Australians for Just Refugee Programs

Public Forum, Melbourne Town Hall - 22 May 2002

I want first to speak of some of the things we have achieved as a nation and how, in important respects, in recent years, we have betrayed those achievements.

Seven years after the end of the world Depression and while the Second World War had hardly concluded, Arthur Calwell, in a significant act of statesmanship, persuaded the union movement that it was in Australia’s interests to embark, for the first time, on a major and deliberate migration programme, intended to build and transform Australia. This programme was supported by the opposition political parties of the time.

In one major respect the original programme did not meet its expectation. To allay concerns of a socially conservative population and one whose concerns could so easily have been aroused, both the Government and the Opposition of the time said that it was their hope and intention that a majority of migrants would come from the United Kingdom. Despite best intentions, as a consequence of the turmoil of that War and of the great movements of peoples from within Europe, that particular expectation was never realised.

I suggest that that circumstance has in the event been to Australia’s great advantage. The decision to conduct the major migration campaign was in effect a decision to establish a multicultural and diverse Australia, which is now recognised as one of our great strengths.

The original decision of 1946 has clearly brought great change to Australia. We have been taught to learn the policies of tolerance and, through the refugee programmes, of the need for compassion and concern.

People came here from many places. Australia became a land of many ethnic groups and nationalities. A dream of freedom and opportunity.

A further major step was undertaken after the end of the Vietnam War. The Government believed that there was an ethical obligation to provide a safe haven for many of those whom we had supported in what had become a most misguided conflict. In some years over 20,000 a year came to Australia. Over all, over a million and a quarter Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese resettled in the United States, approaching 250,000 in Canada, well over 200,000 in Australia and a very significant number also in France.

A large number of these people went from South Vietnam by boats to what became transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia. As is often the case with refugees and asylum seekers a significant number were also without papers. Both countries cooperated in the programme because they knew of the broad intentions of Australia and the other countries involved.

If we had adopted today's attitude of rejection many of them would have attempted to come here by boat, by people smuggler.

I was speaking to one of these immigrants not so long ago. He had been eight months in Malaysia, where he had arrived by boat. He had then travelled with his family to Adelaide. He was put in an open hostel. He and his family could move freely. People from Adelaide brought clothes for the entire family and toys for the children. He thought this was perhaps the most concerned and compassionate country in the world and considers himself extraordinarily fortunate now to be Australian, but he now asks what has changed and why.

One might have thought that terrible, man-made disasters would not again occur in Europe. That was not to be. After the end of the Cold War, the imperatives that held Yugoslavia together started to fragment. The European Union called a meeting for the Union to determine policy in relation to the problems in Yugoslavia. How could fragmentation be avoided? How could the acceptance of neighbourliness enforced and established by Tito for forty years, continue? Was it possible that it could continue?

Before this meeting took place, Germany unilaterally decided her own policy and announced that if Croatia and Slovenia wished to secede they would immediately be recognised as independent states. This guaranteed the break-up of Yugoslavia and much of the misfortune and hardship that subsequently occurred.

The problems of the Balkans have not been solved by NATO’s intervention but, for our purposes, that is not the point.

People had come to Australia from all parts of the former Yugoslavia. They had become good Australians but some of them, during the conflicts, went back to help their ethnic group. I can remember meeting a young man in the Croatian air force uniform. He was as Australian as any of us here with a thoroughly Australian accent but he was helping his former country. It is of enormous credit to the leaders of the Balkan communities in Australia that they kept their fighting in the Balkans and have not imported it to this country.

This indeed has been typical of the different racial and ethnic groups who now make up the new Australia. They emphasize the importance of priority for Australia as a nation, the imperative of not importing ancient quarrels to their new home and the need to build unity and strength out of Australia’s diversity.

The Balkan conflict may have put the severest test on those principles but the members of the communities came through with great integrity and respect for Australia and made sure that the war stayed in the Balkans.

The Australia I am describing developed values over the best part of 50 years. The policies that made it possible were supported by all the major political parties, these included the official enunciation of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism underlined the strength we gained from our diversity. It also emphasised the primacy of Australian values.

