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"The Global Refugee Crisis: Australia's Response"

The Catherine McAuley Oration

MercyCare, Western Australia at the Parmelia Hilton, Perth 17th September 2002

Mark Raper SJ

History says, don't hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

Seamus Heaney

It is customary at public functions to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are standing. Given the topic of tonight's talk, and the prevailing jingoism about national sovereignty, it is specially appropriate. Is it not ridiculous to claim we have a right to protect our borders when there is not yet a resolution of our right to be here in the first place. So tonight I acknowledge, not only the Noongar people, said to be the traditional owners of this place, but also the indigenous peoples across this continent who, over the past two hundred and more years, have welcomed to their lands new waves of immigrants, often at such considerable cost to themselves.

May I also acknowledge Catherine McAuley and her followers, the Mercy Sisters. During the 1850s McAuley's nursing sisters served in hospitals in the blood-sodden Crimean peninsular. Florence Nightingale was there too: English, and a lady (important in Victorian eyes), and she became a legend. But Nightingale became famous because of the methods she had copied from this hard working band of Irish nuns. Our principal debt is to those Irish women who by their careful and faithful practice, pioneered and then institutionalised the basic ground rules and concepts of modern nursing.

I have a personal debt of gratitude to Australian Mercy Sisters who have served with Jesuit Refugee Service since it began in 1980. In refugee camps across the world they are pioneering that same approach of expertise, common sense, human understanding, and tradition of Mercy that you now seek to institutionalise in this new lay Catholic organisation, MercyCare.

Tonight I intend to respond to these questions:

Why are there refugees today?, and

What can Australia, and we Australians, do or do better to assist them and to protect their rights? In other words:

What are the elements for a fair, cost-effective and workable asylum policy that will truly serve Australia's national interest?

Australian society has changed a lot in the 20 years that I have spent abroad serving refugees. It will be presumptuous of me to spell out for you the consequences of these social changes, since MercyCare is in daily contact with many who are hurt by them. Nonetheless, for a returning expatriate, certain features stand out in sharp relief. Over recent years things appear to have been going well for a majority of Australians. With economic growth steady at around 4% per annum, there have been constant promises of a higher quality of life, of more café latte and endless wine tastings in our burgeoning boutique vineyards. But economic globalisation has also meant that Australia, along with most industrialised societies, has been significantly restructured, leading to perceptions of social breakdown. Urban centres may have benefited, but rural and regional communities have suffered and feel neglected. Health and education systems are seen to be in crisis. Urban crime is said to have grown out of control. The major political parties have been losing popularity, while support has grown for minor parties, in a focused way for the Right, but in a more substantial yet fragmented way for those to the Left.

Social change generates uncertainty. The arrival of new peoples also changes society, particularly if they have different appearances, different cultural ways, and different religions. In such situations governments have two options: either they can show real leadership, and manage the pace and effects of change, or on the other hand they can blame an external threat, or blame the victims, and appeal to fear. Regarding asylum policy, our government has constantly and misleadingly portrayed itself as the protector of a generous nation besieged by asylum seekers arriving with criminal intent. Meanwhile the Labor Party, even now, has all but nothing of substance or principle to say on the matter.

The contemporary politics and rhetoric about asylum seekers go to the heart of Australian values. Following the bushfires in the Eastern States last summer, Bryan Dunn of Centacare Newcastle/Maitland, one of MercyCare's sister organisations, contrasted how politicians and the media spoke about the bushfire victims, with the way they speak of the people arriving at our shores seeking asylum. (1) The response to families affected by the fires, he says, reflects the best in the Australian community, where all feel one with them, "and stand with them in spirit; we ask what we can do to help". Yet in the case of the refugees and asylum seekers,

...we do not meet these people as individuals...They are spoken about stereotypically. Our fears are evoked, not allayed... Our politicians carefully crafted information about the centre riots without reference to underlying causes, an approach reflected in the media. Where is full disclosure of the facts, the personal stories which could evoke our deeper understanding? The political face is obdurate, and our leaders play upon our fears. A sense of hopelessness can pervade those who are concerned in the community because of the hardness of heart displayed.

A refugee story

May I tell you about one refugee whom I met in my time abroad. The story has no happy outcome, indeed far from it. But it may help you understand why I feel the way I do about what I now see in Australia.

