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Rational thinking about refugees

By Ivan Molloy - posted Tuesday, 30 April 2002

As a current member of the 'Left' (and also a defacto Green) in the ALP, for nearly 20 years I have championed its positions on Vietnam, Uranium mining, and so many other flawed aspects of Australian domestic and foreign policy. I have spent much time in Asia and Central America researching and supporting many popular struggles against oppression. I am a strong supporter of the Palestinians and abhor our current government’s 'all the way with LBJ' mentality. And I am also a Republican!

However, on the issue of detainees I’m afraid I part company with so many of my colleagues, many of whom have protested outside the Woomera detention centre. In fact on this issue I am sympathetic to the current government’s stance.

Considering last weekend's events, it’s time for clear thinking. Emotive knee jerk opposition to the government's approach does not pass for reasoned criticism. When considering the wider refugee crisis, from a human rights perspective the government’s approach to the `detainees' question appears somewhat appropriate. Debate should not be limited to our detention centres; it also should concern those thousands of `asylum seekers' overseas seeking legal entry. Integral also is the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the Australian State, which those opposing globalisation should applaud.


Unfortunately however, so many on the Left now appear caught in a McCarthyist current condemning all who question their narrow self-righteous approach. Reminiscent of Bush's "you're with us or agin us" attitude they are blind to the fact that their position, lost in misleading semantics and notions of identity, is ultimately unjust.

We must step back from the emotive label 'asylum seekers' and reconsider the identities of the detainees. First, most are in fact illegal immigrants in the first instance as products of the people smuggling racket. This, often along with the lack of adequate identification, warrants their 'detainment' at least initially. Second, such status is only temporary. In accordance with our International Human Rights obligations all must have their identities and the legitimacy of their claims established. Only to those proven to be genuine political refugees should such status and asylum be granted.

So many argue, irrationally, that detainees should be fast tracked into Australian society - even billeted in people's homes. How absurdly unjust, not just for those thousands already homeless in this country but also those refugees lingering in foreign camps. No valid reason exists, except one, for current detainees to be assessed ahead of others who seek legal entry or lack the money to pay people smugglers. Only those genuine political refugees escaping directly to Australia as their first point of safe haven should be fast tracked. Those abandoning interim safe havens have no valid right to special attention.

Proper investigation of the detainees must be undertaken. Until then all must be considered a potential mix of genuine refugees and others, including criminal elements. For example, it has been estimated that there are at least 15,000 Islamic fundamentalists who fought against the Soviets currently spread around the world dedicated to waging terrorism to achieve their goals. Some could well be in our camps. This is not hysterical stuff. Before September 11, US intelligence agencies treated many terrorist suspects with a false sense of security and the US subsequently paid the price.

Allowing boat people direct access into our community until bona fides are proven is not the answer. This emanates undesired signals in terms of our territorial integrity and how we prioritise our current refugee intake policy. It suggests it is OK for those with the economic and physical capacity to simply force entry into the country illegally with the assistance of both a legal `industry’ growing around this issue and emotive campaigns to embarrass the Government into compliance. Further, it signals Australia is prepared to give priority to those violating the rights of other `asylum seekers' who choose to comply with the protocols of our refugee policy.

Australia with its standard of living, rule of law and democratic freedoms offers a valuable safe haven for all refugees, but the nature of this safe haven is essentially linked to our sovereignty and integrity as a nation which in turn are linked to our immigration and refugee programs. To allow the latter to be violated at will serves to ultimately jeopardize the very egalitarian and democratic nature of our society.

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This article was first published in The Australian on 3 April 2002.

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About the Author

Dr Ivan Molloy is a Senior Lecturer and Head, Politics and International Studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

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Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
University of the Sunshine Coast
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