A lot of people have the wrong idea about refugee protection: where it comes from, what it involves, etc.

Before the second World War, people facing persecution in Germany fled to any country they could reach: if they had family in other countries, that helped.  But they had very few rights.

Before WWII, the voyage of the St Louis showed us what was at stake.

In May 1939, a ship called the St Louis left Hamburg, carrying 900 Jewish refugees.  Its captain was Gustav Schroeder.  The St Louis was denied access to every port it approached, and eventually it had to return to Europe, despite the efforts of Captain Schroeder.  More than half the refugees on the St Louis ultimately perished in concentration camps.

In light of the current political attitudes in Australia, it is worth noting that Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler.  Those countries who denied the St Louis the right to land might look back now and ask whether their decision was a policy success or a humanitarian tragedy.

After WWII, as the world drew breath in horror at what had happened to the millions of people who could not escape persecution, two major international instruments were prepared and adopted:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948), and
  • The Refugees Convention (1951).

The UDHR starts with a preamble which captures some essential points:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, …”

Article 14 of the UDHR says this:

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution…”

And the central obligation under the Refugees Convention is in Article 33:

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler“) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…”

The combination of the two provisions means that a person is entitled to seek asylum, and an asylum seeker who arrives in a country which has signed the Refugees Convention cannot be “refouleddirectly (by returning them to the country they have fled) or indirectly (by sending them to a country which has not signed the Refugees Convention and which can’t be prevented from returning them to the country they have fled).

The point of this is to share the burden of refugee movement, so refugees will not be forced into countries immediately adjacent to trouble spots.

It is often said that there are about 80 million refugees in the world today. Australia’s reaction suggests that we fear they will all try to come here.  A couple of important points: only about 20 million of them are on the move: the rest ire internally displaced in their country of origin.  but even if all 80 million were on the move, the world’s population is about 8 billion.  That means that just 1% of the world’s population are refugees.  If we were all true to the UDHR, every country would accept an increase of its population of 1%.  But Australia went hysterical when a record number of 25,000 boat people arrived her in 2012: that’s just one tenth of one percent of our population!

Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum has been characterised by increasing cruelty, and this is explicitly to deter other people from seeking asylum here: we make the idea of seeking asylum in Australia look even worse than facing persecution at home.  some politicians say that our cruelty to boat-people is an expression of concern that they may drown in their attempt to cross from Indonesia to Australia.  They are lying when they say it.

Let’s be very clear about this: every death at sea is a tragedy.  No-one wants to see refugees die in their attempt to escape persecution, but the often-recited concern about refugees drowning is just hypocritical propaganda.  Let me be plain about this: when politicians like Abbott and Morrison and Turnbull and Dutton say they are worried about refugees drowning on their way to Australia, they are lying: they are deceiving the public.  If they were genuinely concerned about people drowning, they would not punish the ones who don’t drown.

Morrison as PM brags about “stopping the boats”.   But remember when he was Immigration Minister: he turned boats back, and denied us any information about the people on those boats: it was an “on-water matter”.  Let’s be clear about this: If a person drowns after their boat has been turned back, we aren’t allowed to know about it.  If a person chooses to escape by travelling North instead of South, and if they drown in the Mediterranean, we won’t hear about it.  And if they decide to stand their ground and their persecutor kills them, they’re still dead, just as if they had drowned.

Our politicians claim to be saving lives by stopping the boats, but it’s just a cynical way of winning votes while inflicting cruelty and misery on desperate people.

Oh, and just in case you missed it, our mistreatment of refugees in Manus Island and Nauru costs billions of dollars a year, and it’s costing us our reputation as a decent country.  Remember in June this year then-Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said:

“It’s essential that people realise that the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion…”

So we are now  country where a senior Minister of the Crown can argue against compassion.  Even a few years ago, that would have been unthinkable.

So here’s an alternative policy, which shows a bit of compassion:

  • Shut down offshore processing: it’s needlessly cruel and expensive.
  • Assume the boats will start arriving again (far from certain, but assume it)
  • Initial detention of unauthorised arrivals, to enable health and security checks to be carried out;
  • Initial detention to continue for no longer than one month, unless a judge is satisfied in a particular case that continued detention is reasonably necessary;
  • At end of initial detention, release into the community on an interim visa, pending determination of protection visa application.  The interim visa would include conditions which:
    • allowed the asylum seeker to work;
    • allowed full Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
    • Required the asylum seeker to live in  specified regional or rural area;

Conditions might, if thought appropriate, include wearing an electronic bracelet to permit the wearer to be tracked.

Even if every asylum seeker stayed on full Centrelink benefits (which is highly unlikely, give that they are mostly courageous and motivated), all the Centrelink allowance would be spent in the ailing economy of whatever regional area the visa required the asylum seeker to live in.  After all, when you have paid rent, food and clothes, there’s not much left over.  And right now we are spending about $650k per refugee per year keeping them in hellish conditions in Manus and Nauru.