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Issue #1604      July 31, 2013

Culture & Life

Dog-whistle politics

During each year of the last several years of the 1970s and of the early years of the 1980s up to 30,000 refugees arrived by boat to Australia. There was relatively little public fuss about this as at the time there was bipartisan political support between Fraser and Whitlam. However three decades later hysteria has gripped, generated by the Howard years and all of a sudden we have both the major political parties in bipartisan support of punitive measures to “stem the tide of boat people.”

Galang Refugee Camp, on Galang island, Batam, Indonesia.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s moral leadership was demonstrated by the then government in assisting Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. My sister-in-law, just a baby, came from Vietnam on one of those boats, which nearly sank.

Children who arrived from these countries without the English language and without possessions came to my school. I became friends with some of them. One of them, a landmine victim, profoundly dragged his right leg.

In this period, the Fraser government minister Andrew Peacock led the way, telling the Prime Minister’s Cabinet he would resign if people fleeing Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killing fields were not assisted.

It was not all perfect then either with forms of off-shore processing, or rather regional collaboration – at Galang camp in Indonesia and at Hei Ling Chau camp in Hong Kong. These were places with horrific conditions where people died. However, there were UNHCR personnel at the camps to assist with resettlement. Many were resettled in Australia because Australia processed claims faster than other countries such as Canada and the United States.

Galang Island refugee camp opened in 1979 and was closed in 1996 after all the refugees were resettled. It had two camps – one for newly arrived refugees and another one for those approved, who received English classes and cultural information about the country of their resettlement.

Babies were born in Galang and people died there. Alongside the UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children maintained a near daily presence.

Hong Kong’s little rocky island of Hei Ling Chau maintained a closed camp with razor wire. Many of the refugees broke down, many died. However, Hong Kong refused to push boats of refugees back out to sea, as on occasion the Thais did.

There are patterns of global movements of refugees which explain boat arrivals – nothing else does. People risk their lives to get to other countries in order to flee persecution and other dangers. Half the asylum seekers to Australia in the last 15 years have been Hazaras fleeing the Taliban.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr has done a great disservice to the national consciousness, as bad as anything former Prime Minister John Howard did. Minister Carr described Iranian refugees fleeing to Australia as economic migrants. He has no evidence of this; however he is working to harden the attitudes of Australians against these people.

More than 90 percent of all asylum seekers who have come to Australia have been approved as bona fide refugees.

The diabolical myth-making is disgraceful. The ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit. Take the argument that there are queues – it is as if someone should stand in a Woolworth’s checkout line instead of running for their life. And the argument that everyone is destroying their passports – most of them can never secure such documents. Both sides of government are responsible for misleading the national consciousness.

Our government needs to demonstrate moral leadership. For a country like Australia, resettling 30,000 or 40,000 people a year is not an issue, and it never has been. It is only a trickle of humanity. Dismantling detention centres and instead assisting people into community living and onto refugee visas should take less than 30 days from their arrival. By ridding Australia of the blight of detention centres nearly four billion dollars will be saved each year, which could be divested instead to regional collaborations or to so much else.

I have interviewed more than one hundred former immigration detainees and the effect of prolonged detention is brutal, and for many of them the mental and physical meltdowns from this prolonged incarceration and obvious maltreatments have left them with clinical disorders and multiple traumas and disabled them from the prospect of the normal community living most of the rest of us enjoy.

The Australia we should know and be proud of is the one that resettles as many asylum seekers as it can and wisely spends its billions of dollars on working for humanity and not against it. The number of asylum seekers coming to Australia is small, and they run only in parallel to global refugee patterns, they run in accordance to nothing else – there are no other so-called push- and pull-factors. The dog-whistle politics needs to cease.

* Gerry Georgatos is a human rights advocate and PhD researcher in Australian Custodial Systems.  

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