Friday, April 12, 2013

An amazing thing happened this week

At lunchtime on Tuesday, as the thick sea fog began to lift, the ladies doing lunch looked up from their chai lattes and couldn't quite believe their eyes! Moored 100m offshore was a rickety looking wooden boat packed to the gunwales with small brown people. Is that what I think it is?

Yes indeed. For the first time in 5 years a boatload of asylum seekers managed to reach the Australian mainland. Not somewhere up north where the spotter planes and customs boats monitor border security, but in little old Geraldton, my home town. Only 430km north of Perth and more than 5000km from its purported embarkation point in Sri Lanka.

They were a sad little sight being towed off into the port, where they were checked then in the middle of the night bussed off to places unknown. And everybody, politicians included, scratched their heads and said "How did that happen?"

What we know is there were 66 Sri Lankans onboard; men, women and children. What we also know, is a lot of local Geraldton people were very unhappy about their arrival. And they said some very hateful spiteful vitriolic things. And went down to the port to gawk at them through the fence. On Facebook they wrote nasty little comments about diseases and terrorism and Centrelink bludgers and queue jumpers and other rhetoric that is just paraphrasing what we hear from the mouths of the major party politicians and mainstream media on a regular basis. It's not very original to just regurgitate political rhetoric, it's a sign of being duped.

So, because I'm a kind compassionate person I'm going to give these 66 Sri Lankans the benefit of the doubt, do a little research and share it with you, so maybe you can make up your own mind.

Let's start with who they are. They are Sri Lankan and are almost certainly Tamils, given that very few Sinhalese Sri Lankans have sought refugee status anywhere, including in Australia. Why is that?

Well if you've had your head under a bushel you may have missed out on knowing that from 1983 until 2009, the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan Government have been waging a very nasty civil war. War crimes and human rights atrocities were committed by both sides, and towards the very end these atrocities escalated, to the point where estimates of up to 40,000 civilians were said to have been killed in the final six months of the war. (the current estimate seems to be around 10,000).

And since the Sri Lankan Government won the war the Tamils aren't exactly feeling very safe. And the LTTE did some very nasty things (so did the Government military services, this is not a one way story here!) and the Government appears to be exacting ongoing revenge. So if you are Tamil, and have any connection to the LTTE, your life is probably in danger.

Why is that? Well back in 1983 when this mess all started the Tamils had land in the north that they felt safe in, and from where they launched their nasty terrorist attacks. There are no innocent parties here. But look at the date, 1983. If you were born any time after about 1975 it's pretty likely that you would have been involved or co-opted into the conflict. It doesn't mean you had a choice. Very few Tamils live in the southern, predominantly Sinhalese, part of Sri Lanka, so if you are Tamil, you're either an ex-terrorist, or you know a terrorist or you aided and abetted a terrorist. Well that's how the Sri Lankan Government see it.

even the cartoonists don't quite get it.
Victors, as a rule, don't like to examine their own human rights record, and the Sri Lankan Government is no different. The President did set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, but it has been heavily criticised by human rights groups, including the UN, for not providing justice and accountability for war crimes committed - by either side. And because the Sri Lankan Government continues to receive political support without censure from other countries, including Australia, it turns out it's back to business as usual.

Business as usual in Sri Lanka, is white van abductions. A white van stops, men get out and bundle you in, blindfold and gag you and take you to a detention centre where you are tortured and raped by government forces until you sign a confession, get jailed, and maybe even disappear. If you are lucky, you get out of the country.

One third of all Tamils now live outside Sri Lanka, having escaped during those 25 years of war. And now that the war is over, surely it should all be OK right? And what of that land up in the north where the Tamils live? Can't they just go back to living a peaceful life and forget about it all? Apparently not, because the Government has made numerous land grabs and it appears that there is no safe haven on Sri Lankan soil for a Tamil anymore.

Aside from the violence, there appears to be widespread discrimination as well. Having lost their land they are also at the mercy of economic factors. So whether you are rich or poor, if you're Tamil, Sri Lanka isn't such a nice place for you right now.

