Arja Keski-Nummi. They are us … and the language of war!

Jan 21, 2014

Why are we using the language and methods of war against civilians fleeing war and persecution?  Asylum seekers are not our enemies. Our real enemies are our complacency and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the spin we are getting. This reflects the Abbott government’s ability to drill deep into our collective psyche of fear with our settler past. What if we lose it all?

It conflicts so dramatically with our other self-image of an open, caring and welcoming society.

This debate is about much more than people arriving by boat, it is about reshaping an Australian narrative that excludes and rejects difference. “In our image or no image” is the message. The High Court action against the ACT legislation on same sex marriages and Christopher Pyne’s curriculum review are part of that same agenda.

In trying to turn the page back to an Australia that no longer exists and never in reality existed the Abbott government is using the asylum debate to send a message of “them and us”.  At best it is elitist. At worst it is narrow minded, bigoted and opportunistic. The problem is that the “them” eventually become “us” as over 200 years of migration – illegal and legal – has proven.

Governments and politicians carry an enormous burden of responsibility in helping shape how we react and welcome the stranger.  We are the community and society we are because by and large governments understood that most people did not feel comfortable with immigration but if we were to grow and develop and be prosperous we needed people. Nothing has changed.

The language used about asylum seekers by both the previous government and the current one however has sought to divide our communities. Little compassion is shown or expressed to the plight of people displaced by war and human rights abuses. Rather the language is about people cheating a system and a vow to not “let them get their way”. Disturbingly in the last few months the language of war has started to be used with greater frequency.

While this may be playing out well in the polling of today, we will pay a price for such demonization. A cornerstone of our success in settling millions of people in Australia over the past 70 years, irrespective of how they may have arrived in this country has been that we have genuinely subscribed to the ethos of a “a fair go”, helping create the opportunities for people to establish new lives and participate in the broader Australian community while at the same time valuing and cherishing their cultural heritage and giving some of it to our own uniquely Australian society. We don’t have an underclass at risk of exploitation nor do we have ethnic ghettoes. Our settlement programs have helped avoid that.

We do have vibrant culturally diverse suburbs that reflect our cultural make up. It is true that for some the process of settlement is difficult and not trouble free and will be so for a long time but a generation on the children of those arrivals are politicians and in professions creating new wealth and opportunities for all Australians. They are us. That is the time when we need to measure how successful we have been in welcoming the stranger, and by any measure we have been truly successful.

The previous government’s decisions to lock asylum seekers out of work and the continuation of this policy by the current government will have consequences. We are creating a new underclass. People will have to survive and it is disturbing to contemplate where this may lead and not just into a thriving black economy. It is an own goal we could well avoid if we just recognized and capitalized on the resilience, toughness and determination to succeed that asylum seekers bring with them.   It is on these qualities that Australia’s wealth has been built.  Rather than spending billions of dollars on detention centres and offshore processing centres (where is the budget emergency now?) a little helping hand will in the long run be rewarded a hundred times over. We have two hundred years of evidence to prove that.

Our problem today therefore has been of our own making. Currently there are no formulated political structures to counter the governments’ opportunistic and increasingly militaristic approach. The Opposition is caught in its own appalling policy paradigm, one which cleared the way for the Abbott government when they reopened Nauru and Manus Island and went still further to announce that no people detained in those centres would be resettled in Australia.   They seem to have forgotten what they stand for!

Likewise the Greens show no great policy nous in this area having a simplistic, emotive response that ignores the reality of multiple issues colliding with each other including the very difficult issues of how to manage mixed migration flows, return of non refugees, countering people smuggling and support for refugees. Their starting off point is that everyone is a refugee. It leaves no space to contemplate the harder elements of a refugee and asylum policy.

Emotionalism is not a substitute for a good political strategy.  We cannot turn back the clock and bemoan missed opportunities but nor should we simply accept the mantra of war. It is disrespectful to survivors of wars and betrays the shallowness of politicians who have turned civilians, seeking sanctuary, into enemies.

What we need is an approach that engages our international partners and regional governments in finding genuine regional solutions and not the Orwellian ones of Manus Island and Nauru). We need to recognize the humanity of people seeking asylum but we also need to have a process that quickly identifies who is and  who is not a refugee and be able to resolve the immigration status of a person who is not a refugee quickly and with dignity even if this means return to their country of origin. To do anything less undermines our obligations under the Refugee Convention, a protection tool that has withstood the test of time. We must compromise the system of international protection that we as a country have worked so hard to shape.

We have done it before. We can do it again and we can be true to our own self image of a caring and open society.

Arja Keski-Nummi was First Assistant Secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2007-2010.

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