August 1, 2013

Editor’s Note

August 2013 Editor's Note

By John van Tiggelen

My father was a front door man. Pardon my indelicate phrasing – the notion of Australia having two portals is the Government’s metaphor, not mine – but I mean to say that he flew into this country, bringing his family with him. As far as I can make out, the main pull factor was space, that constant craving of the Dutch: space away from family; space to own land.

It’s easy to overlook, but boat people – asylum seekers – don’t come seeking land. They come seeking refuge. There is a gulf of difference between migrating and wanting protection. Migration can be orderly and considered; fleeing is anything but. To speak of back door versus front door, or of queue jumping, or even of people smuggling, or of border security, or of restoring orderly processing of arrivals, is to miss the point. Refugees will risk death and misery to get here, because their lives are hell. For all our hand-wringing over the miserable drowning of a baby girl at sea, and our rage at the miserable middlemen who put her there, it’s worth considering that her parents had likely been crying for the length of her miserable life.

Is part of our problem that we can’t, or won’t, or are simply not prepared to distinguish a refugee from a migrant? Foreign Minister Bob Carr claims recent asylum seekers are mostly “economic migrants”.  (He is almost certainly wrong and, equally, almost certainly biased given his long-held belief in a “small Australia”. Carr just doesn’t want more people in this country, period.) There can be little argument that economic migrants cannot be allowed to pose as refugees. If our assessment process has become too loose (as Carr suggests, and there have been reports of agents “coaching” asylum seekers to embellish “persecution narratives”), it needs to be tightened. As an unusually animated Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s former chief of staff, pointed out on Q&A recently, Australia does not owe asylum seekers a first-world lifestyle.

But we do owe them protection. That’s the nub of the Refugee Convention.

In contrast to the convention, though, our ever-extending Indo-Pacific range of proposed solutions is not about protecting refugees from persecution. It’s about protecting them from themselves, or so goes the political sell. Boat people must be stopped to prevent around one in 25 of them, as per present average, from drowning at sea. This statistic is evidently not horrible enough to deter desperate people from boarding more leaky boats. But it’s harsh enough to justify us coming up with a seemingly more horrible deterrent: the spectre of a destination almost as dark as the situations they are fleeing.

The Government’s PNG solution relies on Papua New Guinea’s notoriety for lawlessness. Whether the stereotype is true or not, the Government’s pitch is that if you board a boat bound for Australia – ha! – you will end up in a hellhole. It’s the kind of ‘gotcha’ policy idea you might expect from a shock jock rather than a prime minister. Why not throw in some Alan Jones–branded chaff bags at the same time?

The policy doesn’t deserve to work. It’s meaner than Julia Gillard’s Malaysia Solution, which the High Court struck down because Malaysia was deemed to offer insufficient protection for refugees. It’s meaner than Tony Abbott’s plan to tow boats back to Indonesia. And it’s far meaner than John Howard’s Pacific Solution, the second coming of which resulted in the devastating recent riot on Nauru. The PNG Solution is so mean, in fact, that it just might work. But that is only because the managerialist Rudd government, like the Abbott opposition, has narrowed its humanitarian obligations down to a single KPI: that of preventing the deaths of one in 25 boat people. The complementary statistic, that of the crushed hopes and condemned lives of the other 96 per cent, will remain invisible, untold and unrecorded.

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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