Friday, 13 September 2019

Refugees and racism in Australia: An alternative view

The recent case of a family of Tamils the government chose to return to Sri Lanka, whence the parents had fled (the children were born in Australia), highlights some things about our treatment of refugees that need some cool appraisal. Twitter skews very progressive, so it is not a reliable gauge of public sentiment. The view on Twitter is that the government is doing the wrong thing in trying to send the family back, potentially, to danger. Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, gets described using some pretty hard language.

Then another thing happened. John Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who relocated from his native South Africa to Adelaide 17 years ago, wrote a piece on refugees for New York Review of Books that came out in the 26 September issue.

Coetzee has form on this front however. His 2013 novel, ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, deals with a refugee although the country where the boy ends up is not named. A book with a similar title appeared a few years later and the Wikipedia page for the author says there’s another one coming out next year. I started the first of these novels and didn’t finish it, finding it tendentious. There was no freedom for the reader in the novel’s world, you had to have one opinion about the protagonist and one only.

The NYRB piece is written in the same fashion as that novel. The article runs to over 6000 words and revisits commonplace talking points of the left, linking the country’s refugee policies to the kind of outdated racism that belonged to the colonial period and the first half of the 20th century. And although Coetzee mentions post-war migration, there is not a single mention in the piece of the word “multiculturalism”, which is the policy that has driven migration and refugee since the early 1970s, long before Coetzee chose to make this country his home. After Canada, Australia was the second country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official government policy.

This oversight from a prominent writer is disappointing, but at least Coetzee does one thing good in his piece. He outlines the basis for Australia’s refusal to admit refugees who come here by boat. I’ll include this whole section for the reader’s information.
Australia’s treatment of refugees is constrained by a number of treaties. First among these is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, ratified in 1954 though with a number of reservations. This convention confirms the right (already enunciated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948) of any victim of persecution to seek and enjoy asylum. It also binds signatories not to return asylum-seekers to the countries from which they have fled, a requirement known as non-refoulement. 
While adhering to non-refoulement, Australia has over the years exploited two lacunae in the convention, namely that it does not confer on an asylum-seeker the legal right to enter the country where asylum is sought, and that it does not oblige the country where asylum is sought to grant asylum. Successive Australian administrations have therefore taken the position—validated by Australian courts—that a person who enters Australian territorial waters without the requisite papers is in Australia illegally, whether or not that person has come to seek asylum. 
The question of asylum was repeatedly debated in the United Nations in the 1960s and 1970s. Australia voted alongside its allies the United States and the United Kingdom in favor [sic] of the right of asylum, while consistently reserving its position on the actual admission of asylum-seekers. In 1977 it spelled out that position: Australia “will wish to retain its discretion to determine ultimately who can enter Australian territory and under what conditions they remain.”
So, the Morrison government refusing to accept some people as “refugees” is not, as so many people on Twitter say, illegal. Even Coetzee says it is not, and why would he lie when his purpose is to embarrass the government and, by extension, Donald Trump?

Now, there is one thing which causes a lot of people a lot of anxiety. This is the warehousing of innocent people in unpleasant circumstances on Pacific islands (Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and Nauru). Labor introduced mandatory detention of refugees coming on irregular boats in 1992 and in 2001 the Howard Coalition government opened an offshore camp for them. This was closed in 2008 by Kevin Rudd, the Labor PM, and the boats started to arrive again, so Julia Gillard, who had replaced Rudd, reopened the camp in 2012.

Currently, Labor and the Coalition have offshore processing of refugees as party policy and neither party says it will allow people coming on irregular boats to settle in Australia. The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the Liberals label refugees who come by irregular boats “illegal” and Labor does not. This debate has been going on for almost 30 years and the jury is well and truly in.

Despite what Coetzee says in his article, Australia is very welcoming of migrants. Migration is the biggest component of population growth, even larger than natural increase. Both major parties support multiculturalism and both support high levels of migration. OECD rankings have Australia as the fifth-best country for social mobility behind the Scandinavian countries, even despite the poor performance on these terms of the Indigenous population here, so it’s clear that people who move here are able to get good jobs and to keep them.