Gabriel, a six-foot-six Dinka, had arrived in Thailand after a journey that rivalled Marco Polo's. Travelling by foot to escape the fighting which had begun in 1983 in his home in Southern Sudan, he had crossed into Egypt and on to Iran to study, but instead was drafted to be a porter in the Iran-Iraq war. Escaping, he failed to get passage westwards to Europe and so, heading east towards Australia, was stopped in Singapore and diverted to Thailand. There I found him, culturally disoriented, alone and desperate. He visited me frequently, and with an officer from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we searched everywhere for a country to take him. Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Sweden, none would even interview him. Finally he was offered three choices, a trip home to the Sudan, or Kenya, or Liberia. In desperation he accepted Liberia and departed in 1988. Several times he wrote to me, his words dictated to a Scottish Salesian priest. A few years later I was in my new position in Rome. Disturbed by the suffering of the Liberian people, I went in 1991 to war-ravaged Monrovia to see what could be done. While there I hunted for Gabriel. Visiting the Salesians, I asked if they had known him. Sure enough, they pointed me to a Scot, the one who had written Gabriel's letters. He told me how Gabriel had died, mistaken for a Mandingo, waving his long arms and showing his refugee card, trying to explain to a drugged, over-armed Krahn follower of Charles Taylor, that he was 'under the protection' of the United Nations. I wept for Gabriel and the many victims of that senseless never ending war.

Perhaps there is no moral to draw from the story of Gabriel who had traversed, mostly on foot, the geography of our world of conflict and refugees: escaping the Sudan war he was caught in a middle Eastern one, blocked when trying asylum routes west, east, south and north, caught in the eddy of the Indochinese refugee tide, finally a target in someone else's war. But try to imagine this. If all of the 143 countries which have signed the Refugee Convention were to follow Australia's policy example, there would be nowhere in the world for a refugee to go. Either those countries would send an official in to where refugees suffer persecution, and open an office there for people to stand in queue for the years it takes to process their requests, or those victims have the choice of fleeing their persecution and entering mandatory, unreviewable detention for a year or more.

The global refugee situation

Refugees are not new. For as long as intolerance and oppression have been part of human history, there have been refugees. And there will continue to be refugees as long as conflicts continue. In this era of globalisation, it is ironic that although most wars are internal, the forces of globalisation make refugees too a global matter. The modern means of transportation and communication, as well as the dramatic flows of capital and the shifting needs for labour forces, all tend to globalise the refugee problem.

During the Cold War refugees were trophies. Now they are threats to security. Rather than searching for ways to protect the rights of asylum seekers, many States try by all means either to ignore or to block them, introducing harsh legislation to protect States against refugees and migrants. The new refugee crisis is this, that the international set of agreements designed to offer protection to refugees 50 years ago and consolidated only in recent decades, is now at the time it is most needed, being dismantled piece by piece by the very States that signed it into force. We have come together tonight to try to understand this phenomenon, and to ask why Australia, which helped to draft the Refugee Convention 50 years ago which the government of Bob Menzies signed in 1954, is working so hard, against the interests of refugees, and against the efforts of many states, to find considered, compassionate, collaborative solutions.

Who are the refugees

Every continent and every region of the world is affected by forced displacement of people. Over the past 20 years almost every country in Africa, for example, has either produced or received refugees. Generations of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have known no other life than a refugee camp. Denied education, children lose their hope in the future. Adults lose their roles, their skills and their dignity. Communities become dependent and cultures are atrophied. Lost generations linger in legal, social and political limbo, often ignored by the international community. When not ignored, the lives of refugees risk distortion in the media.

Refugees demonstrate the worst in human society, and the best: the willingness to oppress others and the willingness to assist. Refugees are drenched in human value. Only a society without values will ignore refugees. It is in our national interest that Australia treats refugees justly.

Why do they leave home?