So there you have what the politicians call "push factors". The reasons that a person might leave where they live and seek a better life somewhere else.

Now I've always wondered about the people who do make the jump to taking whatever risks are necessary to make a better, safer life for themselves and their families. Because for all the people who do jump, there's a bunch more who don't, who sit back and suffer.

Examples I can think of are the Scottish Highland clearances, and the Irish Potato Famine, when huge populations left their desperate lives and made new, prosperous ones in Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada. And I'll bet they were a filthy, diseased lot of individuals when they arrived on those far shores. And how many of us can trace our ancestry back to those same desperate boat people?

And what about the ones who stayed behind? You know, in Scotland and Ireland? Can't say they made the right choice can you? Yep, the grass really was greener, the opportunities really were better in the new world, and they continue to be so, even now. Ha, particularly now!!

This is the so called "pull factor", which is far too much of the political debate in my opinion, because it's the one thing we can do absolutely nothing about. No matter what we do (well there are some things) we are going to always look like a better alternative to where they came from. Because we simply are.

Let's assume we could change the "pull factor", what would we do? Let's see, we'd execute everybody who did anything wrong, we'd rape and pillage our neighbours, and we'd certainly line up all those "boat people" and shoot them. I mean why not? We might as well cut all welfare for everybody, no good people thinking that welfare is something we give people who are in need. No way we want to give the world a message that we are rich and compassionate. That would be so the wrong message. We have to make this country so bad that no-one would want to come here, I mean no-one, not just those boat people, but all those other people who want to migrate to Australia and work here and make a new better life for them. It has to be a consistent message after all. And would you want to live in that country? I certainly wouldn't.

Of course everything mentioned in the previous paragraph could never happen, because Australia is, and rightly so, a signatory to the Geneva Convention and the International Charter on Human Rights. We're a country that's proud of it's egalitarianism, that always roots for the underdog, gosh we're the tall poppy chopper downers of the world!! But apparently that doesn't quite extend to small brown people from Asia. Unless they happen to be good at sport.....

The rhetoric used by both sides of Parliament is exactly that. "Turn around the boats" attitudes are not going to stop the pull factor because people aren't stupid, they know Australia is a compassionate place (because we are duuh!) and whatever bad boy tactics we might bang on about we end up taking them all anyway. Because we're nice, because when we actually start asking questions we discover that they have some pretty horrific stories to tell and we'd like them to stop having to suffer. Because all that egalitarian bullshit I talked about actually is us, it isn't bullshit, and it's what makes me proud to be Australian.

And if you think Howard had it right, and for a little look at push and pull factors and where the boats actually went during the Pacific Solution days check this out.

So then we move on to the "illegal immigration, taking our jobs, Centrelink bludgers" type of complaints, which again, dear readers, not very original. This article, if the naysayers can take the time to read it, looks at who migrates here, who is in detention and the different types of immigration we have. And it uses numbers, so we get an idea of the scale of the issue.

In 2011-2012 82,000 people arrived on skilled migration visas and another 68,000 came here on 457 visas. So who's taking the jobs? This lot. Not to mention this lot! My suggestion to an unskilled Australian? Get skilled!! Put your back into it!

In the asylum seeker class, there are just under 14,000 places available every year under Australia's Humanitarian program. Of these places, they are divided about half each for onshore and offshore arrivals. Onshore arrivals are those who come by plane or by boat to our shores, the offshore lot are the ones who've been decaying in some horrific refugee camp somewhere. Yes, in 2011-2012 we took a measly 6817 refugees off the UNHCRs books. Now you wonder why genuine asylum seekers might want to "queue jump"?

Turns out, if you manage to get into the country (and the reason why the Australian Government wants to excise Australia as well as its offshore islands from the migration zone, no this doesn't make sense does it!) you are eligible for the onshore intake. Which is actually more than its offshore intake! In 2011-2012 14,415 people applied for one of these visas, half of whom had got to Australia by plane. Yes, 7000 by plane, 7000 by boat. All "queue jumpers"! And half of them got visas, with about 2/3 of them going to the boat arrivals. The rest are still waiting, either in community settings or in detention centres.

