Politicians from both major parties have set themselves quite a challenge to come up with a deterrent that will persuade asylum seekers that traveling to Australia by boat will result in them facing a situation worse than that they’ve fled. Potential refugees are clearly undeterred by the prospect of life threatening boat journeys: the desire to escape their circumstances is stronger than the very real threat of dying at sea.
It is a comment on the profound emotional, psychological and moral stupidity of leading politicians that they seem on the whole to be incapable of getting their heads around this core reality.
According to Amnesty International
The Australian Migration Act sets out the laws regulating migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. The Act incorporates the UN Refugee Convention and defines a refugee as anyone who:
owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
The people our politicians wish to “deter”, many of whom will be granted refugee status anyway, are fleeing circumstances of such gravity that there is no “deterrent” a self-satisfied, self-interested Westerner can impose that will make the slightest difference to their will to live, and the risks they will take to make a life for themselves and their families. In any sane world, these courageous qualities would be appreciated and the people demonstrating them encouraged and welcomed as the kind of citizens who can be expected to enrich a country.
But we are a conflicted country when it comes to the stranger. On the one hand we are signatory to the UN Refugee Convention which in its introduction clearly states:The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refu- gees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or crim- inal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum. Finally, the Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treat- ment of refugees, without prejudice to States granting more favourable treat- ment. Such rights include access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form.
We need go no further than the Introduction to find examples of how many of these conditions we continue to quite cheerfully breach. The latest is the Gillard government’s refusal to allow those granted refugee status who are released into the community the opportunity to work, a refusal that in itself can be described as “persecution” or as causing “serious harm.”
In the Guide to Refugee Law in Australia Chapter Four offers the following criteria for assessing persecution, or serious harm:
Under s.91R(1)(b) of the Act, persecution must involve “serious harm‟ to the person. It provides:
For the purposes of the application of this Act and the regulations to a particular person, Article 1A(2) of the Refugees Convention as amended by the Refugees Protocol does not apply in relation to persecution for one or more of the reasons mentioned in that Article unless:
(b) the persecution involves serious harm to the person …
Subsection (2) sets out a non-exhaustive list of the type and level of harm that will meet the serious harm test. It lists the following as instances of “serious harm”:
(a) a threat to the person’s life or liberty;15
(b) significant physical harassment of the person;
(c) significant physical ill-treatment of the person;
(d) significant economic hardship that threatens the person’s capacity to subsist;16
(e) denial of access to basic services, where the denial threatens the person’s capacity to subsist;
(f) denial of capacity to earn a livelihood of any kind, where the denial threatens the person’s capacity to subsist.17
Persecution necessarily involves two elements: serious harm and a failure on the part of the state to afford adequate protection.
An asylum seeker who is granted refugee status is presumably potentially eligible to become a citizen of this country. We are creating potential citizens whose first experiences in our country have been entirely negative. This does not and cannot augur well for us in the long term.
The amount of financial support offered to refugees who arrive by boat is inadequate to feed, clothe and house them. Denying them the right to work will further dehumanise them. In its cruel and ignorant pursuit of a “deterrent,” the Gillard government has hopefully reached the end of the road in terms of punishment it can inflict for arriving by boat.
This is punishment we voluntarily undertook not to inflict in our role as signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Our parliament has demonstrated its utter contempt for the UN Convention, while simultaneously bidding for and winning a seat on the Security Council.
There is no moral or ethical dimension to current asylum seeker policy. As many have pointed out, this is a policy and a discourse entirely bereft of values. The question is, can a democracy continue to be a democracy if its political discourse is bereft of values?
Deterrence has never worked. It never will work. If we don’t want people arriving by boat and seeking asylum, we have no alternative but to remove ourselves as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. The invitation we extend as signatories to this Convention is precisely what asylum seekers respond to, and they have every legal and moral right to expect they will be accepted in this country no matter how they arrive. That is what we have voluntarily agreed to do: unconditionally accept asylum seekers no matter how they arrive. If this is not what we intend, there is an urgent moral imperative to withdraw the invitation, not to find increasingly cruel methods of punishment for those who accept it.
In implementing an impotent and dehumanising policy of magical thinking called “deterrence,” our parliament has made mockery of us all.