Why you shouldn’t panic about a refugee crisis in Australia

Refugee and asylum seeker rally in Melbourne. Source: Flickr by Takver

By Associate Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer

Associate Professor will address a community event tomorrow The Truth About Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Demystifying the Myth. What Can We Do? in her capacity as a member of the Refugee Council of Australia National Board.

The event is organised by Sts Peter and Paul Parish Social Justice Committee – Bulimba in Collaboration with the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane

In talking to the general public about the state of Australian law regarding refugees and asylum seekers, I always have one key message, inspired by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Source: Louie.Land
Source: Louie.Land

The way refugee issues are debated in Australia is very extreme — framed as harshness as the only alternative to anarchy and being overrun by the world’s poor. This is simply not the case and I have the numbers to prove it. Australia does not have a refugee crisis, and people arriving on boats are not a threat. We can manage the boat arrivals in a sensible and legal manner while working to give desperate people better alternatives to that risky journey. ‘No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’ says the world of Syrian refugees — but not us.

Even yesterday Prime Minister Turnbull answered Bill Shorten’s question on releasing children from detention that the policy was “tough”, even “harsh”, but “people had died” under previous policies. He said offshore detention, third country resettlement, and boat turnarounds, had saved lives. This is law through Alice’s looking glass indeed, considering people have died on Manus on our watch, have been sexually assaulted on Nauru and we have no way of knowing the fate of those on turned back boats.

Refugee law in Australia has been so constantly amended , challenged and avoided by policy measures as to have become farcical. Malaysia, Timor, Pacific – our solutions are always elsewhere and never last. But in many ways, all our byzantine machinations mean very little under international law, where it is protection from non-refoulement, basic human rights and durable solutions which count.

The 1951 Refugee Convention is complex and imperfect, and yet noble. It has stood the test of time far better than expected for a treaty designed to deal with Jewish refugees after WWII. But it was never meant as a substitute for political solutions to conflict and mass displacement. It cannot deal with the impact of climate change. And the Convention only has value where its principles are respected by states who sign it.

There is a middle path between our current policies and open borders, and it is both sensible and in our long term selfinterest, and that is to work with UNHCR and our neighbours. We should reject the framing of deaths at sea versus inhumane offshore detention as the only two alternatives. This framing is neither truthful nor lawful. Holding to a human rights and humanitarian approach is the moderate path because it is the globally agreed standard. Working with our neighbours for the long term is the only path. What Australia is doing in militarising our asylum policy is considered by most of the world an extreme overreaction to our situation and damaging our reputation.Most see it as racism or Islamophobia. This ad in particular, featuring our Chief of Defence Force no less, is a diplomatic disgrace.

We just spent $55 million on FOUR refugees in Cambodia in the middle of a ‘budget crisis’, at the expense of investing in a regional plan on people movements, or directed aid. We have spent the whole operating budget of UNHCR on a few terrified people on Manus and Nauru while the rest of the world is focused on one of the worst refugee flows from Syria in global history. While the world wept over the photo of baby Aylan Kurdi, we were preparing to send traumatised kids back to indefinite detention, and only doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne have taken a stand. As a humanitarian, these facts appal me.

There are durable solutions possible for refugees and they are certainly not easy to implement. But the world, and Australia, has done it before. The unilateral policies Australia is pursuing now are unsustainable if there is a real surge in numbers. And heaven help us if Australians ever need protection elsewhere.

Featured photo from Flickr.com and taken by Takver