This week, from the 14th to the 20th of June, is Refugee Week. A time to acknowledge the plight of refugees and the good they can do if we help them.
On Sunday, I went to an event in my hometown. It was a public forum discussing how we as a community could “Welcome the Stranger” in light of the fact that my hometown in late 2013 was declared a “Refugee Welcome Zone”. It is a symbolic gesture with practical implications. Many things were discussed at the forum. There were two keynote speakers, two real stories from refugees and a discussion panel.
I took notes of the speeches and discussion. Over the next few days the summaries of those notes will form the basis for some writing on the blog.
Firstly, refugees are an opportunity for us; their being welcomed is a human right for them and responsibility for us.
It is that simple.
However, the debate – particularly in Australia – is one of the most toxic and complicated issues. Finding the best solution is difficult; neither hostility nor simplicity are helpful to it.
Factual overview of the Asylum Seeker ‘Issue’:
Given by the first keynote speaker, human rights lawyer Daniel Webb (*).
The challenge is not domestic (solely Australian) or regional (solely Asia-Pacific) based, but international. There are currently 11+ million refugees in the world. They must go somewhere. Most are hosted in countries close to the conflict (e.g. Lebanon, Kenya).
Australia hosts very few, less than 1%. We are ranked 87th in the world for the amount of refugees hosted compared to GDP per capita.
Over 90% of boat arrivals have been found to be genuine refugees – that is, before past and current governments began fiddling with the process. Given how consistent the “over 90%” rate was before now, we can assume that it is about the same.
They get on the boats to come here because they are people, like you or I, who make decisions by weighing up the risks and benefits for themselves and their families. Getting on an often rickety boat and sailing in treacherous waters towards Australia because it is the least bad option.
They can’t stay at home as they genuinely fear for their life for one of a number of reasons. They can’t get visas to leave via the “normal” route due to Australia’s policies. They can’t stay in Malaysia/ Indonesia/ other transit country as these countries haven’t signed the Refugee Convention so refugees have no rights there. They can’t wait in a ‘queue’ as there isn’t really one. There are no good choices.
Refugees are stuck between a rock and hard place, so why do we punish them for choosing one over the other?
The global migration of displaced persons has occurred for many years. After WWII, the occurrence of 1 million refugees prompted the formation of the United Nations Refugee Convention. The articles of this Convention can be stripped down to two promises:
1. Governments cannot penalise refugees who arrive on their borders without permission.
2. Governments must protect those refugees who genuinely need it.
Australia signed the Convention over sixty years ago. Yet our current actions demonstrate that we are violating both key principles. The method of breaching (incarcerating refugees in hellish conditions etc.) also breaches the UN Convention on Torture and possibly others.
The physical conditions of imprisonment are bad; but the worst part is the crushing uncertainty accompanying them.
We must ask: is there are better way?
The resounding answer: YES.
We spend over $3 billion (yes, billion) a year to deter asylum seekers from coming here, which is a fruitless endeavour when you consider (as I’ve already mentioned) how desperate they are. In contrast, the UN has a yearly budget of $167 million to address the causes. I don’t know about you, but something seems seriously wrong with that.
The problem is that there are no safe paths or genuine regional solutions in place, beyond foisting the refugees off onto poorer countries to deal with.
A potential solution (as outlined by Daniel Webb) does exist. It would be hard and long-term, but constructive. That’s what a real solution is.
Four main points to this solution:
1. Work with and fund UN to process refugees (instead of funding detention centres);
2. Improve our refugee intake (we can do better than 13,000/year);
3. Work with other governments to improve conditions for refugees there (setting up the basis of a true regional solution);
4. Encourage other nations to do the same.
Boat arrivals and “deaths at sea” represent a failure. Not of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (eye-roll) but of our inability to address the symptoms of the “refugee problem”.
We need to provide viable options.
In Australia, we have a lot to be proud of. We also have a lot to be ashamed of as well. We must, through action, work towards a better future, where our pride outweighs our shame. There’s no point just complaining; we must act.
Seeking asylum is a human right. Australia isn’t alone in facing a so-called “crisis” of refugees. We’re only a drop in the ocean compared to some, like the thousands trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East, or those trying to go through Mexico to reach the US.
We, sitting in safety, must remember that this tragedy has a human face – many human faces and stories, of real people. We are only a few steps away from becoming a refugee ourselves. Don’t laugh – I’m serious.
Look at the faces and listen to the stories. Remember that, if not for circumstances of birth or past decisions, they could have been you, or your family.
Then, I hope you will do something about it.
Personally, I’m just a young dreamer of a uni student, but I hope that one day my course (Occupational Therapy) will lead me to work with refugees, too. Until then, I’ll keep on doing all I can, through signing petitions, reading and sharing, attending events – and listening.
References (a.k.a writings of like-minded people):
* : http://hrlc.org.au/staff/daniel-webb/