The Australian government, as is often the case on the perennial matter of refugees, is muddled about its role in the world. The latest update in the sordid treatment it has offered Sri Lankan and Afghan refugees is that its information on the security conditions in their home countries is incorrect. Sources within the United Nations, the Sri Lankan government and Tamil refugees themselves have all countered the government claims made last Friday that ‘a number of countries have already suspended processing claims from Sri Lanka.’ (The Australian, Apr 13). Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said without equivocation that, ‘We are not the only country in these matters that has been in consultation with the UNHCR or, indeed, is contemplating taking action of their own.’
Australian officials have been gradually constructing an argument of exclusion in the last few weeks, hoping to de-legitimise the efforts of Sri Lankan and Afghans to receive asylum status in Australia. They have an eye to the proportion of boat arrivals in the last 16 months – some 80 percent of all boat arrivals have stemmed from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Last week, the Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans was adamant that the immediate suspension of all new asylum claims from the two countries was a positive gesture. The policy would ‘send a strong message to people smugglers.’ (In Australia, punishing the smuggler is the cover employed for punishing the smuggled.) Muscular language has been used reminiscent of the hardened words of the previous government of John Howard, whose antipathy to the ‘boat people’ is well documented. ‘We have taken a consistently hardline approach to people smuggling and today’s announcements will further strengthen the integrity of Australia’s immigration system’ (BBC News, Apr 9).
The UNHCR regional head, Richard Towle, has questioned the wisdom of officials in Canberra. ‘I am not aware of any countries in the industrialised world which have suspensions in place for asylum claims for people from these countries [Sri Lanka and Afghanistan].’ The Human Rights Commission president Cathy Branson forecasts the ‘indefinite detention of asylum seekers, including families and children already in distress’ (Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 9). The Australian Greens, through their Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, have condemned the solution as ‘redneck’. ‘We are,’ she claimed without a tincture of irony, ‘in very dangerous water’ (Reuters, Apr 9).
This sad chapter is yet another in the darkened pages of Australia’s flawed attitudes to immigration. Antiquated attitudes of this country as scared, untrammelled virgo intacta continue to flourish. Fears of invasion persist in an addled political psyche terrified of individuals arriving by boat. The boat is a vessel that cannot be controlled, regulated, or measured in impact. Australia’s coastline, we are told repeatedly, is vast and hard to police. (We hear little, incidentally, of overstaying visa holders who arrive in large numbers on plane from Europe.) Since the Rudd government came to power in 2007, 100 boats filled with asylum seekers have been intercepted by the Australian navy.
The opposition, which is even more hysterical about these ‘boating’ citizens seeking safety, is citing government complacency as the cause of this rise in numbers. There is little doubt that Canberra’s reaction to this, as it always has been, is motivated by political survival. Keeping such refugees out, it is hoped, will keep the government in at forthcoming elections. The opposition leader Tony Abbott is chortling in his malicious joy. ‘This is no solution, it’s just an election fix.’
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures in law and politics at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com