Forced migration nation in a global context

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Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has catapulted the issue of asylum seekers back to the front of the political agenda; Anna Sande thinks it's time we considered the "global context" around this difficult topic.

Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 4.38.59 PM
(Screenshot of The Australian Financial Review)

THERE ARE TWO crucial legal issues associated with the asylum seeker "debate" that is presently raging in Australia.

The legality of "towing back" boats and the efficacy and current status of the UN Refugee Convention.

Both issues have been succinctly and clearly responded to by academics, Ben Saul and Azadeh Dastyari, at The Conversation. Savitri Taylor's latest piece, also at The Conversation, covers asylum concerns comprehensively.

They all outline crucial issues Australians need to be aware of. As 'law' they are not unlike the troubling 'invisible substance' referred to by Tony Abbott. We all need to use our rational brains to appreciate them.

I would like to add another dimension to the issue of 'forced migration'. It's an aspect that is only beginning to be discussed with any frequency: the global context.

Australians seem to find this incredibly hard to grasp. Surprising, given we have such a short white Anglo history and many of us have a background of 'forced migration'. It could be said Australia is the 'forced migration nation'.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is vocally drawing attention to the wider global context when he speaks of levels of concern about asylum seekers: global, regional and national.

Last Tuesday night, at "Community Cabinet", someone from the audience asked a question relating to Australia’s apparent lack of compassion for those seeking asylum here.

Rudd fielded the question by appealing for Australians to consider that a sense of "balance" was required. The prime minister’s manner was deceptively mild. He closed the questions abruptly at the end of his pleading generalisation. The meeting was "running overtime".

This is the question that will dog Rudd’s campaign — he knows it.

Responsible Australians – all Australians – need to think through this issue very carefully before voting.

Without the hysteria being drummed up by the media and the Coalition, one should question whether the issue concerns the average Australian. By all accounts we are a comfortably multicultural nation.

In order to properly consider the global context, we need to consider some facts. We need to be prepared to rethink our position on the flow of people around the world.

In 2011 asylum applications world-wide grew by 20% to 73,300. This was the highest number since 2003, with refugees from Afghanistan making up the vast majority of them.

During  that same period applications to Australia declined by 9%. The number of Afghan applicants decreasing by 45% from 3129 to 1721.

Surprised? Not what you thought is it?

In 2010, over 80% of the world’s 25.2 million refugees lived in the developing world. The number of people applying for asylum in "industrialised countries" is smaller than a single refugee camp in north-east Kenya. Figures show that for quite some time transit countries like Iran and Pakistan host the bulk of exile populations.

All denizens of the blue planet, need to appreciate that due to economic, climatic and, most critically, political forces, people often have no choice but to flee their homes.

On this last point, remember that so many choose to stay in their own region. This is often in non-industrialised countries. Why?

They do not intend to flee far. They wish to return. This reluctance to move too far is rarely mentioned by politicians or the media. It would significantly diffuse their approach to this issue.

What are the personal stories of those who are compelled to flee as far as Australia? Who of them desires to leave home, family and familiarity? To leave everything they have worked for?

Would you?

refugee camp
The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border. (Image courtesy nytimes.com/Mandel Ngan)

In our immediate region the stories out of Sri Lanka are compelling. A number of significant reports have confirmed there is ongoing torture, rape and unjustified imprisonment.

Catherine Renshaw notes that it's easy to see why the Australian Government doesn’t want  to accept these Sri Lankans as genuine refugees. They constitute the largest proportion of our "unauthorised boat arrivals". The Australian Government’s ability to send these arrivals straight back – or to make their lives miserable in detention – is helpful in propping up the rhetoric of border security.

Strategically, not only does an election approach, so too does a Commonwealth Heads of Government (COAG) meeting. It's scheduled for this November and is being held hosted in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. Canada has withdrawn from the meeting, in protest of their human rights record.

What if Australia were to agree with Canada? Ipso facto all those fleeing Sri Lanka to Australia would be seen to be fleeing a regime that is viewed as being oppressive by key human rights organisations. In her recent article Catherine Renshaw summed it up nicely:
‘It would be tantamount to admitting that there was at least a prima facie case that people fleeing were refugees. It would mean an end to peremptory deportation. And it might very well mean more boats arriving on Australian shores.’

It is not only government that behaves paradoxically. Andrew Jakubowicz refers to the counter-intuitive reflexes that come into play for people in desperate situations. Reflexes which have them believe in unlikely outcomes regardless of ‘the sunk cost error'.

This is made possible in the case of asylum seekers when they find themselves in a situation in where they have been stripped of their individual identity. A place where they have no reliable or credible context in which to operate. The ‘acquired anxiety’ and refusal to discard the ‘opportunity’ bought by the 'sunk costs' compels them into a state of ever-heightened anxiety.

Jakubowicz laments the government's response writing, ‘.....nothing has been done on two critical fronts – addressing the conditions that create refugees; and providing alternatives that break the incentive cycle promoted by the government and opposition, and facilitated by the people smugglers’.

To change this language, thinking and momentum will take facts, reassessment, and patience.

A rethink is clearly required by us all. We must have positive government action, not alarmist reaction. Desperate people must be able to apply for refugee status. Fair processes by which they can do this must be established. Finally, preparations need to be made in regard to education, health checks and cultural information for the new arrivals.

What does history tell us?

Migration has been a part of life for as long as we have been here.

We have been on the move and seeking safe haven for thousands of years. Australia, this is nothing new, we are part of a global context.

We need to go with the flow.

Check out the powerful documentary on the plight of asylum seekers at www.deepblueseafilm.com.

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