Editorial Archives Local Rag Editorial 7: No Room at The Inn / Christmas Among the Refugees Related Songs: Who Is That Refugee? and Flicker Of An Eye (Tales From 'The Local Rag' 1991)
I have just finished reading a rather short passage from The New Testament...The Gospel according to Matthew: Chapter Two. Verses 1-28.
It makes immensely relevant and somewhat confronting Christmas reading for all Australians this year.
In the 50 years that I have lived, worked and prospered in Australia I have watched my nation as it has struggled to deal with its place in the world; it's hopes for its own cultural identity and it's battle to come to terms with its proximity to its Asian and Islamic neighbors.
I have watched as it has struggled to maintain the dream of a tolerant, free and progressive society in the face of it's own historical xenophobia. It has not been easy but it has been, at times, spectacularly successful in that struggle.
Its concern for, and it's discharge of, its moral and ethical obligations to East Timor in the last few years ago, for example, grew spontaneously from a sense of outraged urgency; as well as a lingering sense of public shame at decades of inaction and self interest which had resulted in a grovelling policy of appeasement to Indonesia.
In what were dangerous and desperate circumstances this nation managed to stand in solidarity with the suffering and oppression of the East Timorese people. It managed to chart a successful course through dangerous diplomatic waters and, in doing so, it managed to motivate and enlist world support to achieve a just, if tragically belated, outcome.
This concern for the plight of foreign nationals, with very different cultural and racial backgrounds to our own, was a clear demonstration of the capacity of ordinary Australians to engage and empathize with other ethnic groups.
That it grew so spontaneously from a grassroots sense of outrage; that it was strong enough to energise an effective political and military response , made it even more laudable. It showed that the 'average man in the street' still of had some clear notion of the concepts of compassion and a 'fair go'.
This is perhaps why I currently find Australia's appalling response to our recent arrivals ('illegal immigrants'/'refugees'... whichever politically tainted term you prefer), so devastating, disappointing and confusing.
By the middle of 2002, quite apart from the large number of adults who were being held in detention centres in remote locations throughout Australia and on selected offshore islands, there were some 582 children who spent Christmas/Hanukkah/Ramadan in custody that year. The numbers have since fallen but by 2004 the figures showed that 147 still remain in these prisons. The conditions in these Centres range from 'boring but benign' in the city based units... to absolutely soul destroying in the more remote ones.
At the Christmas Island Detention Centre several hundred detainees were at one stage reportedly housed in a single tin barn. There were no separate cubicles in this common area where beds were stacked against the wall during the day.
Under restrictions far more draconian than those accorded to even our most hardened convicted criminals, the detainees are not allowed access to news media and are prevented from sending or receiving correspondence. They are given no firm date of release and, if the policies of our present Government persist, will be held without trial, without processing and without hope of release, perhaps for years.
A recent report in as conservative a publication as The Australian Medical Journal has raised grave concerns about the long turn psychological impact of such treatment, particularly upon children held in such conditions. Since previous statistics show that eventually 85 percent of these people will be found to be genuine refugees and released into Australian society, it is clear that there may well be a long term price for our community to pay for such short sighted policies.
The obvious and apparent strategy by the Howard Government of keeping the prisoners in isolated locations, away from the scrutiny of the media, is a bid to minimise public sympathy and eliminate political dissent. It is classic 'concentration camp' politics that even Stalin would have been proud of.
The international response to Australia's reprehensible behavior is both predictable and highly deserved. What is now being said of us is exactly what Australians themselves have been saying about other nations whose disregard for basic human rights has made them international pariahs in recent years.
For the first time in my life I am deeply ashamed of my nation. And that, coming from someone who has spent the last 15 years recording and extolling the virtues of the Australian character in story and song, is no small statement.
I am absolutely staggered by the massive public support (estimated at 70%) the government has had for it's current response. I can only conclude that Australia has either given into completely to the worst side of it's nature or that, as a result of skillful political propaganda, it has been divided, manipulated and deceived.
I would prefer to believe the latter. And in that somewhat optimistic hope, I want to spend a little time dealing with some of the more spectacular examples of 'muddled thinking' to have surfaced around the issue in recent times.
Firstly there is the proposition, ridiculous as it seems, that refugees fleeing the brutal oppression of fundamentalist Islamic regimes such as the Taliban would seek to introduce fundamentalist regimes of oppression in Australia. I say ridiculous because it is no more likely that such a thing would ever occur that it was that the Jews fleeing Hitler would have opened a local chapter of the Nazi Party in their newly adopted countries.
