Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Even if refugees don't die at sea, Australia can do more

This is the face of a desperate man. This survivor of the recent refugee boat sinking off Indonesia, during which over a hundred people died, is recovering at an Indonesian facility in East Java. If you were in his shoes, you too would hold your head in your hands. You would have left your country because of discrimination, torture, harrassment, overwhelming economic hardship - the types of occurrances we cannot easily picture because they were removed from the social equation here a hundred years ago or more as a result of the gradual liberalisation of Australia and the development of our economy. You would have paid a lot of cash to a travel broker, received your visa to Indonesia, and caught a plane. Once on the other side you would have waited in substandard lodgings until you were told to meet up at a certain place at a certain time, when the boat would be ready. You would go there and crowd yourself onto the wooden vessel anticipating days of illness due to rough sea conditions. Then disaster might strike. It has, again.

The past few days have been drearily unedifying for Australians as politicians have tried to parley this latest crisis - it's only a year since the last dreadful sinking, off Christmas Island - into attempts to promote policy. At least on the Labor side. The Liberals have no working policy since the High Court decided to rule out most of our neighbours as suitable stock yards for the dispossessed. Nauru is impossible just as Malaysia is - unless the law is changed. And Labor has welded its reputation to an offshore processing solution, emulating the Howard government which came before due to pressure from a xenophobic public. Public figures from the Right and the Left have tried to pass blame for the disaster to the other side. While the general public looks on, disgusted, the survivors try to make sense of their losses - many would have lost relatives when the boat sank - and have even blamed Australia for keeping its border open. If the border is open, they say, of course they will try to come.

Australia has no choice but to keep its border open to refugees due to its international committments in regard to the treatment of refugees. But beyond this unarguable fact we are lucky because the number of refugees who try to reach Australia by boat each year is small in any international comparison. We're talking about a couple of thousand people desperate - and brave - enough to hazard the crossing from Indonesia to Australian territorial waters. Compared to what they face at home, being locked up in a detention centre in Australia holds no terrors. But how much easier it would be if refugees who arrived in Australia could simply take possession of a visa and then go to live peacfully - and gratefully! - within the community. How much less intemperate would be the tone of the debate. How much higher would Australia's reputational star rise if this were our solution to a problem that will not go away because the conditions that obtain in the countries of origin are simply not tolerable.

Instead of holding his face in his hands, this man could be holding a hamburger, a doughnut, an apple, a book, a bus pass, a new video, a bottle of milk, a newspaper, a pot of coffee. These things we take for granted. They are cheap and readily accessible in Australia. We are lucky. Let's spread that luck around, make friends, and welcome refugees into our society so that they can be treated like people, and not as though they were just a damned inconvenience.

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