Responding to the tsunami refugee crisis

January 19, 2005

Sarah Stephen

Rebuilding the countries affected by the tsunami is a monumental task that will take many years. Some communities will never be the same — the landscape along the coastal regions has been permanently altered.

The 15-metre salt water waves had a toxic effect on coastal farmlands, leaving the soil sterile. Scores of rice farmers will be among those unable to plant successful crops for much of the next 10 years.

In Sri Lanka, wells were filled with salt water, destroying the primary source of precious water for millions of poor villagers. It will take three years to flush out the wells and make them safe to use again.

Australia — one of the richest countries in the world, with a booming economy and a relatively small population — should give large amounts of unconditional aid to help these devastated communities rebuild. However, we can play perhaps a more significant role in opening our doors to tens of thousands of refugees from the affected countries.

On January 4, Indonesian ambassador to Australia Imron Cotan ruled out the need for Australia to take refugees from Aceh. He told ABC Radio: "I do not believe that taking them into Australia would help because basically they will be distressed to see a new environment ... They do not speak ... the Australian language and they are not accustomed to our lifestyle in Australia, so I believe it is better for them to stay in their community."

Cotan's attitude is extremely patronising and we shouldn't be fooled into accepting the argument that refugees are "culturally" better off in their own country, even if it means they spend five years in a refugee camp and their children die from water-borne diseases.

There are more than 5 million people across a dozen countries who have lost their homes and livelihoods in this enormous human catastrophe. If rich countries don't offer to take a significant number of refugees from Aceh and Sri Lanka, we shouldn't be shocked if refugees take matters into their own hands and start to come to Australia by boat.

To avoid forcing refugees to contemplate such a risky journey, Australia should immediately offer to take in 100,000 refugees over the next 12 months — matching our immigration intake. The outpouring of sympathy and solidarity, and private donations to Australian aid organisations of over $190 million by January 14 indicate the likelihood that tsunami victims will be welcomed into our communities.

The Democrats and the Victorian Tamil Cultural Association have called for the resurrection of temporary safe-haven visas — which were used to admit thousands of Kosovar and East Timorese refugees in 1999 — to bring refugees to Australia until their home countries improved.

Others have warned against temporary visas. Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone "may well say that we'll help the tsunami victims, but if that means we'll just offer temporary visas, we withhold an opportunity for those who would arrive to truly get on with their lives", Jack Smit from Project SafeCom said on January 7. "Many of the tsunami victims have [had] their places of residence obliterated forever, and they should be offered permanent places, together with their families, if they choose this."

The safe-haven visa gave the government the legal means to send 4000 Kosovar and thousands of East Timorese refugees home again when it decided conditions were safe. Refugees who came to Australia on a temporary safe-haven visa were prohibited from applying for permanent status.

The government decided in August 1999 — just four months after their arrival, and at the start of the northern winter — that it was "safe" for Kosovar refugees to return.

The safe-haven visa paved the way for the November 1999 introduction of temporary protection visas for unauthorised boat arrivals, a huge step backwards for refugee protection in Australia and a source of psychological torment for the 8000 or so refugees who have endured life on TPVs since then.

Temporary visas are far more dislocating than permanent visas, which allow refugees to rebuild their lives in a new country while offering them the option to return to their home country rather than forcing them to go back.

Arguing that compassion should start at home, a January 5 media release by Sydney's Refugee Action Coalition highlighted the government's hypocrisy in announcing its willingness to consider taking Sri Lankans affected by the tsunami as humanitarian refugees, while Sri Lankans already here are being overlooked.

There are 500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on bridging visas and 14 in Baxter detention centre. RAC is calling for all to be granted permanent residence.

The millions of refugees created by the tsunami are the first of many more environmental refugees that will be created in the coming decades. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson pointed out on January 12: "Many of the areas devastated by the South Asian tsunami ... are among those scientists say are the most endangered by global warming."

Jackson pointed to the need for rich countries to acknowledge the "slow-motion tidal wave of global warming fuelled by greenhouse gas emissions".

Studies estimate that a one-metre rise in sea level could create up to 150 million refugees in low-lying countries. The Maldives, three metres above sea level at its highest, might go completely under. Bangladesh could partially disappear if sea levels rise the projected 35cm in the next 50 years.

Tanveer Ahmed, a Sydney psychologist, pointed out the Online Opinion website on January 13: "The global environmental think-tank, the World Watch Institute, estimates there are 10 million people who have been left destitute from the effects of deforestation, soil erosion, floods or cyclones. This makes them the largest class of refugees, greater than those fleeing from war." Ahmed points out the UN refugee convention's failure to recognise these people as refugees.

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.
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