Our current policies and attitudes to refugees stand in stark contrast to the approach Australia adopted, beginning with Arthur Calwell and continuing for nearly fifty years. Through this period, any of the political parties could have played politics with immigration policies. If Australians had been asked to vote on a major immigration programme only seven years after the world Depression when tens upon tens of thousands of ex servicemen were waiting to be demobilised, they would have voted against the programme and Australia would have been the poorer.

If one had asked the people of Melbourne whether they wanted Melbourne to become the largest Greek city outside of Greece, they would have said No with a resounding majority. Now that it has happened, Melbourne is proud of the fact and Australia is much better off as a consequence of that migration. If any of the political parties had tried to make politics over the resettlement of the Indo-Chinese in the seventies and eighties, Australians would have found it difficult to support the policy. But the political parties were united in the policy and Australians accepted the policy as right for the nation.

How is it that both political parties were able to remove themselves from these attitudes and remove themselves from leadership of the nation and how is it that they both became united in the policies of rejection? Is it that the polls were read before the event? Did they say that this was too tough, they would accept the polls and forget the task of leadership? Could anyone really believe that a few thousand Afghans, including large numbers of women and children, could be a threat to the integrity, to the sovereignty of this nation? Did we not know and understand that anyone who is ultimately allowed to stay here, stays as a result of decisions made by Australians from within Australian institutions? Thus all people who become Australians have done so with the express approval of our sovereign authorities.

How did we change? Why did we change? Why did both major political parties abandon leadership and reverse the policies which Australia had implemented so successfully for so many decades?

It is our task to reverse that attitude and to re-establish Australia as a compassionate and humane society

Australia’s current policies are often attacked because they offend international agreements, which we helped draft and supported. They offend sections of the Convention on Refugees and on the Rights of the Child but we need to look at current policies on the basis of Australian values because they offend every decent fibre of our being. They offend every idea of a fair go. They offend the basic principle that we should do to others what we would like done to us.

The Government has attracted support by playing on insecurities, by emphasizing difference, by exaggerating numbers and by claims that in the event were totally untrue.

There is much insecurity in the world at the present time. Many of those insecurities are shared by Australians but those insecurities do not relate to asylum seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat. There are great insecurities as a result of economic globalisation and the failure of anyone to spell out where that process will end. That insecurity should be directed at government and not at a few thousand would-be refugees.

Concern for the future has been manipulated to expand people’s fears. This was especially so after September 11.A Minister claimed that the boat people could contain terrorists, but terrorists fly by Qantas and probably first class, and with papers that are well prepared. They would not risk their time on dangerous boats, nor would they risk some years’ detention in camps whose prime purpose is to be as unpleasant as possible, even cruel to inmates known by number.

Who would have thought that Australia in the year 2002 could hold some thousands men, women and children in prison without charge and without trial? The Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular, says that children should not be arbitrarily imprisoned, but they are. Should we let them out of their prison because of that Convention of the Rights of the Child, or should we let them out on the basis of what we in Australia believe to be reasonable, believe to be fair? The imprisonment of men, women and children, without charge, without any trial, for an indeterminate but lengthy period, should offend every basic value for which this country has stood.

Why should we be the only western country to have compulsory, mandatory, non-reviewable detention, places surrounded by razor wire, where inmates are known by numbers and not by their names? Why should such places be put in remote and inhospitable parts of Australia? We know the Governments reasons The Government and Opposition should take no pride in the fact Australia’s name worldwide has been seriously damaged.

While what is done in our name offends basic international agreements, our greater concern should be that it offends basic principles that have for long been supported by Australians in our own society. The Government and the Opposition did not fall into this policy blindly. They have planned for it and prepared for it. The boat people have been demonised. They have been termed queue jumpers when there is no real queue. They have been accused of being wealthy, of being economic migrants. They have been accused of abusing their children and throwing them overboard. They have suffered the great crime of being branded as different and from a different religion.

These images have been built in people’s minds over years when what in fact we have been dealing with is people fleeing a most terrible regime, where girls could not be educated and women were not allowed to work and which victimised minority groups. The most terrible regime, which the United States and its allies has gone to war to destroy.

