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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.
Raising Fear on Refugee Arrivals is a Red Herring
Here we go again… a fear campaign about being swamped by refugees being ramped up by an unpopular leader searching for populist support.
Whilst there is a temptation to compare the Coalition’s campaign of 2009 with the fear campaign of 2001, this year’s effort is far more dangerous as it hides a bigger and more important issue than even ‘Child Overboard’.
The issue is not ‘Why are refugees coming to Australia’ (we know why – Australia is a great beautiful and functioning country; who wouldn’t want to come here?). The issue is ‘Why are the refugees leaving Sri Lanka’.
Why are refugees leaving Sri Lanka when the war has ended? Why are people fleeing a ‘peace’?
By raising the fear campaign about refugee arrivals, the Opposition is distracting us from asking ‘What is Australia’s role in stopping the departures?’ Turnbull’s campaign is stopping us from holding the government to account on the real issues. The Opposition is failing at their principle role.
‘What is Australia doing to support the peace’ is the real question hidden by a campaign from an unpopular Malcolm Turnbull seeking renewed support through populism.
The Australian Government, through the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) does support peace building programs all around the world. What are we doing in Sri Lanka?
As a fellow Commonwealth Country, but without the overtones of a former Colonial overlord, Australia has some moral sway in Sri Lanka – and additional sway attached to the financial investments AusAID makes in development. What is Australia doing with this influence?
Why isn’t the Opposition pressing the government on these real issue rather than populism? Maybe the government is doing something, but we just don’t know about it.
Whilst the Sri Lankan government can rightly be happy for succeeding in ending a war that lasted more than a quarter of a century, killing hundreds of thousands and spawning the invention of the ‘Suicide Bomber’, the Sri Lankans were told by many that winning the peace will be harder than winning the war.
The Sri Lankans have been told that in order to ‘win the peace’ the Tamils need to see a real ‘peace dividend’ with over-investment in infrastructure, economic development, education and social cohesion in the north of Sri Lanka where the Tamils are centred.
For a successful conclusion to the war and a winning of the peace the Sri Lankan Government has to establish to the Tamil people in the north that the benefits of a peace outway the costs of a war.
It is for this reason, in successful transitions from conflict to peace, smart government’s tend to establish ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’ or something similar, leaving war crimes prosecutions for only the most severe of contraventions. The notion of retribution must be banished from the victor’s mind-set, or the peace will fail.
So have the Sri Lankan’s done this? Are they using the support – both moral and financial – of Government’s like Australia in really seeking a peace dividend?
Instead of peace and reconciliation we see a block by the Sri Lankan Government of western aid agencies and observers access to the conflict and Tamil zones. We hear fleeing Tamil’s telling stories of horrific camp condition and retribution and we have no real independent evaluation.
The reason we even begin to have a refugee arrival in Australia, is because we have a refugee departure from Sri Lanka.
This lack of interest and investment in peace is the real problem, and our lack of knowledge on what Australia is or isn’t doing to support the peace is because the media space is full of the xenophobic fear campaigns, rather than the smart and nuanced debate that an educated and smart Australian population deserve.
Whilst the debate around support to Indonesia’s ability to control boats, or Australia’s processing regime on Christmas Island has a genuine place in generalised discussions, the current influx of Tamil’s seeking asylum because the war has ended in their homeland points to much more nuanced and much tougher questions for the Government. Unfortunately the Oppositions seem incapable of grasping this reality and unwilling to hold the government to account.
While a democratic system requires a responsive government, it also requires a responsible opposition, and on the refugee issue, the Opposition is failing to hold the government to account to the real issues, and is thereby failing the Australian people.
See here: Maria. This is the story of the Bosnian refugee girl I met in northern Serbia. A 12 year old who changed my life forever.
But what is an alternative?
Below are some links to my views on alternative asylum, but also a positive, short video extract from the Richard Searby Oration where I think setting out where Australia should be.
If you are interested in my views on alternative asylum policy, see my other blogs:
- Tampa 12 months on.
- Stop the Bollocks: Is Abbott trashing Australia’s reputation?
- Fear of refugees is a red herring.
- Resettlement not Processing is the real solution for refugees?
- Carrots and sticks can provide answers to asylum policy.
- Mental health of refugees our new Stolen Generation.
More discussion like this is in: