NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Richard EganNews Weekly
Why refugees are a soft target
, March 10, 2001
As Australia grapples with the difficult question of refugees and illegal immigrants Richard Egan explains why a blanket approach will not work.
Along with expressing the general anger felt, especially in regional Australia about petrol prices, GST compliance and dairy deregulation One Nation has also been calling on the Government to "get tough on boat people".
Meanwhile Senator Harradine has reacted strongly to a Government response to a Senate inquiry into Australia's refugee determination system. He said he was astonished that the Government had dismissed all 46 recommendations made by the Senate Committee.
Particularly disturbing was the Government's response to the recommendations relating to the case of the Chinese asylum seeker Ms Z.
In July 1997, Ms Z, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, had pleaded with Immigration Department officials to allow her to give birth in Australia, fearing a forced abortion if returned to China.
They had refused her request and seven days later she was subjected to a coerced abortion involving the injection of a substance through her abdomen to poison the baby followed by induced labour and the delivery of a dead son.
The Senate committee described the deportation and forced abortion as "abhorrent and a tragedy" and made specific recommendations that women in a similar situation have their cases specially considered by the Minister for Immigration or a senior delegate "to ensure that the situation of Ms Z never occurs again in Australia".
However, in its response, the Government claimed that existing processes were adequate and that any risk to the woman would have already been assessed as part of the protection determination process.
This claim is simply false, as after the High Court case of A&B it has been law in Australia that women facing forced abortion in China are not refugees. Therefore determining that a woman was not a refugee leaves her at risk of forced abortion if returned to China while pregnant and in violation of the draconian one-child policy.
Senator Harradine concluded:
"The Department of Immigration has innocent blood on its hands. Its pathetic response to the Senate inquiry trivialises the death of the baby and the torture of his mother."
Ms Z came to Australia in November 1994 with 83 other Chinese on a boat code-named Cockatoo. The Chen family, who came on the same boat, were the last Chinese boat people to receive refugee status.
After a record five and a half years behind the barbed wire at Port Hedland they were finally released in May 2000 after the High Court found that their third child, Martin, who was born in detention, was a "black child" under Chinese law subject to persecution and entitled to protection as a refugee under Australian law.
Since 1996 virtually no Chinese boat people have been allowed to apply for refugee status in Australia. They are returned by chartered plane within weeks of arriving. This practice seems to have reduced, if not eliminated, the flow of boat people from China.
However, since mid-1998 an increasing flow of Iraqi and Afghani boat people have been arriving in Australia. In the year July 1999-June 2000 some 4,174 boat people arrived accounting for over 40% of the 10,254 boat arrivals (to 3 January 2001) since 1989.
Unlike the Chinese, Iraqis and Afghanis have been much more successful in gaining recognition as refugees in Australia. The Refugee Review Tribunal is presently overturning unfavourable decisions at the rate of 55.2% for Afghani applicants and 73.1% for Iraqi applicants compared to a rate of less than 3% for Chinese applicants.
Effective from October 1999, boat people who are recognised as refugees under Australian law are only eligible for a three year Temporary Protection Visa. This makes them ineligible for the normal refugee resettlement programs administered by the Federal Government, including initial assistance with housing, English classes and job search assistance.
After the first few busloads of Iraqis and Afghanis - with no English, no money and no contacts - were dropped on the streets of Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne existing charities, State Governments and new volunteer groups have attempted to plug the gaps.
The Temporary Protection Visas also preclude these recognised refugees from applying to bring their families out to Australia. Rather than acting as a deterrent this seems to have resulted in an increase in the number of children being brought on the boats with a consequent increase in the number of children in detention and an increase in the risk of child sexual abuse inherent in keeping children detained with unrelated adult males.
It seems unlikely that in three years time the situation in either Afghanistan or Iraq will be conducive to a safe return of refugees. The most likely outcome is that, just as the Government did with the Chinese students on four year Temporary Protection Visas after the Tiananmen Square massacre, there will be a general grant of permanent residence to all holders of the Temporary Protection Visas.
Those Iraqis and Afghanis finding their way to Australia, usually by land to Syria, Jordan, Iran or Pakistan, then by air to Malaysia and by boat through Indonesia to Australia, are just a small trickle from the flood of a major diaspora. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there were in 1999 over 2.5 million Afghani refugees, mostly in Iran and Pakistan and over half a million Iraqi refugees, mostly in Iran but also in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.
Over 32,000 Iraqis and 23,000 Afghanis applied for asylum in Europe in 1999.
Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, is right in pressing countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria to take more responsibility for providing permanent resettlement for Iraqi refugees. He is also right to co-operate with Malaysia and Indonesia in cracking down on the organised crime syndicates that are profiteering from people smuggling, although as Iranian refugee, Mohammed Al Awadi, has said, to those risking their lives to seek freedom in Australia from persecution in their home countries these criminals appear to be angels.
Since Gough Whitlam's famous remark about the Vietnamese boat people being "the f...ing Balts of South East Asia" - apparently before the ALP mastered the art of ethnic branch-stacking, he thought all these refugees from Communism would vote Liberal - boat people have been favoured as scapegoats or surrogates for Australians' concerns on matters of far wider import than the steady trickle of boat people itself.
Despite Howard's attacks on political correctness it is still not possible to have a full debate on multiculturalism in Australia. Nor is it possible for for the political and media establishment to deal with One Nation as anything but a pariah party. This has left the boat people - precisely because of their vulnerability and defencelessness - as a safe whipping boy.
In a world where displacement of people due to wars, civil unrest and totalitarian governments is likely to increase, including among close neighbours such as Indonesia, Australia needs to develop a more mature approach to handling refugees.
While maintaining our right to control our borders we should look for positive ways to quickly and rapidly process asylum seekers and integrate those we are willing to accept into our communities.
Special programs to direct successful asylum seekers to regional Australia or to involve them in new infrastructure works, as were the displaced persons of post-war Europe, could form part of such an approach.