Monday, January 30, 2012

Refugees - The Huddled Masses

“Tony Abbott has done it again!”

I had just written that when news broke that Abbott and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had been the target of a very vocal protest by aboriginal rights activists.

Abbott, the leader of Australia’s political opposition coalition, had just said in effect that things were so much better for the Australian Aborigines now that it was time to move on — implying that the Aborigines no longer had much to feel aggrieved about.

This so enraged the activists that when they learned where he was — in a Canberra restaurant with the prime minister — they surrounded it. Fortunately, neither he nor Gillard was hurt as security quickly bundled them out of danger.

When I wrote, “Tony Abbott has done it again,” I’d been referring to his earlier reiteration of an opposition proposal to turn back all boats at sea that carried asylum seekers. That time, too, the backlash was instant.

Richard Towle, the regional representative of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, warned that this draconian approach would violate Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and other international laws.

The former chief of the Australian armed forces, Adm. Chris Barrie, denounced the policy proposal as useless. “Policy can’t override international law,” he said.

The Indonesian government responded by citing the Bali Process as the only comprehensive solution to the problem — where the problem is not that asylum seekers were flocking to Australia, but that they were being transported by people-smuggling syndicates.

The asylum seeker is never a criminal, even when he does not have legal papers for migration. He is exercising a human right to escape persecution. But there are people-smuggling syndicates that demand sky-high fees up front and then pack asylum seekers into frail boats that often sink mid-sea.

The lucky ones make it, but the dream of freedom and the dreamer often perish together.

No better solution is on the horizon than the Bali Process, an effort of the Australian and Indonesian governments to address this problem as part of an inclusive regional agenda involving the asylum seekers’ countries of origin (Libya, Afghanistan, Iran), countries of transit (notably Indonesia) and countries of destination (in the most dramatic cases, Australia). Without cooperation among all three sets of countries, the problem will never be solved.

Behind the Bali Process is a humanitarian concern for the plight of refugees. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said that we must “have an abundance of patience here. These people have suffered and are still suffering. The last thing we want is to add to their suffering.”

But the Bali Process is ponderous. Indonesia is still working on a law criminalizing people smuggling. How do you get Iran, for instance, to agree to an orderly departure program like Vietnam did in the late 1970s?

How do you stop Australian politicians from conjuring the specter of refugees descending on the country like a swarm of locusts, devouring the wealth of the country and stealing jobs from hardworking mates?

Fortunately, the Australian voter is not so easily bamboozled. No prime minister has been made or unmade by the issue of asylum seekers, with the debatable exception of John Howard’s win in 2001.

Minus the drama, the issue is a molehill, not a mountain. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, of the 14.2 million refugees worldwide, only 20,919 are in Australia, less than a tenth of a percent of the country’s 22 million people.

And there is a long honor list of refugees who have contributed to the greatness of Australia, the Czech-born magnate Frank Lowy, who founded the research organization Lowy Institute, being one of them.

Much of the history of humankind is about refugees. Without dissenters fleeing religious persecution in England in 1620, the Mayflower would not have sailed to the New World. No Mayflower, probably no United States of America.

The United States, Australia and arguably several other modern nations were built by tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. All through its life the human race, in groups small or large, has been on the move: fleeing from the cruelties of rulers or religions or the wolf of hunger to start a new life elsewhere. That’s how the world of today came to be. Otherwise, the only populated continent would be Africa. Thank God for refugees.

By Jamil Maidan Flores poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992. Jakarta Globe

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