The issue of asylum seekers is overblown by the media and subject to cynical politics from all sides, human rights advocate Gerry Georgatos calls for a more compassionate approach.
DURING THE LAST YEARS of the 1970s and the early years of the 1980s up to 30,000 refugees a year came by boat to Australia. There was relatively little public fuss. There was the bipartisan political support of both Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam. However three decades later hysteria has gripped us. It was first generated by the Howard years. These days, we have bipartisan support for punitive measures to “stem the tide of boat people”.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s moral leadership was demonstrated by the Fraser Government assisting Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. My sister-in-law – just a baby – came from Vietnam on one of those boats. The boat nearly sank on the way here.
Children who arrived from these countries without any knowledge of English or any possessions enrolled in my school. I became friends with some of them. One of them, a landmine victim, severely dragged his right leg.
The Galang Island camp opened in 1979 and was closed in 1996 after all the refugees were resettled. It had two sections; one for newly arrived refugees and another for those approved, who received English classes and cultural information about the country of their resettlement.
Babies were born in the Galang Island camp.
Alongside the UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Save the Children maintained a daily presence.
Hong Kong’s little rocky island of Hei Ling Chau maintained a closed camp with razor wire. Many of the refugees broke down and again many died. Hong Kong refused to push boats of refugees back out to sea, as Thais did on occasions.
There are patterns of global movements of refugees which explain boat arrivals — nothing else does.
People risk their lives to get to other countries in order to flee persecution and other dangers. Half the asylum seekers to Australia in the last 15 years have been Hazaras fleeing the Taliban.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr has done a great disservice to the national consciousness. It is as bad as anything former Prime Minister John Howard did. Minister Carr described Iranian refugees fleeing to Australia as economic migrants. He has no evidence of this; he is merely working to harden the attitudes of Australians against these people.
More than 90 per cent of all asylum seekers who sought refuge in Australia have been approved as bona fide refugees.
The diabolical myth-making that occurs is disgraceful. The ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit.
Take the argument that there are "queues". It is as if someone should stand in a Woolworths checkout line instead of running for their life.
The argument that they all destroy their passports and other important documents is false. Most of them can never secure such documents.
Both sides of government are responsible for misleading the national consciousness.
Our government needs to demonstrate moral leadership. For a country like Australia, resettling 30,000 to 40,000 people a year is not an issue. It never has been. It is only a trickle of humanity.
Detention centres should be dismantled. We should be instead assisting them into community living and onto refugee visas in less than 30 days of their arrival. Ridding Australia of the blight of detention centres will save Australia $4 billion a year. This money could then be spent on regional collaborations and other such worthy initiatives.
I have interviewed more than one hundred former immigration detainees. The effect of prolonged detention is brutal. For many of them their period of prolonged incarceration and obvious maltreatment has left them with clinical disorders. They suffer mental and physical meltdowns that disable them from the normal life most of us enjoy.
The Australia I know and am proud of should be resettling as many asylum seekers as it can. It should be wisely spending its billions on working for humanity and not against it.
The number of asylum seekers coming to Australia is small. The spikes in numbers run in parallel to global refugee patterns, nothing else. There are no other so-called "push" and "pull" factors.
The dog-whistle politics needs to cease.
(Gerry Georgatos is the lead senate candidate in WA for the Wikileaks Party at the upcoming federal election.)
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