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Kevin Bain reviews three new books about Australia and the world's intractable and contentious refugee crisis.

  • Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru,  Madeline Gleeson, Newsouth Publishing, 2016
  • They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from detention, Ed. Michael Green and Andrew Dao, Allen & Unwin, 2017
  • What is a Refugee?, William Maley, Scribe Publications, 2016

Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru

Madeline Gleeson’s award-winning book chronicles Australia’s refugee history since 2012 and how it measures up to our international obligations. No surprise that it’s not a good fit.

The book gives particular voice to insider allegations of law-breaking at the regional processing centres (RPCs) — allegations the recent Senate Committee report calls 'prevalent and sustained' and the ‘causal nexus’ of self-harm and mental deterioration ‘is indisputable’. The Immigration Minister’s derogatory comments about “fake refugees” will be scrutinised to see if they influence independent refugee assessment decisions, but the escalation of officiousness means we can expect some forced movements from Australia later this year.

Gleeson, a legal researcher at the UNSW Kaldor Centre, says 'what we need now are answers and then, somehow, an exit strategy...', which includes stability, the certainty of a safe future and rehabilitation of these damaged people.

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from detention

I expected the detention stories from the oral history project Behind the Wire to be painful reading, which they would be if read from start to finish. But the format of longer stories of ten pages, and “voices” of a few paragraphs allows readers to make short dips into the book and take in their first person stories in a manageable way.  Realising what values guide our penal colonies is disturbing.

The personality and humanity of the refugees is being leached out of them while they watch Australian normality on TV, something they will never personally experience. Its an environment which is unhealthy for the large numbers of mainly young men. One refugee was moved to Broome maximum security prison and that was

‘... heaven.... The gaol was brilliant: the food was great... people were treating me with dignity.’

They tell of the awful incidents and sexual inhibitions, but also the poetry and writing, and the small kindnesses between detainees, staff and guards. The 2014 Amnesty International report was called 'This is Still Breaking People' and herein is the evidence: heavy smoking to relieve the boredom, hundreds of people taking sleeping tablets every night to reduce waking hours, people forgetting their name but not their number, and the temporary relief of hollow and robotic laughter.

A related website at The Wheeler Centre is seeding a better future with podcasts and education resources. Melbourne’s Immigration Museum has an exhibition using the book’s title from 17 March to 2 July 2017.

What is a Refugee?

If you thought “what is a refugee?” would be an easy question to answer, Professor Maley, an Afghanistan specialist at the ANU and board member of the Refugee Council of Australia, may broaden your thinking.

Maley starts with a brief journey through history and philosophy, from Thomas More in 1516 through to the post-WWII mass emigrations from Europe. The foundation of sovereign states was the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which was about geographic sovereignty, not transgressive movement across borders. Rulers couldn’t mark lines and patrol them, but modern technology has changed that, as cellphones shrink the world and wide-bodied aircraft allow cheap mass air travel, while the modern state fights back with heightened surveillance capability. The paradox nowadays is that tighter state borders closely define insiders and outsiders, allowing the herding and confinement of asylum seekers and refugees, although there are still hill tribes and groups in some parts of Asia who move between artificial state constructs and have a pliable identity. Definitions don’t “solve” problems, and Maley says it is one of management.

The "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine is a partial negation of state sovereignty, where states have not lived up to their responsibilities. Maley discusses this in the Iraq/Libya/Balkans/Rwanda contexts. The emerging theme is sovereignty as control becoming sovereignty as responsibility. Refugee law on genocide and "complementary protection" has developed in recent years, as well as its regional variations in Africa and South America, which give an expanded scope for vulnerable people, and a way in which poor countries can be just as generous as rich countries in their assistance.

Our understanding of human behaviour and motivations in very different countries, cultures and situations may not be correct: why does Indonesia, with 28 million people below the poverty line, produce a tiny number of refugees despite our higher living standards and close proximity? (My short answer: no violent conflict.)

Refugee situations are complex and there are important emerging groups not entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention: "environmental refugees", "survival migrants" fleeing starvation or social chaos, and "internally displaced persons" are inside their country so lack refugee status.  The anticipatory refugee gets out before it is too late, but the “queue” didn’t work for the Kabul rights activist refused a visa by Western embassies and advised to flee the country, then re-apply. It’s not necessary to be poor: “economic migrants” originated from Nazis sneering at Jews who traded their wealth for their lives.

We hope for professionalism and objectivity from those in high office, but politicians can and do exert influence on decisionmaking by echoing hostile public opinion, an example being Afghan approvals falling by half in 2010-11. It can’t be assumed that the return of voluntary exiles has no dynamic influence on policy settings and parameters. “Peace” and “solutions” in post-conflict societies are usually elusive when countries still think “we just don’t want you here”, and Sri Lankan returnees report this. Our Immigration Minister has enormous discretionary power, and both administrative and judicial oversight is crucial, to reduce the scope for scandals such as the Vivian Alvarez case.

Warehousing refugees indefinitely cripples the future for both the detainees and the host. The Taliban did not emerge from traditional village life but from orphans in refugee camps, who grew up in religious madrassas (training schools) — that is, outside family and village life. Resettlement policies which prioritise families rather than singles will only reinforce such camps for radical recruitment of despairing. In Srebrenica in 1995, evacuating women and children from the camps allowed Bosnian Serbs to isolate and massacre 8000 males. Creating spaces where closed communities can learn about different "others” and unlearn their fear and negativity are positive things governments can do.

In 2014, resettlement countries took few Middle East refugees, although their need was greater, and this led to the huge exodus of Syrians and Afghanis to Europe in 2015. People may spend 30 years in Malaysian camps because resettlement is a ticket in a lottery rather than a place in a queue. A "good fit” has always been a selection criterion. Maley reminds us how pervasive anti-Semitism was in western countries in the 1930s, and how similar it is to anti-Muslim rhetoric today.

“People smuggling” is officially distinguished from “people trafficking” for servitude or prostitution, and mostly a market response to protection needs not provided by existing system. Maley suggests that altruism is as prominent a motivator for people smuggling as commerce, including in Australia’s situation.  The high moral ground may co-exist with the black arts of diplomacy and horsetrading: Australian officials are alleged to be paying crews to turn back their boats, and the payments could be channelled into crime syndicates in Indonesia.

Maley concludes that

'... when one is in grave danger, it is perilous to rely for rescue on states and bureaucracies, and individual initiative may be the better path to take.'

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