Now looking at those numbers, I'm thinking that it makes no sense to encourage people to be onshore asylum seekers because that seems a pretty big pull factor to jump on a leaky boat. And I have lost count of how many times I have heard some politician with a serious caring look on their face say we have to do everything in our power to stop people making the dangerous decision to come here by boat. It makes heaps more sense to just take more offshore refugees, even if the overall numbers aren't increased (I think we could probably take a few more than 14,000 don't you?). And if we excise all of Australia from the migration zone, then the only people missing out would be the ones in the refugee camps, because we still wouldn't know what to do with all the "offshore" genuine refugees who got here by boat. And Australian taxpayers continue to pay for them whether they are deemed offshore or not. It's crazy logic.

Remember, the boats kept coming during the Howard years, we just sent them back, or they sunk, whoops, remember SIEVX anyone?

So if we took more people from refugee camps, and less people from onshore arrivals, that would definitely be a deterrant to "queue jump" surely. Let me be clear here about what I mean by queue jump, vs what most of the great unwashed seem to mean when they talk about queue jumping. There seems to be a little confusion between the idea of applying for a skilled migration visa - costs alot of money and time, lots of hoops to jump through, have to wait a long time - and genuine refugees trying to seek asylum. They are not the same thing, they are not comparible, they are apples and oranges. Even the refugee camp vs onshore arrival issue, which is the only legitimate queue jump gripe, seems to be a construct of our own government's making and those jumping on boats don't actually appear to be taking refugee camp places anyway.

Finally, let's talk about the Aussie taxpayer, who after all, is paying for all of this palaver. Something that came up in all the vitriol was something about how Australian people needed to be helped first, that these few thousand asylum seekers (yes I will persist to call them asylum seekers because that's what they are until their claims are proved or not) were bludging off our system at the expense of Aussies in need. Now where in the media and out of the mouths of politicans have I heard that before? Again, not an original thought...

Detaining all these people: really really expensive. Depends where you look, but more than $2 billion a year to fund current policies of detention. Previous offshore detention policies, like the Howard Government's Pacific Solution was also extremely expensive, and that money was taken from our overseas aid budget! Versus: community detention, much cheaper. Currently, those in the community get a payment significantly lower than the Centrelink Newstart allowance, which any welfare recipient will acknowledge is almost impossible to live on. There is minimal access to health care, and they can't work. So they are dependent on community and church groups and professionals who provide services for free. So they aren't taking jobs, or imposing on our health system, but they are stretching those community and church groups to breaking point!

There are currently about 8000 people in detention, just over half in mainland detention centre, another 1000 off shore and another 2200 in community detention.

I did a little internet search and found someone else had asked the same question about welfare recipients in Australia. " in summary out of a country with an essential workforce ~12 million people, around 4.2 million are dependent on welfare for survival, a similar number (~3.3 million) receive welfare in "family tax credits", subsidies for childcare, baby bonus, rental assitance, etc etc "

It does beg the question why we're getting our knickers in a knot about a paltry few thousand doesn't it?

So, back to our 66 Sri Lankans on a boat in Geraldton Harbour. Lately, there has been media claiming that Sri Lankans are just economic migrants, who pretend to be asylum seekers. If that were the case, why are there so few Sinhalese? I'm sure a lot of Aboriginal people know exactly how hard it can be to get a job when you don't come from the right ethnic group.

And how the hell did they make it this far anyway? Without anyone seeing them? Well theories are that they didn't come via Indonesia, but directly south a bit further than usual before heading east. But could they have carried that much fuel? I certainly know that with only one local Customs officer and no Customs boat based in Geraldton, we don't exactly have tight border security here.

But no-one was hurt, the mob on the boat were all healthy enough, and now Geraldton's biggest question is what to do with the bloody boat!!

Latte anyone??

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Naomi - a jolly good round-up of the issues.