Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Greens alone have a sensible refugee policy

Asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat
face countless dangers.
Not that I normally watch the ABC's Q and A, no. Almost never. But last night I did, coming face to face, again, with the regulation Lib-Lab muppets butting heads across the table, begging to clarify points while quietly snarling at each other like a couple of pit bulls fighting over a piece of rotten meat. The two neat suits. The neatly shaved faces. And there, in the middle, was the 30-year-old Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens dressed in a lacy white blouse with a white jacket, and with dangly green earrings, just basically talking sense on asylum seekers and reminding us to what extent we have lost any perspective in the debate about refugees.

The conservatives have fundamentally lost the plot with their idea to "turn back the boats", a suggestion so toxic (the Indonesians hate it) and stupid (how many more lives do we need to endanger by exposing these barely-seaworthy vessels to longer periods at sea?) that engagement with the Liberal Party is utterly impossible. Labor has taken the Liberals' lead and now promote a policy of coralling refugees in Malaysia. Hanson-Young says the Greens want to increase the intake quota and invest money in the UNHCR so that it can more quickly process applications for asylum. And she's right.

There have been, arriving by boat in Australia from southeast Asia, in total over the past 10 years or so, a few thousand refugees. Almost all of the people arriving in this manner have been found by Australian authorities to be actual refugees, who are escaping social and political conditions in places like Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran that do, indeed, endanger their lives. Let's say 3000 and so stick to the upper end of the scale.

Acting as a foil to Hanson-Young's reasonableness on the panel was Jennifer Hewett from the Australian Financial Review, the financial daily newspaper. If we make it easier for refugees to get in, Hewett said, then the numbers will just increase "exponentially" and we will be flooded with arrivals. Hewett offered no evidence that this would occur and time constraints meant that the debate on the panel took a different direction at this point, so the challenge was not answered. A pity.

But let's step back for a moment and look at some historical precendents for scale. In the 70s and 80s about 137,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia by boat, fleeing persecution and conflict in that country. In 1989 following the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing the Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, gave 42,000 Chinese students visas so that they could stay in Australia legally, and not be forced to go back home to face possible persecution.

Just in these two instances that's about 180,000 arrivals on refugee visas. These foreign nationals assimilated into Australian society and made a place for themselves here, finding jobs, buying property, having children. They contribute measurably to the country and their arrival, once so dramatic, has morphed into mere citizenship.

There were no major social upheavals associated with these arrivals in Australia of large numbers of refugees. So we get a couple of hundred thousand new arrivals, tops? Big deal. We can handle it. So even if what Hewett says is true, then so what? The implication of what she said is that large numbers of refugee arrivals is a bad thing. But is it? I don't think so, and this is why, for me, the only rational asylum seeker policy is being promulgated by the Greens. There is no other political party in Australia offering us a sensible refugee policy at the moment.

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