Thursday, June 09, 2011

Refugee spin masks racism By Steve Pennells June 7th, 2011

"A week before Four Corners aired its horrific footage of the fate of Australian cattle in Indonesia, Dateline on SBS featured equally graphic images - canings, detention and brutal treatment of asylum seekers at a Malaysian detention centre.

If the response to both is any indication, there was one clear winner in the battle for sympathy: the cattle by a landslide.

Australians seemed more willing to empathise with cattle exported for slaughter than they were with men, women and children who would be sent to Kuala Lumpur as part of the so-called "Malaysian solution".

It's an extraordinary comparison but it lays bare the ugly truth that our proud belief in a fair go for any battler often comes with a caveat - "battlers" get our support if they fit in with a homogenous, Christian Australia, a Neighbours reality where black, Asian or Muslim characters come in only as guest stars in fleeting visits to a white-skinned Erinsborough.

A week ago, the United Nation's top human rights watchdog, Navi Pillay, attacked Australia's refugee policies and the treatment of Aboriginals, saying there was a strong undercurrent of racism in the country.

"I come from South Africa and lived under this and am every way attuned to seeing racial discrimination," she said.

"There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences: racial, colour or religions."

She was pointing bluntly to the elephant in the room - the racism that underpins much of Australia's discourse, attitudes, media and political debate.

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard first flagged the "Malaysian solution" - to exchange 800 asylum seekers who arrive on our shores for 4000 legitimate refugees in Malaysia - letters pages and talkback were filled with outcry: "We get five of them for every one we send across ... great deal, Julia."

The reaction made it clear that, however we try to justify it, the fear over asylum seekers is rooted more in race and religion than in the character of the people we accept.

I've visited and talked to asylum seekers waiting in camps or hiding out in towns and cities across Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Kenya. They were families and individuals - so-called queue jumpers - living in shocking conditions and desperate for a chance at a better life.

In Kabul last year I decided to test the "queue" argument to see just what line-up the Afghans arriving in Australia had supposedly "jumped".

Unsurprisingly, there isn't one.

Any refugee fleeing persecution can't go to the Australian Embassy in Afghanistan because it is in a secret, hidden location and does not deal with visa applications of any kind.

The thousands of people in makeshift camps around the city also do not fall into the confines of the UNHCR's refugee classification, so they have no way to apply for humanitarian asylum.

In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the so-called "queue" is a myth.

The only option these refugees have is to join the three million people living in camps across the borders with Pakistan and Iran, some for more than a generation, or seek asylum further afield, in countries such as Australia.
Some see no choice but to put their lives or their children in the hands of people smugglers.

For most of the 44 million refugees worldwide displaced by war or persecution there is no orderly queue.

The UNHCR battles to deal with a fraction of these people. In Malaysia alone, there are 94,000 refugees registered with UNHCR waiting to be processed. Despite the fact they're all considered legitimate, only 8000 are accepted by a handful of other countries each year. Do the maths.

It's why camps like Dadaab in north-east Kenya, built 20 years ago to hold 80,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia, now holds 352,000 and rising, with 42,000 new arrivals sitting outside its boundaries because the UNHCR can't fit them inside.

It's why almost three million Afghans live in exile and squalor on the Pakistan border.

I wrote about it at the time but it made no difference. The idea of "queue jumpers" has seeped so much into common wisdom that it is accepted as fact. It feeds so well into a simplistic interpretation of a complex reality that the truth doesn't seem to matter any more.

We can't rely on our politicians for any nuance, either. Three-year electoral cycles are the enemy of big picture debate and Canberra long ago adopted the slippery linguistics and psychologically calculated buzzwords of advertising.

After all, "queue jumpers" is such a great phrase - a neat pre-packaged opinion to steer a debate. Like all effective propaganda, it is predigested and does the judging for us.

It is an appropriation of language by people who seek to reorganise reality on their own terms. As is "bleeding heart" and "do gooder", which will no doubt feature in the letters and emails I am certain to get next week.

My point is that we seem more inclined to sympathise with the plight of cattle than we do at making any attempt to understand or empathise with the plight of this desperate throng of humanity.

The fury over asylum seekers or, more specifically, a certain type of asylum seeker, is also staggeringly disproportionate to the actual size of the problem.

If our obsession with boat people is solely about people being here illegally and not about race, then where is the outcry over the much greater number of illegals in Australia who fly here?

On June 30, 2009, the latest figures available, 48,700 people were here illegally after overstaying holiday or student visas. About 8060 of them were from the US and Britain alone - almost 3000 more than the total number of refugees who arrived by boat last year.

To put the situation into more context, look at the list of countries dealing with asylum seekers and we barely rate.

The UNHCR says 8250 asylum claims were made in Australia in 2010. Compare this with the US (55,000), France (47,800), Germany (41,300), Sweden (31,800), Canada (23,000), Britain (22,100), Belgium (19,900), Switzerland (13,500), the Netherlands (13,300), Austria (11,000), Greece (10,300), Turkey (9230) and Italy (8200).

Globally, only 2 per cent of the world's asylum claims are made in Australia. Not much of a "flood".

But what about the numbers compared with a country's population? Good point.

Even when comparing the number of asylum seekers with a country's GDP, which more accurately reflects the capacity of a country to host them, Australia doesn't rate. Cyprus and Malta come first with Sweden third, followed by Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Of course, none of this fits in with the rhetoric over asylum seekers or our overreaction to certain people who don't look or talk like us.

I'm dwelling on asylum seekers here but the argument can be stretched further.

Would there have been a bigger outcry in communities in WA's north if children being abused and abandoned were white? And what would have happened if the 12-year-old boy who spent a week in a police lockup this month wasn't Aboriginal?

Subconsciously or not, we see colour first and any nuance later.

I remember covering the Schapelle Corby trial a few years back and fending calls from a public obsessed at the injustice.

"She's innocent," the calls would usually start, "you just have to look into her green eyes to know that. Those animals are going to lock her up."

When Corby was sentenced in a Bali courtroom on May 27, 2005, Australian TV crews turned the court into a film set, production assistants miked up the key players and Australian tourists peered through windows waving flags as if they were at a sporting event.

The whole thing was broadcast live across Australia and New Zealand.

Just over six months later, another Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, was hanged in Singapore. He was a Vietnamese-Australian. He didn't look like Corby and he had a name few could pronounce.

There were no Australians waving flags when he was executed and no national campaigns to free him.

Perhaps it might have been different if his name was Barry. Or if he'd been a steer."


spew-it-all said...

Sadly only a few will understand where the hypocrisy lies in reference to the cattle debate. After all, these cattle are Australian while these queue jumpers are just the Other.

Sass O said...

Wonderfully well written eye opening article. Thanks foe sharing!