In classic migration theory, three sets of factors influence human movement: Push, Pull and Networks. Multiple factors are at play when a person chooses to leave home. Studies have revealed that the top ten reasons for asylum seekers coming to Australia are 'push' factors.(2)

The principle imbalance in today's world is in the uneven distribution of the world's resources. The contest for control of these resources is a root cause of the conflicts that lead to forced displacement of people today. Among 'push' factors then, obviously we list conflict, as well as persecution or human rights abuse, and loss of freedom. The weakening of the nation state contributes, for example, when there is a breakdown of law and order, or collapse of the local economy, or inadequate local services and porous frontiers. Sheer poverty accentuates the crisis created by conflict. If people are living close to the line, then it takes little extra push to make them leave, no matter how profound and spiritual may be their attachment to home and land and to the spirits of their ancestors. As populations become more dense, environmental disasters such as droughts, floods and earthquakes, also create massive displacements of people. Another "push" factor is that, as economies deteriorate, minority groups frequently become scapegoats and again they move in order to escape victimisation.

'Pull' factors are reasonably obvious: family ties, the decisions of community, ethnic or political leaders to move as a group, the desire for education for oneself or one's children, the future of the children in general, the likelihood of getting employment. Sometimes the decision to leave is motivated by a long nurtured, even erroneous dream, that "the streets of California are paved with gold", and that it is worth sacrificing everything to reach there.

The basic networks are ethnic and family ties. So Kurdish people leave home by the thousands to reach Germany where already 2 million Turkish people live, among whom is a sizeable Kurdish population. Travel is often facilitated by other networks: organizations of traffickers and smugglers. The distinction between traffickers and smugglers is this, that traffickers exploit their victims, often holding them and their families in bondage for years until a debt is paid. Smugglers on the other hand provide a service, admittedly an illegal one, but they are often the only agent who can provide a refugee with a passage out of an even more dangerous situation.

Australia's asylum policy

We Australians see ourselves as a part of the global economy, we favour a fair go for all, and we have one of the most successful multicultural societies. 24% of Australians are foreign born. Still tens of thousands of new settlers are welcomed here each year from a host of countries and cultures, and a constant stream of Australians, around 40,000, depart to live and work abroad. All the more surprising then are the Australian fears at the arrival of a few thousand foreigners seeking safety. Those who made the most difficult journeys to seek safety here are greeted with compulsory and prolonged incarceration. And foreign people in our communities are submitted to punishing visa conditions that in the end diminish us all.

In this year's Federal Budget 2.8 billion Australian dollars was allocated for 'Border Protection', an increase of $1.2 billion this year, while the untied Australian government contribution to UNHCR was cut from $14.3 million to $7.3 million. $2.8 billion is about one and a half times the total annual global budget of UNHCR. And the Australian untied contribution to UNHCR of $7.3 million is around a quarter of the annual profit that the US company ACM makes for managing the Australian detention facilities.

Is there not a better way?

A good asylum system must do two things. First, it must give protection to those who leave their home because they fear persecution. Second, it must preserve the integrity of the State which welcomes these foreigners at risk. The asylum system holds in balance the State's international cooperation and its sovereignty over its own territory. Border control has to be reconciled with the asylum system's basic purpose which is human rights protection.

Of all modern states, Australia, because of its island character, remoteness, and natural boundaries, is arguably one of the least threatened by the contemporary mass forced displacement of people. But one year ago, Australia proclaimed the "Tampa solution". It is a formula which worked. The boat people no longer come to Australia. But while at tremendous pecuniary and human cost it worked for border protection, it is nonetheless indecent for the protection of asylum seekers. It puts the cart before the horse, in fact it is now a cart that has no horse. It is unjust, inefficient, costly, and shoddy. Instead of balancing the protection of refugees and border control, the slogan has become exclusively "border protection". The rights and needs of asylum seekers are thrown overboard.

Across its asylum policy, border control has been the determining concern of government to the exclusion of protection. This includes the costly, ad hoc arrangements with the Pacific countries (which are anyhow to be abandoned, as inhumane, a diplomatic failure, and an egregious waste of public money); the attempt to diminish the territorial zone within which our international obligations apply (which anyhow is morally meaningless, since our obligations under the Refugee Convention, to provide protection to individuals who arrive, continue to apply wherever Australia exercises jurisdiction); the practice of interdiction at sea and forced removal of boats from Australian waters (also being revealed as having tragic consequences); the aid packages given to Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia; and the punitive nature of the so-called Temporary Protection Visas which are ultimately and grudgingly granted to refugees who have succeeded in jumping through all the hoops.

