We’re not being swamped by refugees

Photo: Alex Bainbridge

It was a good thing when 14 Labor members of the Western Australian parliament and the federal member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, publicly voiced their disgust that unaccompanied children would be sent to Malaysia as part of the Labor federal government’s refugee swap.

The claptrap used to sell this cruel and illogical farce is deservedly collapsing in on itself.

Federal Labor’s contradictory flip-flopping on this issue has been excruciating to watch. It’s not guided by any rational policy making, but political imagery.

It is about appearing “tough” on asylum seekers and “stopping the boats” to one part of the electorate, while appearing to look more compassionate than the Liberals to another.

Hence the frantic search for an offshore refugee detention centre to send boat arrivals to.

First East Timor, then Malaysia; just anything but Nauru! So we end up with the really absurd: Tony Abbott, who’s made a career out of demonising refugees, is promoting Nauru as a more humane “solution” than Malaysia.

The idea that either the Howard-era “Pacific solution” or the Malaysia deal are necessary because they deter people from making a perilous boat journey to Australia is so dishonest it defies belief.

It assumes we shouldn’t care what happens to refugees, so long as they don’t die on the last leg of their journey to our shores. If they’re out of sight, then it’s not our problem.

WA Labor MP Ben Wyatt was right when he told the June 4 Australian: “This is simply a decision ... that reflects the fact Labor is still terrified by the ghost of John Howard; they need to start thinking about what's driving the core decisions about immigration.”

Labor’s problem is that it is unable and unwilling to directly confront and demolish the very myths that sustain the Coalition’s hysterical ranting about border protection. To do so would condemn its own policies.

Any policy that seeks to be humane and practical, and defuse the racist fear-mongering about refugees, has to start by telling the truth, even if some Australians don’t want to hear it. You defeat wrong but widely held ideas by confronting them head on, not pussy-footing around.

We are not being swamped by asylum seekers. Australia’s refugee intake is small compared with other developed countries. It is miniscule compared with poor nations like Pakistan and Syria, who host well over one million refugees each.

How do we forget that it’s wrong to indefinitely detain people who have not even been convicted of committing a crime? Mandatory detention is a complete waste of money, meant to create political theatre. We didn’t lock up asylum seekers in the past; we could stop doing it tomorrow.

If we need a refugee processing centre shouldn’t it be in Australia? Aren’t we, as the wealthiest country in the region, best placed to play such a role?

But let’s not stop there. We have to confront the myths that really are taboo for the Labor and Liberal spin-doctors.

The economic exploitation of poor countries by corporate barons from rich countries inevitably causes misery, social breakdown, environmental disaster and conflict. It requires war.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are all about maintaining this monstrous system and have nothing to do with democracy. A million people have died in Iraq as a result of an invasion that Australia supported. No one believes we’re supporting the “good guys” in Afghanistan. Our foreign policy creates refugees.

If Australians want to stop the boats, then they need to stop the wars of greed conducted in our name. In the meantime let’s open our hearts and homes to those who need our help.

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