September 22nd 2001

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Articles from this issue:

STOP PRESS: Who has declared war on the United States?

COVER STORY: Canberra to blame for Ansett's demise

CANBERRA: Asylum seekers bring ill tidings for Beazley and the ALP

COMMENT: Boat people reaction - echoes of the 1970s

NEW ZEALAND: Army caught in political imbroglio

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Send in the counsellors / Good morning, Vietnam

MEDIA: Out of touch with majority sentiment

LETTERS: Tristar: another view

Letter: Poor reception

Letter: Let them stay

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Why East Timor chose Portuguese

TRADE: Lamb exports: where to now?

BUSINESS: Selling wholesome food to Australia's homes

FAMILY: Well-being of families and nation intertwined

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Boat people reaction - echoes of the 1970s

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, September 22, 2001

Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first send crazy. Earthly powers incline to the simpler tactic of demonising the unwanted.

Unfortunately, this has proved a highly effective political tactic, at least in the short term. More unfortunately still, the tactic is not unknown in Australia.

Demonising those considered political nuisances is a way of conditioning people to righteously support, or sit passively by, while other human beings are discriminated against or excluded.

In extreme cases, target groups can be eliminated en masse, by design or neglect. The Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, Khmer Rouge, Taliban, and other ethnic and social cleansers have all cultivated their killing grounds with dehumanising propaganda.

At its worst, the tactic degrades intended victims to less than human status. They are deemed social viruses whose effect on the health and security of the body politic is corrosive. Eradication is presented as the only - and final - solution.

Once the propaganda bites, normal human concern no longer applies. Compassionate feelings no longer inhibit the rational application of policy.

Unfortunately the demonising tactic emerges intermittently in Australian politics, although thankfully not in its extreme form. It exists mainly in the form Australians call "bashing" - e.g., union-bashing, welfare-bashing, refugee-bashing.

When they think it politically expedient, party spin doctors are all too ready to stereotype target groups with the image of their worst minority elements, real or imagined. Trade unionists are depicted as greedy self-seekers, holding the community, business and government to ransom. Social security beneficiaries are no longer ordinary fellow citizens down on their luck, but undeserving "dole bludgers" refusing to take jobs and accept personal responsibility for their problems.

Labor under Whitlam savaged Vietnamese refugees as prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters. Prime Minister Howard and his Immigration Minister Ruddock tar the "boat people" with the same brush as the criminals operating the illegal rackets taking advantage of the homeless and desperate.

The Government's repeated implication is that the illegal asylum seekers are mostly "economic refugees" rather than genuine political refugees trying to escape persecution and terror. They are well enough off to pay sizeable sums to the smuggling gangs to get improper access to Western economic standards.

The Government's favourite term for the boat people is "queue-jumpers". The label diverts feelings away from compassionate concern for the plight of the world's burgeoning frightened and displaced, and switches the focus to indignation and anger over the alleged greed, illegality and impudence of the invaders.

Worse still, these queue-jumpers are allegedly only the tiny advance guard of an uncontrollable horde of others preparing to flood Australia's shores. A crisis is declared - taxpayers' money will be wasted, the economy troubled, and society disrupted.

The strange thing is that all this seems to be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Heavy, largely gratuitous denigration of asylum seekers is totally unnecessary to implement national policy.

Control of borders

Australians overwhelmingly recognise and endorse the need to control entry into Australia. They already expect government to limit intakes to what can be handled decently in the best interests of new as well as old Australians.

If so, where is the need to harden hearts against the world's displaced millions? Does government need to denigrate the desperate in order to keep intakes to a manageable level? It is this incongruity that encourages suspicion that the Government is milking the refugees' plight for its electoral usefulness.

Claims that the boat people are economic rather than political refugees do not readily square with the facts. One-third of all on-shore refugee claims in Australia come from unauthorised arrivals by boats or airlines. Yet after individual investigation and assessment, government feels able to reject only a minority.

Successful claimants are those judged to have a "well-founded fear of persecution". In the 11 months to May 2001, Australian assessing authorities granted protection visas to no less than 85 per cent of Afghan and 92 per cent of Iraqis claimants.

Professor Bob Birrell argues to an extent in the Howard Government's favour ("Why Howard was right", The Age, September 7, 2001):

"The reason for such high success rates is not that the applicants have conclusively demonstrated their claims. Rather, they are given the benefit of the doubt in circumstances where most carry no documentation and where decision makers have no way of determining whether their stories are true. Where there is any doubt, rejection is unlikely in part because the decision would probably be overturned at one of the various appeal levels available to claimants."

Birrell admits, however, that Australia currently has to cope with only about 4,000 claims a year for refugee status by unauthorised boat people and airline arrivals.

The Australian Government has difficulty convincing world opinion that it is facing a national crisis justifying its heavy action. Countries like Britain processed 75,000 asylum applications covering 100,000 people last financial year.

Britain did so without resort to Australian-style privatised outback detention centres, including for children and women.

Commenting on the claims of crisis, Birrell notes that:

"One view is that it is a ‘manufactured' crisis, contrived for political purposes. Another is that the Howard Government's tough line is designed to help sustain public acceptance of its large immigration program (expected to deliver about 105,000 permanent resident visas this financial year, including a 12,000 humanitarian component)."

Part of the growing concern over the immigration program stems from the developing situation in the dense inner urban population of Sydney. Voters in key electorates are disturbed by the threat of violent crime.

While sensitivity over multicultural issues tends to inhibit public discussion, private opinion increasingly blames ethnic, mainly middle-eastern, principally Lebanese gangs.

It is unfair, however, to associate urban crime with the boat people in particular. The ethnic population of inner Sydney derives overwhelmingly from fully processed immigrants, not the "queue jumpers".

If there is a fault, it is in the existing official processes of selection and after care - including economic rationalist cost-cutting of police and other community services.

None of these issues justifies playing down or denying that the world is faced with a genuine, massive and growing humanitarian problem.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark recently noted (The Age, September 7, 2001) that there are an estimated 22.5 million displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers around the world. Nearly four million of these are displaced Afghans like most of the Tampa boat people:

"Afghanistan's civil war and ensuing inter-factional strife have created a desperate situation over the past 20 years.

"Millions of people have left, seeking refuge from horrific abuses, poverty and drought. One child in five will die by the age of five.

"There is an oppressive regime that denies human rights, especially to women."

Let us hope world opinion and increasing numbers of Australians will view with disgust government attempts to scare off asylum seekers by, for example, resorting to reminding them - with a hint of relish - of the sharks, crocodiles, pirates and cyclones that await them en route to Australian shores.

Australia cannot take unlimited numbers. But this neither necessitates nor justifies the denigration of the desperate in the way some of our policy makers are doing.

The decency of Australian society depends as much on its level of concern for the world's suffering as it does on its level of refugee intake.

Australians should contribute - many already are - in all the various ways they can to assist local and international efforts to reduce the causes of the current refugee epidemic and ease the suffering of the displaced.

  • Bob Browning

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