DUNCAN GRAHAM. Wanted: The real refugee story

Nov 22, 2017

There should be no asylum seekers in offshore camps funded by Australia.  They’re getting food, healthcare and accommodation – even money. But the prolonged wait is inhumane and damaging.  Impractical solutions and unbalanced reporting are compounding the problem.

The easiest answer would be to let proven refugees into the country. That won’t happen as most voters and the two major parties are convinced the metaphoric floodgates would be cranked open. It’s a compelling argument, particularly with the fear that many would perish in the Arafura Sea. But is it true?

There are more than 14,000 asylum seekers in Indonesia.  Last year 347 were resettled through the UNHCR in Australia. Others went to the US and a few to Europe. Do the rest have access to escape routes?

No, according to Australia Government figures: 32 boats have been turned back since 2013 showing that the Pacific Solution is working.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has another view.

His prelude to the tsunami features scenes of Middle-Eastern mafioso in dingy Jakarta cafes backed by guys in bulging singlets – what Indonesians call preman.

These Trump-style deal-makers among the coffee slops and full ashtrays are monitoring newsbursts 24/7 scanning for a crack in Fortress Australia’s resolve. Yellow fingers dial mystery contacts for stand-by shuttles to fishing villages on Java’s south coast.

Do Mr Dutton’s demons really exist? The only evidence are his forcefully delivered  assertions vilifying victims and belittling their supporters rather than dealing in facts.

Are there enough cashed-up desperates in the street outside, faces pressed against the cafe windows, ready to hand-over gold bars and uncreased late-issue Benjamins to keep the travel agents afloat?

The fearful asylum seekers huddled outside the UNHCR gate in Jakarta are a pitiful sight. Some sleep on the streets. Independent reports suggest most are on the bones of their backsides in conditions far different from Manus.

Indonesia is not a signatory to international agreements on refugees; locals want them gone and if there is strife the foreigners will find little sympathy and no recourse to courts or compensation.

If Mr Dutton’s fearmongering is founded on fact, why haven’t the crims been crushed? The Indonesian Police backed by ASIO’s intelligence have been smashing terrorist cells with great success, so smugglers should be a pushover.

That’s if the law enforcers really want to – and aren’t in the rackets themselves. If so Mr Dutton might like to harangue the Indonesian Government.

That around three in every four asylum seekers have been found to be genuine refugees shows they were fleeing persecution, but a couple of niggling questions seldom get addressed:

Why didn’t they register in the first safe country they encountered (Malaysia has a UNHCR office) – and why are most young blokes? What’s happening to the persecuted women and kids? Aren’t they at greater risk without their menfolk?

Photos of the Manus men once had faces blurred so vengeful authorities in their homelands wouldn’t launch dawn raids on their families.

Now images are identifiable suggesting original fears have evaporated and they can head home. According to the Orwellian-named Operation Sovereign Borders 624 have done so in the past four years.

The Manus camp’s mining camp facilities would be a soul-numbing environment.  But ‘Hell Hole’? That term is best reserved for the Rohinga camps in the mud and squalor of Cox’s Bazar.

It would help the refugee supporters’ case to be up-front about these concerns; the gentle guys v brutal bureaucrats picture they frame is as distorted as Mr Dutton’s imaginings. Parading extremes just hardens positions.

So to offset scenes of despairing well-sinkers, Mr Dutton and Mr Murdoch’s media tell of happy lads frolicking at the beach and arranging trysts with local ladies. This is curious: The parched-dowser images add to the deterrence, while the other tales could lure. Cynics might wonder what games are being played.

If refugee advocates in their worthy work took a more measured stand their messages would be better heard by those who find the present situation psychologically cruel and shameful. These people want the misery to end with a safe place where the refugees can retrieve their lives.

But our responsibility to care has to be tempered by a political reality that’s not going to be changed by sloganeering and stand-offs.

There’s been a forum in place since 2002 to explore alternatives with almost 50 states and agencies as members including Australia and Indonesia. The Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime is better known as the Bali Process.  It last met in Perth in August.  If it said anything of worth it’s being kept secret.

Australia will take almost 19,000 refugees through the UNHCR next year, ranking us third in the world. Even more have entered via the humanitarian visa programme.

Our pride in that decency is being shouted down by Mr Dutton’s slanders and his opponents’ hyperbole. Until another way is found the detention-based deterrent will continue to harm the refugees, drain the budget ($5 billion so far) and demean our nation. If we yelled less and pondered more maybe we could find a fix.


Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in East Java. He blogs at http://www.indonesianow.blogspot.com

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