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The need to be popular saps Rudd’s courage and compassion

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 21 April 2009

As a former diplomat Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should know better. People smugglers fulfil a desperate need. If the need was not there people smugglers would have to turn their hand to some other trade. By slamming the people smugglers, Rudd is denying that need. By implication he is saying that the people smugglers tout for business and that without their active spruiking, refugees and their needs would fade away.

Who does Rudd think he is kidding? Perhaps the mad right wing, but they never voted for him. Thoughtful and informed swinging voters must be appalled at this crude appeal to populism. It is an appeal that flies in the face of Rudd’s professed Christianity. What core values does he hold? The silliness of his statement that, “People smugglers are the vilest form of human life, they trade on the tragedy of others, and that is why they should rot in jail and, in my own view, rot in hell,” puts the lie to any understanding of the role of people smugglers.

Where does Rudd place the role people smugglers played in helping the Jews of Europe to escape from the terror of the Nazi’s?


What would Rudd’s hero, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, make of his confected people smuggler dummy spit? In May 1942, Bonhoeffer, a committed plotter against Hitler, travelled to Stockholm on forged papers and via an underground network to meet with Dr George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester. He sought the Bishop’s good offices to pass a message to the British government on the seriousness of the plotters intentions and seeking an assurance that the Allies would make peace with an anti Hitler government once the latter had been overthrown. Bonhoeffer availed himself of people smugglers in order to accomplish his mission.

The Australian Federal Police is aware that members of the Indonesian army and police take a cut from people smugglers. They are in a position to stop the boats but, as the AFP is well aware, money talks loudly in Indonesia and the larger the amount the greater the chances of securing a desired outcome. A bidding war between competing interests often determines the outcome of a people smuggler’s agenda.

In taking on people smugglers Rudd is taking on elements in the Indonesian army and police, some of them very highly placed. Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention; it is not subject to international scrutiny; Indonesia can, and does do what it likes with refugees. That is one area where Rudd might concentrate his energies. He might deploy diplomatic resources to bring Indonesia into line on international accountability and scrutiny with respect to refugees, rather than the leaky backdoor deals Australia has so far engaged in.

The refugees involved in the recent offshore tragedy were all from Afghanistan and media reports indicate more are on the way. Rudd is aware of the reason for their flight: the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. That is the sole reason Rudd is currently considering whether to increase the number of Australian troops in Afghanistan. Australia has done nothing to address this growing humanitarian problem. Where are the plane loads of refugees from Afghanistan being brought to? As with Vietnam, Australia’s military involvement gives it an obligation. The longer the war rolls on in Afghanistan the greater the number of refugees.

In what appears to be a cynical policy decision to reduce the number of visa applications, persons wishing to obtain visas in Pakistan and Afghanistan to come to Australia must now apply to the Australian Immigration office in Dubai. With all avenues closed is it any wonder desperate people in Afghanistan would seek the assistance of people smugglers?

Just by co-incidence I had two Hazara men, former refugees, who we had helped in the past staying on the farm with several of their children. Naturally enough they were deeply upset at the fate of the refugees burned in the boat explosion. I asked them what they thought of people smugglers and they said they were good people; they had taken big risks to get my friends to Australia. Without the service provided by the smugglers they would not have been able to escape the terror of their lives in Afghanistan and provide a new life for their children. One has a son at university. He has obtained distinctions in maths and physics, while working to support himself. None of the Hazara men known to me have been without work. They are prepared to turn their hands to anything. They are industrious, sober, hard working and devoted parents.


Rudd cannot criticise people smugglers when he has done nothing to provide an alternative to meet the needs of the minority groups in Afghanistan.

At present the option of alternative visas, student and business, are not available to people in Afghanistan. The corrupt trade in Australian student and business visas for people wishing to travel to Australia for illegal purposes or to apply for refugee status continues apace. When I was on the Refugee Review Tribunal eight years ago, the going rate for an Australian business visa in Cambodia was $10,000. Only 10 per cent or thereabouts of refugee applicants come to Australia by boat, the rest come by plane.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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