JOHN NIEUWENHUYSEN. Rising hostility to refugee movement.

Sep 21, 2016


The inspiring poem by Emma Lazarus carved on the Statue of Liberty clearly reflects the ethos and caring spirit of a bygone era:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempus-tost to me…”

Instead, a potential possible President of the United States, Donald Trump, has promised, if elected, to

“…build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall….[while].. two thousand five hundred more border agents will be deployed ….[to help catch]…two million criminal aliens. Day one, my first day in office, those people are gone…deported.”

Trump’s rhetoric is striking a chord in some parts of the US, especially in towns and regions where both unemployment and inflows of unskilled labour are increasing. And his appeal to base prejudices in admonitions that Muslims should be barred from entering the US, and in alleging certain groups of migrants are evil [rapists, robbers], is making its mark in his growing support base. Trump’s opponent, Hilary Clinton, has candidly labelled this group the “deplorables”.

In Britain, but with less violent language from public figures, opposition to increased movement of people into the country was a key issue in the recent Brexit referendum. In its absence, there is little doubt that the Remain vote would have succeeded. The Brexit decision has worryingly brought forth a spate of bolder, groundswell discriminatory language and insult in the country’s public places.

In Europe too, many countries are reneging on their recognition a year ago, after publication of a photo of three year old Alan Kurdi’s death on an asylum seeker dingy, that more needed to be done for those fleeing war and unrest in Syria, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere. Immigration fences preventing passage for floods of migrants have been built in various forms in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Hungary. One commentator remarked that: “We are watching Europe change before our eyes in ways we have not seen since the end of the Cold War.”

Adding to the complexity of the scene in Europe is the congregation of desperate refugees who camp in makeshift settlements, such as that at Calais, which recently numbered some 9000 people. This aroused much anguish for local councils, and anger among French citizens. Demonstrators in early September blocked access to the Channel tunnel and terminal, while charities trying to donate food for the camp inhabitants were unable to meet demands. Lines of refugees in the food queues are reported to have grown from a maximum of 70 previously to as many as 500 in recent weeks.

A year ago, Germany agreed to take thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary, and to absorb around one million altogether in the next year, while other European countries agreed to help. For example, a scheme was established in September 2015 to relocate around 120,000 refugees from Greece and Italy to elsewhere in Europe. However, Patrick Kingsley [in a lead article in The Guardian Weekly, 9-15 September] has outlined how Europe has now turned its back on the refugees again.

And what do Australian leaders have to say in this dire scene? The offer to take 12,000 refugees, while acclaimed when Prime Minister Abbott announced it more than a year ago, has failed to materialise. The Government has moved at a snail’s pace in the last fifteen months to fulfil its undertaking, reaching only 3000 people. This is in strong contrast to Canada, which has in the same time resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees.

However, both Mr Abbott and his successor Mr Turnbull, have offered the world free, fulsome and firm advice. This is simple: follow the Australian example-control your borders, stop the boats and the streams of marchers from entering your countries, sending them back to where they came from. Mr Abbott [The Age September 19] advised that: “People intercepted in the Mediterranean have to be returned to their starting point…..The truly compassionate thing to do is to stop the boats and stop the deaths….A million people coming by boat and almost a million people coming by land last year has the look of a peaceful invasion.” However, Mr Abbott failed to mention how many of the millions seeking refuge out of their own countries have done so because of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in which Australian forces had been involved. Indeed it was a sad irony that the mistaken, unco-ordinated actions of Australian and other national fighter plans reported on the same day as Mr Abbott’s speech, had killed 62 Syrian troops, supposing them to be Islamic State fighters. Unfortunately, the drawn out wars in the Middle East, of which Syria is the latest, have killed and displaced many millions of people. Settlement of these conflicts are by far the most important solution to the refugee catastrophe.

Nonetheless, Mr Turnbull [The Australian September 19] declared that Australia’s policy on border protection was “the best in the world…We have established and maintained control of our borders.” He added [The Age, September 20] that “[Australians] are defined by a commitment to shared political values, democracy, and the rule of law, underpinned by mutual respect.”

Is the border protection policy lauded by the Prime Minister therefore a badge of honour? More likely, as Michael Gordon avers [The Age September] it is “a badge of shame.”

The commitments to freedom and the rule of law espoused by Mr Turnbull are denied both to the asylum seekers held in detention in Manus and Nauru by the arrangement of the Australian Government and at the great expense of its taxpayers, and also Australian and other journalists wanting access to the centres and information about them. Nor can Mr Turnbull rightly claim that his detention policy is based on “shared values” in the Australian community or indeed among agencies, such as the strongly critical and concerned UNHCR. Opposition is vocal, intense and determined in Australia and abroad.

The whole thrust of the Australian Government’s policy is to make those held offshore under mandatory detention suffer so severely that others will be dissuaded from trying to reach Australia. Surely, this is not a shared value between the Government and all its people, or the international community.

Sadly, the Prime Minister’s boastful words on detention policy invoke memory of a Biblical quote:

“What will it profit [us] if we gain the whole world, but lose [our] soul.”

John Nieuwenhuysen is an Emeritus Professor of Monash University, and former Foundation Director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population research.

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