Repost: Don’t tamper with the Refugee Convention. John Menadue

It would be dangerous to open up the pandora’s box of the Refugee Convention. It has served us well. Who would seriously suggest that persons facing persecution should not be protected. Given the world wide agitation against refugees and ‘outsiders’, a review of the Convention would be a great opportunity for extremists to run their campaigns against foreigners. It would be a field day for the Scott Morrisons of this world.

This is a repost from 19 July, 2013.

When will the nonsense stop on boats and refugees? A few days ago Foreign Minister Carr suggested that too many economic migrants were being accepted as refugees. He produced no evidence. What public information I have seen suggests that he is wrong. I would discount the advice he gets from his own department.

Now the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is saying that the Refugee Convention needs revising, presumably to make it harder for asylum seekers and refugees.

Where is this mistaken advice coming from? Unless Minister Burke is careful, he will become the fourth Labor minister in a row who has failed in the Immigration portfolio.

There are sound reasons, both humanitarian and practical, why we should leave the convention alone.

  • Historically Australia has a proud record in protecting the persecuted and the vulnerable. The 1951 Refugee Convention was signed and ratified by the Menzies Government. The 1951 convention dealt largely with the holocaust and refugee problems in Europe in the aftermath of WWII. The 1967 protocol also endorsed by a Liberal government in Australia extended the convention beyond Europe to the rest of the world. The convention is no longer just a post WWII document. It is current and covers refugees around the world. 150 countries or states have signed the convention or protocol.
  • No-one has suggested that the convention is irrelevant although the dog-whistling leads one to the conclusion that some people think it is too soft. I have not heard anyone suggest that a well-founded fear of persecution should be put aside. No-one has suggested that fear of persecution on such issues as political thought and activity, membership of a social group, ethnicity or religion should be discounted. Does anyone seriously suggest that we should reduce protection in these areas?
  • A fundamental and sacrosanct part under the convention is of course ‘non refoulement’ – not returning persecuted people to their country of origin where they could face torture or death. Does anyone want to change that?
  • Why should other countries be sympathetic to our bleatings about revising the convention when our problems are so small? Only this week the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called on more international cooperation to assist the 1.8 million who have fled Syria. Most will want to return to their homes when the civil war and sectarian violence ends. But some will have to be resettled. 200,000 Coptic Christians have fled Egypt since the downfall of President Mubarak. Many will claim protection under the Refugee Convention. In our own region, 250,000 people, mainly Rohingya Muslims, have been forced to flee Buddhist Myanmar. Australia has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. We must accept responsibility for persons fleeing those two countries as a result of our participation and occupation. In 2012 Pakistan had 1.6 million refugees, Iran 870,000, Germany 590,000 and Australia 30,000. In that same year, South Africa had 97,000 asylum seeker applications, France 98,000, the US 66,000 and Australia 29,000. Our problem is exaggerated out of all proportion for cynical political reasons. The media must bear a heavy responsibility for the manipulation of public prejudice and ignorance. Other countries are amazed at the cynicism of our political debate and the failure of political leadership. Why should other leaders around the world cooperate in our futile attempt to amend the convention?
  • If Australia, with such a small problem, believes that the Refugee Convention needs changing, what is there to stop other countries wanting to try to manipulate other conventions, particularly the Geneva Convention that protects our troops in places like Afghanistan? Do we want to be part of an unravelling process?
  • I am also concerned on practical and political grounds. Starting a process to amend and presumably soften the Refugee Convention could open a “Pandora’s box”. It would give the Scott Morrisons of this world free-kicks to continue their attacks on asylum seekers and refugees. (See my blog of March 5 in which Scott Morrison in his maiden speech said ‘From my faith I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness’). In the present anti-immigration environment, encouraged by the political right in Europe, Australia and elsewhere I fear we could be unleashing further attacks on refugees and would cement what Pope Francis has diplomatically called ‘the globalization of  indifference’ to refugees.

The Refugee Convention is not broken. We should leave it alone and work with it. Let’s stop being side-tracked by nonsense about economic migrants and changing the Refugee Convention.

The one area where Kevin Rudd should employ his considerable diplomatic skills and experience is to help negotiate a robust regional arrangement. Everything else is fifth-rate. A lot is also nonsense.

( Arja Keski Nummi and I have written extensively on this subject)

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