When 600 Melburnians, on 18 hours notice, turn out in a freezing downpour to voice concern about a government announcement, as they did on Saturday, the Government ought to listen.
The problem for those who stood in the rain chanting “Refugees are welcome here” is that the Government is listening to marginal seats in NSW and Queensland on whom its electoral life depends.
If Prime Minister Kevin Rudd listened, he would hear solid opposition to his political and regional coup – not only from his detractors, but from voters who planned to support the reinvigorated ALP.
Rudd’s announcement to send asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea confounds current expectations of the ALP’s commitment to the Refugee Convention. It is more than a lurch to the right, it is a lurch overboard.
The people who protested this announcement in snap rallies across Australia at the weekend were sending the following messages to Rudd, if only he would listen.
1. Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and we are critical of countries that are not signatories. We are embarrassed that our government would ignore the central commitment of the Convention to not push back to danger those who seek asylum. It is not only that we “feel discomfort,” as Minister Butler described on Sunday, we believe it violates human rights and it is wrong.
2. We are a country built on refugees and multiculturalism. Modern Australia was founded by white invaders, settlers and convicts, who arrived by boat to rebuild their lives. We have generations of refugees who have arrived in all manner of circumstances. We are a richer nation for their contribution. It is hypocritical to reject asylum seekers who make their way to Australia by one particular means today.
3. We are ashamed that a rich nation has passed the domestic political buck to a poorer neighbour, and that we appear to have bought our way into the agreement.
4. We grimace that our country is using a neighbour as a deterrent – and that initial reports are that asylum seekers may in fact be deterred. We have exploited the poverty of a neighbour.
5. We are disappointed that our intelligent leaders have bought into the very “stop the boats” slogan they once mocked and derided.
6. We are unimpressed that two weeks ago we were told that turning boats back to one regional neighbour would cause conflict, but now selling them to another regional neighbour is humanitarian tough love.
7. We are not convinced that it will work: that Papua New Guinea won’t face its own internal dissent towards the agreement; that asylum seekers sent to PNG won’t live in violence and poverty; that PNG won’t send them to other countries.
8. Indonesia that currently houses 10,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers and thousands of unregistered asylum seekers. In 2012-13, we granted only 600 visas to refugees from Indonesia – and we received 25,000 by boat from Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The expert panel had recommended in 2012 we take 3,800. We risk abandoning another neighbour if we do not immediately increase our intake of refugees from Indonesia.
9. We are embarrassed that according to the UN Refugee Agency report we only take in 0.3 per cent of global refugees. The countries that host the most refugees include Pakistan, Iran and other developing countries.
10. While there are refugees seeking safety, people smugglers will have a business model. One transport route has been blocked, but demand will drive another enterprise.
It is possible that, for the wrong reasons, this announcement will prevent deaths at sea, but it will not prevent illness, poverty, and lives wasted in detention and refugee camps.
It will not prevent war and conflict in countries of origin. It will not reduce the numbers of asylum seekers and displaced people globally. It will not assist Indonesia and it will create internal problems for PNG.
“Stop the boats” was always code for “make this go away”. Rudd has heard the slogan and found an astonishing, and dreadful, solution.
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