In the 50's and 60's refugees from Eastern Bloc countries were not pro-Communist. They were fanatically anti-totalitarian and, as I observed in "Flicker of an Eye", were more likely to be vigilant about the erosion of our democratic freedoms than their more apathetic Australian cousins.
Secondly, there was the historically insupportable proposition that terrorists would choose too infiltrate Australia by seeking to secrete themselves amongst refugees. Not one of the terrorists who were involved in the recent New York and Washington outrages entered the US illegally. They came in on commercial flights. They all held genuine passports or visas and many of them had been living and working within the U.S. for years. Terrorist groups, particularly the kind of well organized networks capable of planning and executing such vast atrocities, are not so stupid as to draw attention to their operatives by sending them into countries as illegal immigrants; thereby risking their incarceration or exposure. Yes, such infiltration is possible; but it is highly illogical. Refugees are nothing like the security threat that the government has sought to infer.
Thirdly, there is the hypocritical withdrawal of public sympathy from the current refugees on the basis that many had paid substantial sums of money to "People smugglers" to escape their native countries. I say hypocritical because I doubt there would be one Australian parent who would not move Heaven and Earth; who would not sell everything they owned and pay whatever was necessary; to escape a situation which genuinely threatened the lives and wellbeing of their children. The mother of the three Iraqi children who were tragically drowned off the coast of Australia recently had fled Iraq after she watched her own father dragged out and hanged by Saddam Hussein's henchman on the charge of supporting the banned Opposition Party. The lack of concern the Australian government had for this family in the midst of such terrible grief was monstrous. The husband, already in Australia, was told that if he joined his grieving wife in Indonesia he would not be allowed to return; ending forever their hopes of a safe haven in this country.
Yes, it is true that many of the refugees have escaped because they were economically capable of it. That, however, does not make the circumstances of their flight or the brutality of the repression which they have suffered; or the terror under which they and their children may have lived any less deserving of our sympathy. Only the small minded downward-envy of a genuine bigot could suggest it should.
It is a great tragedy is that the truly poor have not also escaped; but it is doubly hypocritical that Australia has not done anything to lessen their plight while seeking to damn the more affluent who have managed to flee.
At a time when Europe is processing nearly half a million refugees per year, Australian officials, under the direction of the Department of Immigration, have managed to process a disgraceful 50 successful Afghan refugee applications. The Government's apologists then pretend to be outraged when people 'jump the queue'. The truth is there is no queue. The window is effectively, and I suspect quite deliberately, shut and locked.
It recently came to light that one recent "illegal immigrant" had been a successful applicant under the Australian Immigration program but had eventually taken the illegal route because he had, after years, finally given up hope of ever seeing his 'successful' status being acted upon. Australia's bureaucratic red tape and 'foot dragging' is either the product of the most massive underfunding and incompetency ever seen in a government department... or it is deliberate international policy.
Lastly, there is the statement of "high principal" made by one Sydney shock jock on talk back radio who said " it is clear that the majority of right minded Australians believe that people arriving in this country illegally, particularly those with suspected criminal backgrounds should never even be allowed to get their foot in the door"
Sadly, he was absolutely correct in assuming that the majority of Australians agreed with him. But it made me wonder why he and his equally paranoid and patriotic listeners ever celebrate Australia Day.
It was, after all, on that day that a fleet of ships bearing illegal British immigrants, (the majority of which had proven criminal backgrounds ) arrived in this country... and took over.
What was that about Matthew: Chapter Two. Verses 1-28?
For those who don't have a New Testament handy, it concerns the section of Christmas Story where Joseph, Mary and Jesus, escape as refugees into Egypt, forced to flee Israel before the mass slaughter of newborns perpetrated by Herod in his attempt to eliminate this percieved new threat to his throne. (It seems that The Three Wise Men weren't all that wise to have consulted with him.)
They lived in Egypt for a considerable time at the mercy of foreigners until their return to Israel became possible after Herod's Death. Even then, however, they were too frightened to return to Judea and settled instead in Galilee, which, according to the story, is why Jesus grew up in Nazareth.
So I wonder... when Australian families who voted for these shameful policies, (policies supported equally by both the Liberal and Labor Parties), sit down after church on Christmas Morning this year; in the safety of their nicely decorated homes; in the presence of own children; and when news reports show them the dark and frightened eyes of refugee Arabic children; eyes which have often seen the saddest of all possible things...whose eyes will they see?
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