These measures waste the honour of Australia's defence forces, the esteem of its neighbours, the trust of its citizens, and billions of dollars of its taxpayers' currency. They also abuse the integrity and professional competence of our immigration officials who have a high reputation abroad.

It is legal to seek asylum

An asylum seeker has rights. It is misleading to call them 'illegal'. Listen to the formal judgement of Justice Merkel in the Federal Court on August 15th this year in the case of a Palestinian, Al Masri. (3)

61. The Refugees Convention is a part of conventional international law that has been given legislative effect in Australia: see ss 36 and 65 of the Act. It has always been fundamental to the operation of the Refugees Convention that many applicants for refugee status will, of necessity, have left their countries of nationality unlawfully and therefore, of necessity, will have entered the country in which they seek asylum unlawfully. Jews seeking refuge from war-torn Europe, Tutsis seeking refuge from Rwanda, Kurds seeking refuge from Iraq, Hazaras seeking refuge from the Taliban in Afghanistan and many others, may also be called "unlawful non-citizens" in the countries in which they seek asylum. Such a description, however, conceals, rather than reveals, their lawful entitlement under conventional international law since the early 1950's (which has been enacted into Australian law) to claim refugee status as persons who are "unlawfully" in the country in which the asylum application is made.

Actually when that Al Masri decision was given last month, the government immediately appealed. It lost the appeal of course, whereupon Mr. Akram Al Masri was marched to the gate of Woomera, there on the edge of the desert, and simply released. But several weeks earlier, the government was ready to charter a small plane to take the Bhaktiari boys to Woomera so that they would not be able to meet their father who had travelled overnight to see them. And we are to believe that the government's detention policies are not punitive and not for deterrent purposes!

Detention centres

All responsible observers of Woomera including the government's own Immigration Detention Advisory Group have recommended its closure. You may have read the statements by the Human Rights Commissioner, Sev Ozdowski a few weeks ago, describing his visits to Woomera. Dr Ozdowski told the joint Human Rights Sub-Committee he believed a three-month period was "as much as people can take" in detention.

"But when I interviewed people after four months in detention, almost every second one of them cried," he said. "Conditions are not that crucial if [detention is] for a reasonable period of time. When it goes longer it's a totally different ball game."

Dr Ozdowski said if Australia continued with its current detention policy, an independent inspector should be appointed to investigate detention centres.

Mr. Ruddock claims that his department has been working with the State governments to ensure that the best interests of children in detention centres are being met. However, on the 9th August, Premier Rann has revealed that the children in Woomera have been kept from ready access by the Department of Human Services, and that if these children would be under State care under those conditions, then the State would be in breach of the law.

Alternatives to detention

There are many alternatives to detention centres. Most countries can do the initial screening for health and security within 7 to 30 days. Then asylum seekers can be released into the community on bail or kept in open reception centres. This is how it is done in most other countries which receive vastly more asylum seekers than Australia.

Most Afghans and Iraqis are refugees

An examination of the statistics of applications for asylum by Afghans and Iraqis reveals that anyhow, under the strictest examination, most do in fact qualify for refugee status. The Department itself has pointed out that 82% of all Afghan and Iraqi applicants are found to be refugees by the primary decision makers (7,330 out of 8,965 applicants over the last three years).

Nonetheless even when they did reject any Afghan or Iraqi claim, these same primary decision makers very often get it wrong. During this last financial year (1 July 2001 - 30 June 2002), the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) set aside (that is overturned) 62% of all Afghan decisions appealed and 87% of all Iraqi decisions appealed. So in total almost 95% of the Afghans and Iraqis who reached Australia over the last three years have been found to be refugees! Meanwhile the RRT set aside only 7.9% of decisions appealed by members of other ethnic groups. Moreover in the last financial year, the RRT finalised 855 detention cases of which 377 were set aside. This is a 44% set aside rate in detention cases.

