Australia can welcome refugees

It is amazing how radical believing in the simple notion of welcoming refugees in Australia has become. ABC’s Q&A program on alternatives to detention on October 10 gave some insight into how convoluted the debate on refugees has become.

A number of “compromise solutions” are being put forward but none of them address the worldwide refugee crisis or end Australia’s cruel detention system.

A group of refugees sent an open letter to Jim Molan, the architect of Operation Sovereign Borders, after his appearance on Q&A, giving personal accounts of the suffering the policy he advocates is causing and asking how he dares to claim the moral high ground of stopping the boats to save lives.

They sent it anonymously out of fear of repercussions from the immigration department. Other refugees withdrew questions before the show out of fear of being deported. 

Saving lives at sea by stopping the boats is a myth that successive governments use to justify border protection policies and absolve themselves and their supporters of guilt.

Their solution to stopping the boats — the system of offshore detention centres acting as a deterrent — is literally killing people. Reza Berati, beaten to death by guards; Hamid Khazaei, denied adequate medical treatment; Omid Masoumali, who could not take it any more and self immolated. They are part of a growing list of people, with families, friends and interests in sports and the arts, just like many in Australia, who have been killed by the detention system — a system that Molan claims is saving lives.

His system says “go and die somewhere else”. This is literally the case when boats are turned back to Sri Lanka, as happened earlier this year, where people are put in danger of persecution, torture and death.

Sri Lanka and Australia are both islands. Unless you can get past the airport police of the regime you are fleeing from and onto a plane, your only other option is a boat.

Going through the “proper pathways”, even after being given a UNHCR refugee card, can mean living for years in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia without any work, health, education or other citizen’s rights and at constant risk of being rounded up and deported.

Some in the refugee campaign, such as Frank Brennan, argue the refugee movement should accept boat turnbacks. Stopping the boats, they argue, gives the government a face-saving way to close the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.

This position should be opposed, as it absolves Australia, a wealthy developed nation, of any responsibility to accept refugees.

Molan, like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this month, claimed Australia was a world leader in refugee resettlement and the world’s third largest UNHCR resettlement program.

This is misleading, as only a handful of countries participate in this program. It resettled only 73,000 people worldwide in 2014. That year 252,000 asylum seekers entered Ethiopia, but only 26,000 people came to Australia by boat seeking asylum.

The only facet in which Australia is a world leader is the amount of resources committed to keeping refugees out. Australia spends more than $1 billion a year to run its offshore gulags.

Some argue for a moderate increase in Australia’s quota of refugees as a solution. While Australia can and should dramatically increase its refugee quota, approaching the refugee crisis in terms of quotas is problematic. It creates a system where some claims are prioritised and others are excluded. It risks prioritising claims based on economic expediency, ethnicity or country of origin.

It should also not be seen as an alternative to accepting asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

More than 19 million people were forced to leave their country due to conflict in 2014. Climate change will swell that number to 150 million by 2050. Australia is taking an armed lifeboat approach to this crisis rather than working towards humanitarian solutions.

A humanitarian solution involves looking at why people are fleeing and welcoming those who come to Australia. It involves ending its support for oppressive regimes, such as in Sri Lanka, and not dropping bombs on countries such as Syria.

We can resettle the small number of asylum seekers who arrive via boat just using the billions the government is already spending on deterrence. It is much cheaper to resettle and process people in the community.

This is possible. The public’s response to #letthemstay earlier this year and protests in response to the Nauru Files shows the refugee movement is growing.

The upcoming Welcome to Australia walks on October 22 and Doctors4Refugees protests on November 5 are important next steps in shifting Australia’s policy to one the welcomes refugees.   

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