People who come to Australia have good lives and that’s why they come. And even though there is a right-wing fringe in the community that dislikes foreigners, such people as go to make it up are very much in the minority. Even in the electorates that would be expected to have the highest number of voters choosing One Nation, the party’s share of the vote in elections are usually much lower than either of the majors achieves.

Not all One Nation voters are xenophobes, of course, although a distrust of people from overseas appears to constitute a major part of the party’s ethos. And for that matter even some Greens voters are anti-immigration (since it’s bad for the environment). Many Liberal and Labor voters, furthermore, probably don’t like migrants or having a high level of migration, but despite all this both of the major parties go out of their way, in public, to appeal to communities that have a large proportion of migrants in them.

A bigger issue, of course, is why there are so many dysfunctional polities supplying steady streams of migrants and refugees trying to get visas that allow them to live and work in Australia. Again, Coetzee makes no mention of either of these things in his article. Donald Trump might be stupid and he might be unpleasant and he might be ignorant and he might be narcissistic, but he is right on this point: the caravan of refugees never stops. What are developed nations supposed to do? How to deal with an unceasing flow of want and desperation? Where to put all the people who want better lives? Why are things so bad back home that they have to leave in the first place?

No-one is asking this last question but it is the single-most important question to ask. It’s not enough to blame venal and corrupt leaders. Ordinary people enter government in such countries and when they do they turn out to be just as bad as the ones they replaced. There is probably a reason for this. If you won’t participate in the skimming of funds into your private bank account, the people around you who are doing it will suspect you might dob them in, so they ostracise you if you don’t get involved too. Honest officeholders and accountable institutions seem to be something that you only find in the developed world.

Despite this, Australians give migrants visas and passports, employ them in good jobs, give them home loans and even, in some cases, marry them. Over 50 percent of Australians have at least one parent born overseas. However, irregular boats arrivals are not tolerated because they are messy, they are risky, and because they disadvantage people who try to arrive through more conventional means. This aspect of the character of the Australian people – a sense of fairness – is never remarked on, though it is quite evident, as is the existence of a multitude of reasons why migrants from developing nations could be excluded if the government chose to make that a point to pursue. In fact, the government is very accommodating of people from developing nations. This is because the Australian people are, too.

As for refugees warehoused on Pacific islands, they are a billboard designed to put off others who might try to come on irregular boats. The plight of these people is lamentable and must be regretted, and the government should be trying to find an appropriate solution to it. I have no suggestions to make as to what form such a solution might take but rallying the troops in order to get rid of Trump seems, to me, to be a bit facile. Coetzee, for his part, should be grateful that he has been able to make a new life for himself in Australia, a place free of the endemic crime that mars existence for millions of people in South Africa.


Mike said...

People being 'warehoused'? I think the word you are looking for is 'imprisoned'. But I can see how you arrive at this kind of neutral, dehumanising language. Still, at least you acknowledge that cruelty without end is intended to discourage others is the policy's purpose. (A bit like the old days in London when heads were placed on pike staffs.)

What is Mr Dutton doing with the many, many thousands being people-trafficked or otherwise overstaying their visas when they arrive by plane? Planes yes/boats no? The 'stopping drownings at sea' position is a fig-leaf to cover legislated cruelty. Both sides of politics own this (and no, I am not a Greens voter). Criticising John Coetzee as a South African migrant who has pointed out the inherent cruelty of Australia's immigration policies does not advance your argument – it merely reads as an 'ad hominem' attack. What are the required qualifications for analysing or commenting on Australia's refugee policies?

I am surprised that a student of a prestigious university could be so uncritical and so unsophisticated in his thinking. Yours is not 'an alternative view', merely the position of Australian governments over the past 15 years.

Under the UNHCR Convention on Refugees, to which Australia remains a signatory, it is not illegal to arrive by boat in Australia to seek safety. You can read the document here.

Good luck with your studies.

Matthew da Silva said...

There is nothing in my piece that constitutes an ad hominem attack on Coetzee. He's entitled to his opinions and I'm entitled to mine. It's a free society.