The government deal with Malaysia to swap asylum-seekers for refugees is all but finalised. We’re going to intercept 800 people on boats, do some quick-and-dirty health checks, put them on planes and send them to Malaysia within 72 hours. In return, we’ll get 4000 confirmed refugees from them. Of course, we’re not guaranteeing the safety and supervision of unaccompanied minors, Malaysia gets to have the final say as to who they’ll accept and who they’ll toss our way, and oh yes, we don’t even know if there’s decent accommodation for the people we send – but pffft, details. The deal’s in the bag. All we need now are some asylum seekers.
And who are our lucky first contestants? Well, it looks like the 54 poor bastards who hoved into view on our horizon Sunday morning might get that honour. They were intercepted and brought to Christmas Island – which, you’ll remember, is an Australian territory, but no longer part of Australia’s official migration zone. They’ve been offloaded and placed in temporary detention while the cursory checks are done. It might take a little longer than 72 hours, apparently – there’s still that nagging problem of them possibly not having any accommodation in Australia – but Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us this was little more than a hiccup.
“When the system is up and in full operation those returns will happen in 72 hours,” she said.
Isn’t that good to know? We won’t have time to worry about this, because the bureaucratic machine will be so well-oiled that they’ll be gone before we know it. Even better, the Prime Minister confirmed that the Australian Federal Police are authorised to use force to shove any reluctant asylum seekers onto Malaysia-bound planes. Out of sight, out of mind.
There’s a lot of comment out there this morning about how this is a ‘test’ for the Malaysian deal, and – by extension – for Gillard’s government. It needs to go off without a hitch. It needs to have an immediate effect in deterring further people from trying to get to Australia (in the revolting words of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, ‘to break the people smugglers’ business model). The Coalition are out there with their faux concern and the oft-repeated line that Nauru would be a better place to send these troublesome ‘boat people’. Government voices chant the ‘regional solution’ mantra. Commentators debate the relative merits of Nauru vs Malaysia, and how illustrative this whole situation is of Gillard’s need to follow through with decisive action.
What we’re not hearing (apart from Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s lone voice on Sky News) is that is the MV Tampa all over again. This is the government bending rules and perverting its responsibility towards human beings in peril who seek nothing but a new start free from persecution. This is whisking away the ‘problem’ and talking tough while using human lives to win polls. (You know, the polls to which no one in politics apparently listens.)
What’s worse is the government’s blithe assurance that if those pesky asylum seekers actually have the temerity to object to their deportation to a country that is not a signatory to UN refugee conventions, then the AFP can ‘use force’. What does that mean? The government hasn’t bothered to elaborate, and that raises a lot of alarming questions. Can they yell at them? Shove them? Force them into handcuffs and shackles and carry them? Use pepper spray? Nightsticks? Tasers?
Any or all of these? On men, women, children and victims of torture? (Because let’s not forget that the government has already categorically stated that everyone will get the same treatment with this deal.)
Oh but wait, that would never happen, would it? Sure, we might lock up innocent people in remote locations in conditions guaranteed to produce lasting psychological damage. Sure, we might offload people to a country where they can disappear into a system that refuses to guarantee their safety and health and which regularly administers corporal punishment for the most trivial of offences. Sure, we might even consider letting boats sink before we decide to finally save people in danger. But surely there’s a line. We’re not inhumane, after all.
Except we are. We’re willing to let this happen. Even if we’re not actually out there applauding this kind of behaviour, we’re not preventing it. We acknowledge that something has to be done about asylum seekers, while wilfully closing our minds to the facts that there are so few of them, and that these are people in need that we not only can, but must help. We signed up for this – and we’ve been trying to weasel our way out of our obligations since August 2001.
And for no good reason. There’s no ‘Islamist’ conspiracy to flood Australia with militants who will rise up and institute Sharia law. There’s no ‘erosion of our values’ or ‘threat to our way of life’. No one’s being forced to eat halal meat, wear a burqa or attend a mosque. Our kids aren’t required to learn Arabic in schools so they can be compelled to read the Koran. Despite relentless fear-mongering to the contrary, what we’ve seen is that refugees are – shockingly – just like everyone else.
And yet we treat these people as though they are so dangerous that the mere pressure of their feet upon our soil will destroy our world.
Perhaps that’s because we’re afraid that what the sight of them will destroy are our illusions that no one is ‘really’ getting hurt, and there’s nothing we can do.
Yes, it’s difficult to get out to Christmas Island, and any whiff that someone might be going there to protest will see them turned around before they get out of the airport, but there is more we can do.
There’s talk of a court action to prevent the government from carrying out their plan to forcibly deport asylum seekers. We can support that.
We can find out who our local MP or Senator is, and contact them. A Just Australia has useful tips on keeping emails short and direct.
We can do the same for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
Prime Minister Gillard has a handy-dandy contact form on her website.
Then there’s Twitter. Many politicians now maintain Twitter accounts, and this is a good place to start looking Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is particularly responsive to tweets – and is known to be openly critical of the Gillard government’s ‘lurch to the right’ on asylum seekers (to use his own words).
Don’t wait until the next election to send the message. It’s not a test for the government – it’s a test for us.
I’ve said all this before. In fact, looking back over this blog, I’ve said it over and over. Meanwhile the Coalition gets shriller, the government lurches further and further to the right, those who advocate for human rights are ridiculed or bullied – and the people caught in the middle of it all just continue to suffer.
So what’s the point? Why bother?
Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we need to put compassion before poll results, and human decency before pandering to fear. Because every person who doesn’t speak or act is one less voice that might make even a tiny bit of difference.
It’s a truism to say that those who have voices must speak up for those who don’t. Asylum seekers are locked up on remote islands, denied access to Australian society, and – now – about to disappear from our scrutiny altogether.
How much voice do they have?
And what are we doing with ours?