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What does Peace Day mean to refugees arriving in Australia?

By Alistair Gee - posted Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Today is UN International Peace Day. The focus of the day is the resolution of conflicts, big and small, in the light of the bigger-picture need for peace at home and abroad. It seems simple enough, this symbolic shift in perspective. But when we consider the nature of the public debate in Australia on refugee policy, the asks of Peace Day become more and more important. The present climate of uncertainty around the issue of refugees coincides perfectly with the theme of Peace Day, and we could ask for no better time for Australia to make a change in the name of peace.

When we hear the phrase 'refugee policy', most of us think of boats, of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, of the 'Pacific Solution', of heated debates in Parliament. It is undeniably a political topic - an arena in which our leaders fight for votes, for the upper hand, for the final word. As the battle rages on, however, the refugees who have no voice in these debates are fighting their own battle in their home countries - fighting for their lives and for their most basic human rights.

The UN Refugee Convention defines 'refugee' as follows:

A person who owing to a 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" – Article 1

The focus on 'fear' in the Refugee Convention is crucial. Refugees are people who fear their home environments because they do not have the freedoms there to practise their religions, to express their political beliefs, to associate themselves with certain ethnic groups. Theirs is a genuine fear of persecution. By contrast, the 'fear' that Australia has developed of 'queue-jumpers' and 'illegals' who are 'swamping' our country - the legacy of a consistently misleading and uninformed rhetoric - is grossly misplaced and entirely lacking in humanitarian perspective.

As a signatory to the Convention, Australia has a duty to provide the protections to which refugees have a fundamental right and to help resolve the conflicts that are causing refugees to flee their homes. Instead of doing so, however, we are turning inward and wasting time and energy on petty political conflicts. Our leaders are so focused on one-upping each other in what has become a political game that they have forgotten that it is the lives of human beings they are playing with.

The state of limbo following August's High Court decision provides a much-needed opportunity to shift our focus back onto the refugees and who they are: people escaping war and persecution in their home countries, who have little choice but to flee to other corners of the globe to seek protection. Refugee policy should not be a political prize which our political parties juggle, strategically and competitively, in the name of their electoral interests. Refugee policy is an issue that is, at its core, about the basic rights of human beings, and it is time that our policies and popular discourse reflected that.

As our international legal and moral obligations dictate (and as the High Court emphasised), Australia owes refugees a duty to put protection over politics. Children should not be held in detention merely so our politicians can prove how hardline their policies are. Asylum seekers undergoing processing should be kept onshore in communities rather than in mandatory detention as though they are dangerous criminals. On a broader scale, Australia needs to encourage a regional framework to protect people who are fleeing persecution. 'Stopping the boats' does not change the fact that this persecution is real and is sending millions of people fleeing from their homes every day.

Ultimately, we need to remind those who lead and represent us that refugee policy is a concern not because of what happens to Australia but because of ongoing wars and human rights violations in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Our time and resources should go into developing peace and conflict resolution strategies in the long term, and in mitigating the human costs of war and persecution in the short term. The problem is not one which is going to disappear by Australia blocking its borders; wars will continue to be fought, and refugees will continue to flee. Australia has the opportunity and the resources to make a real difference by shifting its focus away from irrational home-grown fears and toward the real fears that exist beyond our shores.


These kinds of policy ideas should not be overwhelming or revolutionary. They should be at the heart of a humanitarian refugee policy that is in line with our responsibilities under the Refugee Convention and with our moral responsibilities to our fellow human beings. By putting an end to the unhealthy partisan debate on refugees, Australia can develop a workable refugee policy that puts refugees above politics. Now, in the light of International Peace Day, is as good a time as any to develop some perspective, to put political self-interest on the backburner, and remember the rights of people in need.

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About the Author

Alistair Gee is Executive Director of Act for Peace, the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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