Rosh Hashana Newsletter – Refugees Choosing Life

By Larry Stillman

I’m amazed. I’m amazed because I wrote an article for Galus Australis in October, 2009 looking at the situation in South Africa by way of comparison to what happens to refugees in Australia.  I thought I could update it significantly, in light of the current politics of boat refugees, but I find that it is still current as a way of contextualizing the problem in Australia. So I have rewritten this article relevant to the current situation and I find, more than ever, that the dog-whistle politics of Australia – at least broadcast to the swinging seats – are as powerful as ever. In the original article, I wrote about cutting down the razor wire, but now, we just want to dump people in a dangerous country. Those in the Jewish community who have fallen for the scare campaign should look at the real figures before engaging in what appears to be a perverse case of moral panic over security, religion and culture. This is particularly reflected in the opinions of the owner of the Australian Jewish News and other organisations who simply get facts wrong and reinforce the worst of prejudices.
The Joint Statement by Australian NGOs seems to have all the elements of a much more sane and moral outcome and a much better starting point for refugee policy. The statement speaks of effective offshore processing in the context of a regional solution and community release to keep people out of poverty whilst preserving their dignity and health.
However, we now need to deal with traffickers head on, which is a problem because it appears that gangsters are now on the take. From all accounts the problem is one of police corruption in Indonesia and the exploitation of poor sailors in particular. Preventing such rackets in the first place is a much better solution and would stop the boats (to use a hackneyed phrase) and deaths at sea. Accusations that the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas (now on the horizon again for the conservatives) caused a spike in boat numbers are also false, as established by the Parliamentary Research Service. The rest of their report is probably as objective a discussion as you will get of the whole issue.  There will always be new groups looking at any means to flee danger (look at the current collapse of Syria), whatever the visa, and Australia will always need to deal with refugee flows, official or otherwise.
Asylum in Africa
So how does this compare with Africa, and South Africa in particular? Remember, it is not the wealthy countries that bear the brunt of refugee flows, but neighbouring poor countries or mid-level countries like South Africa with relatively porous borders.
According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2011, there were more than 200,000 registered refugees in South Africa and, “the country continues to be the recipient of the highest annual number of asylum applications worldwide, with 106,904 applications in 2011”. These of course are the official numbers with unofficial reports of at least one million refugees in South Africa. In total, there are at least 17 million refugees in Africa.  Many of these countries are poor, and South Africa has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.
I am familiar with the dreadful conditions of the shantytowns around Johannesburg and the beggars at traffic lights. Unfortunately, this is a picture repeated elsewhere. No wonder people will seize any opportunity they can to flee similar camps in Pakistan (now swamped by refugees) or from Iran or Sri Lanka.


We Can Do Better
According to the Refugee Council, a grand total of 48,856 people arrived by boat in Australia during the period 1976-2012. That’s right, not 486,000, but just fewer than 49,000. About 13,000 arrived in the first half of this year. If I am not wrong, about 15,000 other people were ‘legal’ refugees who arrived in Australia in the past year processed by UNHCR. That is no crisis for Australia.  Our numbers are still tiny in comparison with the rest of the world and our comparative wealth gives us the capacity to absorb far more people.
Historically, we know that refugees are by and large ambitious and productive members of society. In fact, Australia received the vast figure of 2.5% of the world’s applications for asylum in the first half of 2011 according to the Department of Immigration. This percentage is below that of Turkey and above Norway, for all the talk of how high the numbers are in proportion to the population. That comparison ignores our comparative advantage.
We should share our wealth with those in need in the same way, as Peter Singer has argued, that we should give charity. It is imperfect, but we are morally obliged. That is a basic principle of social justice. What’s our ranking on indices for national wealth, employment and everything else? We are in the top ten, even the top 5 on every measure of national wealth.  While such a big issue is made about “illegals”, what about those visitors who come into the country legally and then overstay their visas.
Guess who the biggest group of the 58,000 over-stayers are…Chinese? Indians? Indonesians? No. There are United States citizens, about 5,000 of them. But not a squeak from anyone, nor does there appear to be much concern about the deliberate policy of keeping people in poverty while their claims are assessed.
Nameless and Blameless
It is easy to forget how horrible life can be for people whose displacement is no fault of their own, just as it is easy to fall into cold governmental language that dehumanises these people. Just as the Nazis found good for use for bureaucratic language, Australians have a penchant for a similar characterization of supposed enemies, aided by venal politicians and enthusiastic bureaucrats and inevitably, the system engages in abuse. Don’t forget what has happened in the past – the order to not call detainees by name, Ruddock’s refusal to refer to a child other than “it”, the lies of the faked Children Overboard scandal, the housing of children in jails, the Cornelia Rau or Viviene Solon scandals. Who? Many people will now ask.
All were part of a deliberate attempt to separate people in desperation from other human beings (that is, us). In fact, as I submit this article, the UN Human Rights Committee has found Australia engaged in 150 violations of international law with respect to Tamil refugees due to indefinite detention policies. This is part for the course.
So we are dealing with one of the great beat-ups, akin to the old Yellow Peril that those who are old enough remember, and this also includes concerns about “security” caused by “illegals”. Of course, such a statement pretends that the billions now spent on ASIO and other agencies are incapable of defending Australia. Of course, the major threat appears to come from radicalized locals, not immigrants.
Australians, and that includes Australian Jews, should make every effort include those who make it here, and help such people who “choose life for themselves and their descendants” (Devarim 30.19), instead of a miserable existence brought about by bureaucratic cruelty and people dumping.