Sir Kevin the Saviour has delivered us from the teeming hordes of infidels! Really! He has outsourced our soul! No longer will we have to worry about dirty foreign refugees making perilous journeys to our shores because he has made a deal with Papua New Guinea so all people coming to Australia by boat without a visa will now be sent to PNG for processing, and if found to be genuine refugees they will be settled there instead of here. Now you might think that this might possibly violate some parts of the UNHCR refugee convention. Fear not. For his next trick Sir Kevin will attempt to change it. Really. Because he is second in power to God (he’s working on that too).
I like to think the best of people. I know I’m over-generous in that way. I actually believe that most Labor politicians are actually there because they want to make a positive difference in Australia. I think most of them are going along with Sir Kev on this issue for two reasons: because this extreme action might possibly stop deaths at sea, and because it undermines Tony Abbott’s facile “stop the boats” mantra. Oh and also because they’ve made their bed by putting King Kev back on the throne and now they have to lie in it.
So will this action stop the boats? Well that remains to be seen. There are a few hurdles to be jumped in the legal arena first. And it is very difficult to see how PNG could actually provide safe refuge for middle-eastern refugees. Even if Australia was to build new accommodation to house the new refugees, it would likely be of a better standard than most ordinary PNG homes. That’s hardly likely to make the new citizens safe in their new homeland. I suspect most of the Labor politicians are hoping we don’t have to find out, and that no-one will have to be settled in PNG because the boats will stop. I hope they are right.
What worries me most about all this is – what does this say about Australia? Land of the fair go. Why does chanting “stop the boats” get votes? Do we really want Australia to be a giant gated community? A castle surrounded by a big moat. A sanctuary from the rest of the world where we can swan around like Marie Antoinette in her finery and decadence and tell the rest of the world they can eat cake. Because that worked out well for her.
One of the drawbacks of 24-hour on-line news availability is that there is news everywhere you look, and most of it is bad news. Violence, injustice, war and poverty every time you switch on your favourite electronic device. People doing bad things everywhere you look. It’s frightening. And it is challenging for those of us fortunate enough to live where we are safe and warm and well-fed.
On our news today there is the ongoing war in Afghanistan, continuing turmoil in Egypt, violence in the Congo and the war in Syria being described as causing the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide two decades ago. If those refugees try to come to Australia they will find themselves sailing into a political storm that could end in indefinite detention at best or death at sea at worst.
Australians are fiercely divided about how we should respond to people fleeing violence in other countries. As the numbers of people crossing the ocean in leaky boats grows, many dying in the attempt, the issue once again looks set to be a major issue in the upcoming election. Stop the boats. Tow them back. Indefinite detention for those who attempt to come as a deterrent to others. As another boat sinks and more people die, the would-be Prime Minister calls the situation a national emergency. How terrible for us that desperate people come to our doorstep to die. Why don’t they die somewhere else? How dare they remind us of how horrible life can be – elsewhere.
I’m not suggesting we can or should open our borders to anyone who wants to come here. What I would like, however, is for our politicians to stop playing politics with the lives of desperate people. This is not a national emergency for Australia. It is a humanitarian crisis for the world. A crisis that Australia by virtue of geography actually sees only a small part of. Let’s stop the trite slogans, the fear-mongering, the buck-passing, the blaming the other side, the re-traumatising of already traumatised people. Instead let’s have bipartisan policy that acknowledges that we are part of a global community and we have a responsibility to respond to fellow human beings in need. There have always been refugees from somewhere or other and most probably always will be. When the need increases so should our compassion.
There are no easy solutions to the problems that cause people to flee their homelands and there are no easy solutions to the flood of refugees that are a consequence of wars and persecution. If Australian politicians want to “stop the boats” coming to our shores they should be investing energy into working with the rest of the world to find ways to stop persecution happening in the first place, and looking for alternative places to resettle displaced people. Continuing to frame the situation as a “border protection” issue panders to xenophobic fear and hatred within the country and risks the deterioration of relationships with other nations. Above all, it takes the focus away from the central question – how are we going to respond to fellow human beings in need?