The saga proceeds in relation to people seeking refugee asylum in our country. The latest contribution in these last few days is that we should seek changes in the UN Refugee Convention because circumstances have changed since it was introduced after WWII. The label “economic migrants” is being resurrected as a reason for refusing refugee asylum to thousands of people protected by the Convention.
The idea that this situation can be dealt with by negotiating amendments to the Refugee Convention is fatuous. The chances of serious changes being achieved in the lifetimes of the currently displaced asylum seekers and their children, if ever, are non-existent. So is a new Convention. Many years of discussions in Geneva and elsewhere about the possible need to review the Convention in certain respects, in which I played a small part, actually produced proposals for its strengthening, not its weakening to relieve countries like Australia from its humanitarian obligations to provide rescue and relief of people fleeing terror and persecution, and yes, the consequent economic hardship that physical displacement always causes.
Have circumstances changed in fact since WW2? Once again people are being compelled to flee their homes by brutal, indiscriminate, often racially based armed force. Because of the immense dangers of not fleeing, they have to leave behind virtually everything they own thus placing them of course at economic peril.
In western societies, people forced out of their homes by natural or even manmade disasters suffer danger and economic hardship but are supported by governments and public subscription until they can safely return and rebuild. Why should people in other countries fearing death or torture at the hands of armed gangs be any less worthy of support?
In many decades of assisting refugees and displaced people in some truly awful camps in Malawi, Bosnia, Palestine, Bangladesh and other places, I have hardly met one whose first choice was not returning to their own countries. Home is what they know and love. The request they invariably make is not transportation to Australia or Canada but for help to go home, and support in the meantime so they can keep their kids alive and safe. Many sit and wait for years in terrible conditions. Some cannot wait any longer, as is entirely understandable. In the same situation, would we not move to save our kids from persecution and penury, even death on unseaworthy boats over vast expanses of dangerous oceans? Demonise them if you must but some people smugglers in history have been heroes, like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and the European priests and nuns and other ordinary citizens who hid Jews from the Nazis.
Our recent and current leaders know this story very well. Historically we have a proud record in refugee rescue and relief. They, like we, know that refugees have made towering contributions to Australia’s progress and achievements in many fields. Unfortunately too few are cricketers or footballers or this discussion might not even be necessary. But in recent years our leaders have consistently failed us, and those who suffer, by failing to explain publicly why we as a decent people must help people in need. As a wealthy country of 25 million people, we are simply not going to be adversely affected by taking 25,000 [0.1%] more people over 5 years or more [a tiny number in world terms] who have nowhere to go back to and will, as did their predecessors, make eminently successful migrants and contribute to the growth and success of our country.
No tidal wave is approaching, merely drips that can seamlessly be woven into our proud cultural tapestry. While ever the world is beset by violence, we cannot stop the boats, still less turn them around. Other solutions can and must be found. But that is another article.