Tampa, 12 months on

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Having worked for the UN High Commission for Refugees this article is one in a series I published from 2000 through to 2011 lamenting the great shame of the paucity of Australian public debate. This was one of the earlier one, published in mid-2002.

Tampa, 12 months on.

Now that 12 months have passed since the Tampa ‘crisis’, we must look back less emotively at the issues surrounding Australia’s refugee policy and where it has placed us, where it has placed the fraudulent asylum seekers and what we have done with the genuine refugees.
At the start we must recognise that boats of asylum seekers, like that intercepted by the Tampa, contain both genuine and disingenuous asylum seekers.
That said; if one sees a car accident on a lonely country road in which one person is obviously hurt, and one is obviously OK, most people would stop and help because one person IS hurt, not continue on because one is OK.
Likewise a boatload of asylum seekers should be treated as if the passengers are genuine, as some are, not treated as ‘illegal’ because of a few. Latter processing can sort out the real from the phoney.
If we are to treat asylum seekers properly then we must review a couple of questions that have been lost in the recent debate surrounding terms and conditions of detention.
Firstly we must remind ourselves of the conditions from which genuine refugees flee.
We must also re-examine the number of refugees that we consider to be our ‘fair share’ out of the 22 or so million people currently considered ‘of interest’ to the UNHCR.
To the first question: what are the conditions that genuine refugees flee from.
I can not speak for all refugees – only speak of those that I have witnessed through work in 5 conflicts on 3 continents.
In Vojvodina, in northern Serbia, my work took me to a refugee orphanage in a town named Sombor – an orphanage that had been ‘adopted’ by the local Red Cross branch.
At this orphanage was a girl named Maria. She was 12 years old. Maria had fled the fighting in Bosnia. She had one day ‘appeared’ on the Croatia/Serbia border with a flood of refugees but without any family.
She said nothing. She did not speak. Something that happened to her or something she had seen caused her to close up, to shut her emotions in and let no emotion out.
Maria may not even be her real name, it was a name given to her at the orphanage, as her real name could not be coaxed from her.
On a warm night at a summer camp hosted for the refugee children by the Red Cross, the children laughed and played around the campfire. All of them did except Maria, who sat silently and alone under a tree.
And then, for no reason she stood and walked over me, sat, snuggled her head to my shoulder and cried.
What had she seen? What could have happened to her? Why would we turn our backs on people like her just because they arrive here by boat?
Why, if Maria arrived, would we lock her up in the desert?
Half a world away, in Rwanda, there are three sets of traffic lights. Beggar children gather at these lights hoping for a handout from some of the foreign workers.
I worked in Rwanda and one day stopped to share some toys with the kids. They each received a small and nearly worthless gift in monetary terms, but they all ran gleefully to play for the afternoon.
The next afternoon no beggar children were at the lights except one. The boy tapped on the vehicle window, leant in and handing Andrew a 20-franc coin (worth about one third of one cent) he said ‘thank you sir’ for the gift, and shared what little he had.
I carry that coin each day.
In our focus on ‘illegal’ we as a nation have forgotten about the ‘genuine’. Genuine refugees have a right to come here, even by boat, even by people smugglers – even then they are not ‘illegal’.
It is time that we as a nation remembered that on a lonely road we would stop and help an accident because someone IS hurt. Why then do we chastise and demonise asylum claims from the ‘genuine’ just because some amongst them are fraudulent?
Why do we as a Nation turn our backs on some in the greatest need, when at the same time a beggar boy feels the need to give, even when he has nothing to share?
Why is it that we as a wealthy nation even for an instant thought that 4,000 refugees out of 22 million was a ‘flood’ and a ‘crisis’? What gives us the cheek to think that 4,000 would have been our ‘fair share’ out of 22 million, when Britain takes 100,000?
Not only were we wrong to turn our backs, not only are we wrong to detain children, we are wrong to think we have done anything like as much as we could or as much as we should.
For future policy alternatives the Labor choice is starker than for the Liberals. The famed ‘Light on the Hill” speech that Laborites turn to for inspiration commands the Labor Party to seek out and search for those in need, wherever they may be. If it does not then it has no right to exist.

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