Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A New Vision Required on Asylum Seekers

This week, as the debate about what happened on Manus Island that caused the death of one person and the injury of 77 others continued, Australians looked on in horror.

 As we now have come to expect, all we got from Minister Morrison was continued obfuscation despite the fact that he was more forthcoming than usual on this issue.  But the reaction by Richard Marles – shadow spokesperson for immigration and border protection – was just plain disappointing.
Richard appears to be defending the indefensible by continuing to support the former Labor Government’s politically expedient asylum seeker policy.  That the reality of the asylum seeker issue had not usurped politics is beyond sad.

Photo courtesy of
Corinne Grant has probably said it best in her recent Hoopla article:
“The ALP has to change. It can earn itself some credibility by taking a stance, even if that means the short term pain of owning up to past mistakes and dodgy dealings.  That would not only be the right thing to do, it is increasingly the only thing they can do if they have any hope of ever earning the respect of the country again.”

Back in December last year, newly minted Senator for New South Wales Sam Dastyari gave his maiden speech to the Federal Senate.  Dastyari is an Iranian immigrant whose family fled their home as refugees in the late 1980s when Sam was 5 years old.  His family made their home in Australia and, with Sam's appointment to the Senate last year, the Dastyari story is a good one, notwithstanding that he didn't arrive by boat.
Dastyari has called for a new debate on the plight of Asylum Seekers and a fresh look at Australia's asylum seeker policy.  In that vein, and motivated by several years of complete frustration with the tone of Australia’s asylum seeker debate, what follows are a few thoughts on this intractable issue.

This is by no means a policy statement and much work needs to be done to bring this thinking from nascent ideas to formal policy.  So first some background:
The opening statement of the Australian Human Rights Commission Asylum Seekers, refugees  and Human Rights Snapshot report states that, "For over 20 years successive Australian governments have adopted various policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers from arriving by boat.  During this period mandatory immigration detention and offshore processing have been key policies in attempts to reduce the number of boat arrivals."

The basis of Australia’s Asylum Seeker policy is narrowly focussed on “removing the people smuggler's business model” and there has been a parallel escalation of punitive conditions for entry (or non-entry) into Australia.  The language - 'business model', 'illegal immigrant’ etc. - dehumanises Asylum Seekers and demonizes the victims.  Certainly there has been a sincere attempt from all sides of politics to stop the staggering loss of life of Asylum Seekers at sea but the current policy is aimed at deterring the victims and intimating that what they are fleeing to is at least as bad or worse than what they are fleeing from.

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The punitive premise of this policy position perpetuated over that 20 year period is fundamentally wrong.  Australia, along with other wealthy countries, has the moral obligation and the economic capacity to develop permissive and empathetic policies to support the resettlement of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

“Australia has resettled around 800,000 refugees since World War II, building one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies” (Australian Human Rights Commission).  That Australia has encouraged and facilitated such extensive and successful migration over a relatively short period of time is a fact that is not lost on prospective refugees.  The idea that, rather than welcoming and allowing them to become part of this successful multicultural society, Australia will prohibit their arrival; forcibly relocate them to regional processing centres; and, never allow them to settle here is completely at odds with their image of our country.
At the risk of perpetuating the practice of reducing Asylum Seekers to numbers and statistics, let's look at who these people are and what motivated them to risk their lives at sea to get here:

For Afghani Asylum Seekers, the following findings have been published by the Cost of War Project:
 •There are an estimated 447,547 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan
 •As of 2012, there remained 1.8 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, just over 1,000,000 in Iran and around 90,000 in other neighbouring countries
 •Many IDPs and return refugees are unable to resettle in their place of origin and live in informal settlements in Kabul and other cities
 •Over half of all Afghans do not have clean water and 63 per cent lack effective sanitation
 •One third of Afghans survive on less than $1 a day
 •Another third of the population is ranked just above this extreme poverty marker
 •Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world
 •Afghanistan has the highest rates of under-5 mortality in Asia, with levels comparable to other countries experiencing prolonged crises, such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
 •There are an average of 55 health personnel—including doctors, nurses, and midwives—for every 10,000 inhabitants

The complex nature of the Sri Lankan Asylum Seeker challenge is described by  Paul Komesaroff, Monash University; Paul James, RMIT University, and Suresh Sundram, University of Melbourne in their article for The Conversation as follows:

"The million or so people who left South-east Asia after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not fleeing straightforward oppression: they were leaving behind sites of trauma and despair that had become too painful."
"The flight of Sri Lankan citizens — Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim — after the conclusion of the recent civil war largely fits this pattern.  The alleged autocratic nature of the regime, continuing human rights abuses and threats to democratic processes, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary may well exist, but they are not the reasons why thousands of people are prepared to risk their lives to leave their homeland."

A common allegation levelled at Sri Lanka’s Asylum Seekers heading to Australia is that they are largely coming for economic reasons.  Komesaroff, James and Sundram’s hypothesis is that the reasons are far more complex than pure economics and that there is no future for Sri Lankan Asylum Seekers in their home country.  "They do not see a future for themselves there.  They are leaving because their hope, depleted by decades of conflict, has not been restored by the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of some level of material wealth."

