily proving itself less and less worthy of being believed, so for now (and until proven otherwise) I’m going to throw my hat in with the Fairfax journalists and refugee advocates.
Oh, and meanwhile, we have a prime minister who, in a piece of political sleight-of-hand that would make Howard and Reith proud, is quite happy to draw a loose but clear connection between jihadists and boat arrivals, despite having no evidence of any such link, in the most cynical of dog whistling exercises.
And finally, we have the oft-repeated “all they’re doing is paying Indonesian people smugglers while the real refugees are languishing” line trotted out by Bolt/Devine/Jones etc. Which might have some merit, except that one of the two boats from the weekend originated not in Indonesia, but India, and according to the "passengers" spoken to, no people smugglers were paid.
So is it fair? Of course it’s not fair. No one is saying it’s fair, and no one is saying it’s easy. But when you’re genuinely scared for the life of yourself, and your kids, you’ll do anything. You don’t give a shit about fair. So the onus is on Australia, as the more fortunate party in this drama, to find a way to handle things that doesn’t require punishing people who have done nothing wrong apart from “jump" a non-existent queue, and find a way to get their families to relative safety.
Once again, no one is saying it’s simple, and no one is saying that it’s fair. But do we have to be cruel? Or is that the actual point? Because there must be a better way than that. Doesn’t there?