Is it surprising that people from Afghanistan, desperate at the persecution in their midst, sought to flee to safer lands. Australians have been taught to believe that they are non-people, whom we are justified in treating as one of Kipling’s lesser breeds without the war.

We have been told that the Government and Opposition are determined to defend our borders but a few thousand men, but largely women and children from Afghanistan or Iraq, offer no threat to our integrity or to our borders. There is no question that Australia does and should exercise her sovereign right to determine who can come and stay here. But our humanitarian obligations to those seeking that right are clear. Until we have made a sovereign decision about whether they may stay or not, we should treat them in line with our international obligations, in line with the great Australian philosophy based on a fair go, with basic human decency. In short, we should treat them as human beings.

The problem in Australia is small compared to equivalent problems in Europe. At times over 400,000 asylum seekers a year have travelled to different countries in Europe. About 100,000 to Britain and around 80,000 to Germany. European states have all managed to handle the issue with a degree of humanity, compassion and respect which has escaped the Government and Opposition in Australia.

Britain has just introduced a new and so-called tough regime for asylum seekers. The British Government is establishing three centres to hold 3,000 asylum seekers at any one time. Residents will expect to have their claims resolved within six months. A network of 15 centres could support about 22,000 of the 100,000 asylum seekers who come to Britain each year. That means that the great bulk of asylum seekers will still be within the community. At these new centres being established in Britain, residents will expect to sleep in the centre but are otherwise allowed to be out and in the community. Britain’s new ‘tough’ regime will be gentle and benign in comparison with Australia’s current practice.

In other areas we could again learn from Britain. In October last year, four Iraqi Kurds challenged their 10-day detention at Oakington. The lower court held that the detentions did violate Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights relating to the liberty and security of a person. The Court of Appeal reversed that decision and held that the detentions were lawful, primarily because they were of very limited duration (seven to ten days). If that were the condition in Australia, as identity and criminality were checked, we would have a benign system indeed.

The British take seriously the view that detention should only be to establish identity, health and security checks. There is no reason to reject detention for these purposes. Extended, mandatory, non-reviewable detention is another matter.

Australia has attracted attention by her policies. International institutions, UNHCR, Mary Robinson as High Commissioner for Human Rights, have been concerned. Mary Robinson’s personal envoy, a former Indian Supreme Court Chief Justice, will be hear at the end of this month to visit Woomera. We have travelled a long way in the last 3-4 years. Who would have thought Australia would be virtually under investigation on such an issue.

Our history of cooperation with international bodies is long. Doc Evatt played a key role in the formulation of the UN Charter, and since the League of Nations Australia has been a keen advocate for a fairer and more just international system. The Refugee Convention of 1951 was partly the result of active involvement by Australian Government representatives and was signed in 1954 by the Menzies Government. This convention prohibits the imposition of penalties on those seeking asylum for arriving in an irregular manner without papers or permission.

There are no strict guidelines arising from this convention on the manner in which people must flee persecution. The 650,000 refugees, who have settled in Australia since the Second World War, know that you flee persecution by whatever means and often without papers. In the past these people have been welcomed.
When the policy of compulsory, mandatory, non-reviewable detention is ultimately abandoned, we will have ended a period of shame for Australia worldwide.

There is a better way.

European countries, which have a far larger problem in a more densely populated part of the world than Australia, have given us some leads.

The new policies being put in place by the United Kingdom offer one set of alternatives. The older practice of having people in hostels, with open access to the community is one to be much commended. The community was not in peril when those policies were in place, why should it be in peril today? At present the Government is not prepared to discuss an end to mandatory detention. This is our task and the road will be difficult, but I can guarantee not nearly so difficult as the road that has been travelled by each one of those men, women and children in detention centres today. We need discussions, we need policies, we need viable alternatives and it is encouraging to see so many here tonight who believe in, and are prepared to work for, a better way.

We need new policies in Australia.

We need new policies internationally to tackle these issues worldwide. Australia could once have led such a campaign with head high. When will we be able to do so again?