Sep 7 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – Many of the far-right political parties in Europe that are riding a wave of misguided anti-refugee sentiment are inclined to view Australia as a role model. They look across the sea and fawn upon a nation whose navy turns back rickety vessels overflowing with desperate asylum-seekers. They see a nation that has decreed that no one who reaches its shores by boat will ever find refuge in a country whose national anthem declares: “For those who’ve come across the seas/ We’ve boundless plains to share.”
Those boundless plains are still there, but Australia has become far more circumspect about sharing them. Once upon a time, colonial Australia was a repository for convicted criminals from Britain. After it became an ostensibly independent country at the turn of the 20th century, it instituted a White Australia policy that remained in place until 50 years ago.
Since then it has absorbed a great many immigrants of various origins. The first to be described as boat people were probably the Vietnamese fleeing the communist-led reunification of their country in the 1970s. In recent decades, Islam has replaced communism as a major concern for many. Yet beleaguered asylum-seekers from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq tend to be frowned upon as if they were invaders rather than refugees.
It isn’t just Islamophobia at work, though, in the wake of the disastrous ‘war on terror’. Tamils from Sri Lanka, for instance, have routinely been delivered back into the clutches of the regime in Colombo. Their subsequent fate does not register on the national radar.
Lately, though, the focus has been on about 1,300 asylum-seekers, mainly from Muslim countries, incarcerated at Australia’s behest on Nauru and Manus Island. The latter belongs to Papua New Guinea, a former Australian colony whose highest court has decreed the detention centre to be illegal and unconstitutional.
Many Australians are troubled by the moves to deter asylum-seekers.
It is to be shut down, but the fate of its 854 inmates remains unclear. They are all men, 98 per cent of whom have been assessed as legitimate refugees. The Australian gove¬rnment has arbitrarily decreed that they can never be resettled in that country, notwiths¬tanding its obligations under international law. Even more bloody-mindedly, it closed off avenues of resettlement in New Zealand or Canada, both of which have offered to take in substantial proportions of the asylum-seekers.
The argument is that if eventual asylum in New Zealand or Canada were to be seen as a viable option, the people-smuggling operations would once more go into overdrive. In other words, resettlement is a viable option only in unattractive places.
Several experts have meanwhile dismissed this argument as fatuous even on practical grounds, given the Australian navy has for years been turning back boats, notably to Indonesia and Malaysia, the most common conduits for refugees. On a moral plane, the idea of indefinite incarceration as a deterrent is even more repellent.
In the past few weeks, a debate has been raging in Australia, following the leak last month of more than 2,000 incident reports from Nauru detailing innumerable appalling instances of sexual assault, child abuse, self-harm and mental illness among the 466 people (more than two-thirds of whom have been determined to have legitimate claims to asylum), including children and women, confined to that benighted island.
Impecunious Nauru is happy enough with an arrangement that brings it a steady income — back in the 1970s, thanks to its phosphate deposits, it had a per capita GDP second only to that of Saudi Arabia, but that bounty was squandered long ago — and eager to collaborate with Canberra in kee¬p¬¬ing away unwel-come intruders.
The 1,300 peo¬ple who risked death in their quest for a haven are effectively hostages, pawns in a sordid poli¬tical drama. The conservative government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, returned to power in July with a one-seat majority in the lower house of parliament and a minority in the upper house — is clearly disinclined to change its policy. The opposition Labour Party was responsible for reinstituting the absurd practice of ‘offshore processing’ in 2012, and has shown few signs of shifting its position.
Despite the gormlessness of the mainstream political leadership, substantial segments of Australian society are deeply troubled by their nation’s determination to heap punishment on a few hundred innocents who could easily be accommodated in Australia at a fraction of the cost entailed in maintaining them in atrocious conditions on Pacific islands where they are, by and large, unwelcome.
There is a growing acknowledgment that Australia can, and must, do better. Its present policies and their consequences are ugly and unconscionable, which is why they appeal to neo-Nazis. How soon the injustice it is perpetrating can be redressed remains an open question, though.
Published in Dawn September 7th, 2016
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan