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Refugees: realism v righteousness

By Syd Hickman - posted Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Most Australians have a realistic view of the refugee issue but the righteous among us have loud voices and get media time as politicians argue and fail to find solutions.

One key problem in dealing with the entry to Australia of people claiming to be refugees is the legal situation created by the Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. This document prescribes legal rights to people if they can claim they are fleeing persecution. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars 'processing' such claimants and the courts are clogged with their cases.

The Refugee Convention was framed to cope with the situation in Europe as World War 2 ended. It was then amended in 1967 to cope with the Cold War as people escaped communist regimes for the freedom of the West. It is now being applied to people fleeing ethnic strife, civil wars and economic collapse across Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia.


In Australia there is a lot of talk about 'stopping the boats' but the first step must be to address the legal situation. Under article 42 (2) of the Convention any nation can give one years notice of withdrawal. The current Government should do that now, and if not then the Opposition should give notice that they intend to do so as soon as they win office. Withdrawal would greatly reduce the potential for legal challenges to future administrative decisions.

The government would continue to take refugees, with the assistance of the UNHCR, and the numbers need not be changed. What would change is the legal complexity of dealing with self-selecting migrants from badly run nations.

Australia could remain in EXCOM, the UNHCR executive committee, and push for a complete revision of the refugee convention to take into account current realities.

Climate change, fossil fuel price rises and food shortage issues have very tough implications that are already starting to take shape. Overpopulation makes these problems more dire. Mass migrations will be the inevitable result. This is well known among defence forces around the world and plans are already quietly being put in place to defend national boarders against huge numbers of destitute civilians.

The ocean, and the lack of cheap transport, is all that protects Australia from much higher numbers of illegal entrants, but the economics will change as more nations descend into crisis and the middle classes get more desperate to leave. Nearly all the current source countries have very high population growth and face environmental disaster and economic collapse as the numbers continue to grow.

If a government were to announce withdrawal from the Convention the righteous would mount their soap boxes and proclaim their moral superiority to the rest of us in the usual way, but they should be asked to explain the implications of their demands.


The self-proclaimed "refugee advocates" should be asked the simple questions, "How many do you want?" and, "How would you select them?". There are already tens of millions of displaced persons seeking safety and there will soon be hundreds of millions. The answers implicit in their actions, but never admitted to, is "As many as can beg, steal or borrow the money to pay people smugglers to get them here."

The fact that people want to come to Australia uninvited does not make them bad. In their situation most of us would do the same, but that is not the point. We should be taking assessed refugees with the most to offer Australia, not undocumented people with the most money to offer people smugglers.

Australia should prepare itself legally for what it must do and then take a lead in framing a global response to the people problem.

Withdrawal from the hopelessly out-dated Refugee Convention is just one step towards a realist Australia.

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About the Author

Syd Hickman has worked as a school teacher, soldier, Commonwealth and State public servant, on the staff of a Premier, as chief of Staff to a Federal Minister and leader of the Opposition, and has survived for more than a decade in the small business world.

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