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.
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 “refouled” directly (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.
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.