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Woodside Immigration Camp Circa 1949: when Australia was kind to refugees. (Image via www.legacystories.org)

With the death of an asylum seeker on Manus Island and injuries incurred by 76 others, Chris de Bono asks: “Could we have done better?”.

THE ONGOING DEBATE about asylum seekers is full of political spin and the first step to take in answering the question “Could we have done better?” is to break down some of that spin.

First up is to recognise that asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, boat people, queue jumpers – whatever epithet you wish to use – are people; there are real live humans behind those names. Infamously, to gain election traction at the time of the Tampa Crisis, the Howard Government ran a national campaign that made terms like ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘boat people’ dirty words.

Even at the most basic level, constantly referring to individuals by a group name is depersonalising and it becomes much easier to make the bad deeds of an individual stick to the group.

Next up is the scale of the problem.

The figures of boat arrivals in comparison to our total refugee intake and the number of illegal arrivals by air are occasionally trotted out by the MSM; they routinely demonstrate that arrivals by boat are approximately equal to arrivals by air and combined these are a small percentage of total immigration figures.

Boat arrivals make up 1.3% of our total immigration intake each year.

I dream of a day where a senior politician, running for an election, stands up and says something like:

Refugees who come to Australia by boat, while not the official channel of arrival, are exercising their lawful right to enter a country for the purpose of seeking asylum.

We acknowledge their hardships and are committed to ensuring that arrivals of genuine refugees are integrated into our community within a reasonable timeframe.

There is no need for them to suffer any more than they already have.

Further spin is generated around negative events that occur in the refugee camps.

The most recent event on Manus Island is a great example of political spin in action.

Up until the Manus Island incident, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Minister Scott Morrison, spent many a press conference frustrating the media by refusing to comment on anything due to ‘Operational Reasons’:

At the first sniff of being able to tarnish the image of refugees, however, the minister is so quick to release a statement on the matter that he manages to be the first person to comment. News reports at the time were all referencing the statements by Scott Morrison, with little else to pad out their reporting.

For such a sly and secretive Minister, this was an unusual level of enthusiasm and demonstrates a deliberate and concerted effort to peddle distasteful spin.

Could we have done better and can we do better in the future?

This is a description of life at the Woodside Camp where Anita Donaldson, a former who went on to become dean of performing arts at Adelaide University, has her first memories of Australia.

From a bio on the UNHCR's Refugees who made a difference page:

Life in Australia began in the tin Nissan huts of Woodside Migrant Camp, where Donaldson’s mother, a qualified dentist, worked in the camp hospital while her father worked for two years as a labourer. The camp provided a kindergarten, English Language classes and various orientation sessions, but the main source of assistance came from individuals associated with various churches, the Church of Christ in particular.

This is undoubtedly a more humane environment than the current one, where individuals are considered detainees in a detention centre. Even the names have instant negative connotations; we detain prisoners – people who have broken the law – so if we are detaining refugees they must have done something wrong too.

What is particularly striking about Anita Donaldson's story is how the Woodside Migrant Camp was set up as its own functioning village, the people are allowed to work in the camp according to their skills, with programs that provided meaningful activities for people to occupy them during the day.

This is a key element of trying to understand how we can do better, particularly in light of the recent events at Manus Island.

We need to understand that we are taking people who are desperate — so desperate, they have risked their lives, often more than once, to get to Australia.

When they arrive, they are picked up by the Navy and the official policy there is not to give any information as to where they are, where they are being taken or what is going to happen to them. We then deliver these people to an overcrowded camp where there is little for them to do, it is dysfunctional and prison like and we continue to withhold information.

And then we act surprised when the situation deteriorates.

As a nation, we can do better than this.

We have the money and the resources to make the time in camp as pleasant and constructive as possible. We have the resources to be more generous with our Community Assistance Solutions, more generous with our community detention plans and more generous with our bridging visas.

When did Australians lose their sense of what is right to such a point that we think it is a good idea to take desperate people, who have seen their families murdered, beaten, tortured and raped and not give them a fair go?

Can we do better? Of course we can.

Read also: Open letter to Australia from Manus Island detainees.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_de_Bono.

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

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