The Temporary Protection Visa

When you can meet someone on a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) you begin to understand its human costs. This conditional and controlling visa, granted to those who are finally accepted as refugees, is intended as a deterrent to unauthorised arrival. The logic of using punishment as a deterrent is that in order to make the deterrent work better, the punishment is made more harsh. So we have men living in our community who are told they may stay but if so they will never again see their wives and children, there are women who do not get medical treatment for serious illnesses, there are children who are kept from school because of their parents cannot work to meet the expense. The TPV conditions trap its holder into poverty and dependence, since he or she may not ever receive a permanent visa. (4)

It is worth noting the Labor Party's policy differs from the government on this one point of the conditions of the temporary protection visa. It would accord a TPV holder with the same rights as other residents, although Labor's policy does not yet allowed for family reunion, an essential element of the UNHCR Convention (article 28) to which Australia is a signatory.


All first world countries are searching for a contemporary refugee policy which is workable, decent, affordable and efficient. By December 2002, EU interior ministers must adopt proposals from the European Commission revising the Dublin Convention. The Dublin Convention broadly stipulates that the state where an asylum seeker first sets foot on EU soil is responsible for handling any asylum application. By June 2003, they must agree a definition of people in need of protection, including who is a refugee. By the end of 2003, they must set minimum standards for asylum procedures.

The Australian solution of high sea interdiction, excision of migration zones, Pacific solution, mandatory detention, restrictive visas and punitive, populist policy is becoming attractive to other first world countries, especially those with center right governments eager for an electoral advantage. Its deficiencies must be highlighted and a more decent and more workable model proposed.


Australia may be the end of the earth, but it is no longer inaccessible. Unauthorised movement from the third world to the first world, from insecurity to security, from persecution to protection is to be expected. Entrepreneurs, including criminal syndicates, are willing to cash in on the market for assisted passage. Australia can and should engage constructively and collaboratively at the root source of the conflicts that create refugees, it should cooperate in a more multilateral way with other States in easing the burdens of refugees in flight and of the countries that host them.

Mr. Ruddock has stated the government's objective: "to resettle some 12,000 persons each year who are in greatest need and to prioritise those who are in need of assistance - those who are at risk if they remain where they are and have no other means of escape other than resettlement to a third country." (5) We can approve of that objective. Yet some of those persons in greatest need have come to Australia by boat without a visa and we have treated them appallingly. There is no reason why the government objective cannot be achieved together with the objective of treating asylum seekers within our territory firmly but decently. It should be seen simply as a management challenge.

The goal of current Australian asylum policy appears to be that no unvisa-ed person will land in Australia, or if they do, will want to stay. In order to achieve this goal, the judiciary is silenced, liberty is taken from innocent persons and excessive amounts of public money is wasted. The government argues that the correctness of such a goal justifies these measures. Is it in our national interest that our government should send a message to the world about Australia through punishment of innocent people and the denial of human rights? In this way it is arguing that the end justifies the means. This argument is the antithesis of morality. This is the crassest form of utilitarianism.

I have worked in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Colombia...in humanitarian disasters that were created by generations of malice and misfortune and will take generations to undo. The barbarities towards asylum seekers we now witness in our society were created, and can be undone, by common sense planning and management by the Department of Immigration, by a straightforward motion in Parliament, and by appealing to the sense of fairness of Australian people.

Certainly there is no call to appear strong by attacking the most vulnerable people on earth. Moreover, the strength of any society is apparent in the way it protects the weak. It is precisely the vulnerable who make the world safe for humanity. Australia was built by refugees and migrants. They are our history and they are the strength of our nation.

(1) "Clear cut parallels clouded by fear and racism", in Catholic Welfare Australia NEWS, Volume 2 Issue 1, February 2002, p. 6

(2) Kerry Murphy, "Refugees in Australia: Unwanted Strangers?" Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, Occasional Paper No 3, September 2002.

(3) FEDERAL COURT OF AUSTRALIA in the case of Al Masri v Minister for Immigration & Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs [2002] FCA 1009, August 15, 2002.

(4) TPV holders may work, but are denied access to crucial services such as English lessons, and assistance to find work and housing. Medical assistance is limited. The most punitive provision is that the TPV holder will may never be re-united with family members abroad, even with wife and children. A TPV holder is denied the right to travel out of and then return to Australia. Family reunion and travel are two rights specifically affirmed in the UN Convention.

(5) P. Ruddock, Second reading Speech, Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill 2002, 1 July 2002

Mark Raper SJ