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#BringThemHere — but then what?

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(Image via asrc.org.au)

Bill Burrhouse says #BringThemHere is not a plan but a three word slogan, as he outlines a proposal of how we could go about bringing asylum seekers into Australia.

I HAVE CHOSEN to write this in order to add in some way to a discussion around what is a real human crisis in our region.

This choice was predominantly borne out if the frustration of constantly seeing #BringThemHere in my Twitter feed.

While I understand that the majority of those who choose to post such tweets do so out of compassion for the suffering of others, no-one seems to be able to tell me what we do once we somehow get “them” here.

Many of those most silent on this crucial part of the equation are those most vocal in promoting it. Yes, I am calling them hypocrites and in order to not be one myself in my criticism, I thought I'd better do something.

#BringThemHere is not a plan — it’s a just another hashtag and to be brutally honest, just another three word slogan.

Anyone who believes jumping on the bandwagon of this week’s latest hashtag, staging a sit-in outside a public building on a cold, wet night or marching in the streets, only to clash with those of an opposing view, may have noticed by now that expecting such actions to achieve a result is rather naive.

I believe that none of our political leaders really know what to do when it comes to our response to this global issue. Perhaps that means we have the wrong leaders in both government and opposition — or maybe it suggests the sheer complexity inherent in taking action to alleviate the plight of what is likely to be the greatest number of displaced persons in world history.

For every “boy in the ambulance” or “boy on the beach” photograph we see, there are thousands of boys, girls, women and men buried under rubble, drowned at sea or starved to death trying to flee persecution. Many die an even more gruesome death.

The right of refugees to seek and enjoy asylum is guaranteed by Article 14 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR). Several conventions have both ratified and strengthened this, the two most significant being the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The combined effect of these and other international laws regarding refugees and their human rights is that people are not only entitled to seek resettlement but they also have rights including access to social services, health care, a safe living environment and employment opportunities. They should also have protection against refoulement, which means they cannot be forced to return to the location of the persecution they are fleeing.

At best, it would appear that Australia’s treatment of refugees presenting in our waters in recent times is on the absolute extreme margins of complying with these international laws to which we are signatories. At worst, we are in breach of our obligations —morally, ethically and legally.

Geographic isolation does not somehow excuse us from our obligation.

“Stop the boats”

I am not sure which disgusts me more. An Australian political party adopting a policy like this and turning it into a jingoistic mantra which helped win a federal election, or an Australian political party who, after years of a far more compassionate approach, adopts largely the same policy for political expediency. Regardless, this is the policy of both our major parties and the “smashing the people smugglers' business model” argument is used to strengthen it.

I believe that we do need to put people smugglers out of business – both because they are grubs preying on desperate people and because of the potential of loss of life on the hazardous journey – but first, an examination of why that very business model exists is essential.

Globally, refugees are in processing camps for an average of 17 years. Think about that. Imagine what prospect you offer your children while you wait, year after year, for a determination which will either give you an opportunity to raise your family and live your life in relative safety or perhaps be plunged back into the very danger you flee. Ask yourself, if an opportunity to “jump the queue” was available, would you at least consider it? I can guarantee I would. Also, think about what damage is done to a generation of children raised in such conditions.

It seems to me that the way to stop the boats and put these vile businesses out of action, however, has less to do with turning boats around and establishing “processing camps” on remote islands and far more with hastening the processing of asylum claims in the centres in Indonesia from which they flee. A fair, efficient and effective processing system could massively reduce the time spent in the Indonesian camps (set a realistic target of say, two years) and the resultant hope may be a big enough inducement for genuine refugees to wait their turn rather that risk the lives of their family on a leaky boat arranged by unscrupulous human traffickers.

For many reasons, this is simply not happening and currently, nothing is being done to make it a reality.

Cost of refugees

It appears many are more concerned about the cost of us meeting our undeniable international obligation than the fact that there is both a moral and legal need to support these people.

Turkey has spent over $10 billion resettling over 3,500,000 refugees. Australia has spent at least that much (yes, we have!) with next to no tangible result, because it is spent on border protection and detention. No wonder people question the spend.

We need to accept there is a financial obligation to meeting these demands but find a way to both reduce the cost through efficiencies and also receive a dividend on this significant investment. The way to achieve this is through synergies with our regional neighbours while creating a path for resettled refugees to be able to contribute economically to their new lands. This needs to be one of the cornerstones of any viable solution to this significant problem.

Regional processing

You may have noticed over the past decade or more, our relations with Indonesia have been strained.

While there are many and varied reasons for this, tensions over the “refugee situation” have certainly been a contributing factor. We need to repair the relationship not just to facilitate more efficient refugee processing systems but in order to strengthen trade ties essential to both our futures.

In all likelihood, we may also need to co-opt other Pacific nations to accept a share of these people. New Zealand has already indicated a desire to do so, for example. Of course, some of these nations are not signatories to the laws which protect those seeking asylum. Indonesia currently has over 13,000 refugees spread over their 13 camps for instance.

A suggested strategy

Our first order of business needs to be around helping Indonesia, our closest neighbour, modernise and streamline their camps, conditions and processing strategy. Once this is done and a demonstrative improvement has been achieved, the threat to Australia from people smugglers would be significantly reduced.

We woud then need to process the people in our offshore detention centres in accordance with their rights under international law. That will include bringing many to Australia.

Integration of bone fide refugees into our country is a massive task. Housing, health, education, training and many other factors need to be considered to ensure our new residents have the ability to effectively assimilate into society and prosper for both personal and collective benefit.

The skills training of our new arrivals could enable the opening up of regional Australia in a way never before seen. Training in jobs such as road and house building as well as the support industries around those could actually provide significantly greater levels of employment for the many Australians currently unemployed or under-employed. This may also include older Australians, many of whom would actually like to contribute.

In addition to strengthening existing industries, we could develop new ones. Irrigation or even solar desalination plants, wind and solar power stations and agriculture, just to name a few.

Yes, I know that this all flies in the face of the neo-liberal thinking that we have allowed to pervade our lives but decentralisation would also have positive impact on housing affordability, major city traffic congestion and might also prevent the “ghetto creation” that many cite as an objection to bringing any sort of migrant minority into Australia.

Rather than leaving refugees to languish in a hellhole of hatred, there is the added benefit for the nation of an increased tax base of people with purpose.

It would also go a long way towards ensuring, as the Coalition keep telling us:

'Australia continues to successfully transition from the mining investment boom to a stronger, more diversified new economy.'

Finally, if you are worried about a swarm of people moving here, who are different to you, then perhaps now you have an idea of how the Indigenous folk felt.

Follow Bill Burrhouse on twitter @giddyupbill.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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