For Somalia: Refugees International indicate :"As of September 2013, there were more than 1.1 million Somalis displaced internally and nearly one million refugees living in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen."

"The government installed in 2012 controls only a fraction of the country, and those areas remain fragile in the face of tension between competing warlords and frequent attacks from the Al Shabab terrorist group."
The plight of Somali’s massive volume of displaced peoples is well documented and few people could truly remain unmoved by the graphic brutality that is the cornerstone of Somalia’s tragic domestic circumstances.

Photo courtesy of Reuters
In Syria: Refugees International indicate: "As of July 2013, more than 1.5 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighbouring countries, and refugees already in Syria from third countries are being displaced again in growing numbers."
"Best estimates suggest that 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced, while up to 6.8 million inside the country may be vulnerable and in need of humanitarian assistance."

The United Nations Population Fund reports that: "As the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic is now well into its third year, around 9.3 million people are reported to be directly affected by the crisis, more than 5 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and over 2.2 million refugees have poured into neighbouring countries, of which more than 500,000 are women and girls of reproductive age and 41,000 are pregnant.  The United Nations expects another 2.25 million more to be displaced within the Syrian Arab Republic and an additional 2 million Syrians to become refugees in 2014."
Television news and Facebook feeds are full of horrific images from the Syrian crisis.  Although later claimed to be an overreach, the troubling image of 4 year old Marwan, posted by Andrew Harper of the UN, serves only to highlight the unimaginable conditions being experienced in this most current of war torn countries.  We have not even begun to see the incredible volume of refugees searching for asylum in our regions in the near future from this conflict.
These are all undeniably desperate people – people with whom we can only vaguely empathise given our comfort and privilege living in Australia.  And yet we, who can afford both materially and morally, to do so much, do so little.  Is there another way?

A peculiar recent phenomenon of our wealthy, consumer-driven society is the concept of the pop-up business.  
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Pop-ups are typically of short duration, in high ‘traffic’ areas, in low-rent premises – usually paid upfront - and are used to sell or launch products, be a presence during special events, generate awareness, move inventory or test ideas.

Perhaps this concept can be adapted for our overseas aid program.

A marquee; card table; satellite-phone; and an internet connection located in the middle of a refugee camp in Kenya, Lebanon, Jordan or Pakistan etc. staffed with Immigration and other Federal Government officials facilitating the processing of Asylum Seekers at source.  Yes, UNHCR do this work already for those nations signed up to the appropriate conventions but, in this case, we are specifically addressing the needs of a small number of Asylum Seekers who hope that Australia offers them a possible safe refuge and new start. 

The goal is to provide those who apply and pass initial checks with safe passage to Australia by chartered aircraft or boat.  No more people smugglers required.  An ultimate goal is to offer permanent residency or citizenship.
As well as at source countries, this facility could also operate in transit countries.  Most countries currently used as transit stops by Asylum Seekers are unable or unwilling to deal with the refugee problem on a permanent basis on their own and would be delighted to see a solution that involves the expeditious transit of Asylum Seekers through their shores.

Obviously there are sovereignty issues that need to be thrashed out with host countries but there are already diplomatic protocols that can be adapted and the pop-up concept would hardly impose long-term imposts on the host countries.

But what do we do with the Asylum Seekers when they arrive on our shores?

Our history is replete with the successes of displaced people (Asylum Seekers of their era) contributing significantly to the prosperity and success of this nation.  We need to get back to an understanding of what is good about what we have achieved and how that will be enhanced with an expanded intake of refugees.
In a November 2012 article for Australian Policy Online, Luke Condon from The Allen Consulting Group said: “There is a strong imperative for coordinated action to address current and looming skill shortages in the wider agricultural sector”.  The same can be said for non-agricultural sectors too.

By identifying labour and skill shortages in rural and regional areas, Asylum Seekers, many of whom would have expertise in the areas where we have shortages, would receive meaningful and valuable work - giving them a purpose and a faster track to integration.  Any initial government investment in this scheme would be quickly repaid with increased productivity.

Through intelligent policy development, recognition of prior learning for qualified Asylum Seekers (Doctors, engineers, scientists, dry-land agriculturalists etc.) could be fast-tracked and accredited experts would have the opportunity for immediate employment in an expanding marketplace.  A considered expansion, with the goal of permanent employment, of the 457 visa scheme should also be considered.

Clive Brooks in his article Understanding Immigrants and the Labour Market says: “Quite a large number of Australian studies have looked at the impact of immigration on the unemployment rate and all have found that overall immigration, despite the fears of some commentators, does not lead to increases in the unemployment rate".

Yes, there would be the expected “they’re coming here and taking our jobs” protests but studies like the above have shown this is baseless, particularly when the relatively small numbers of people we are referring to is considered.  (Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection publications indicate only a little over 18,000 “Irregular Maritime Arrivals” came to Australia in 2012-13. 

This is just not that big a problem.

Both Sydney and Melbourne have large populations of immigrants.  Far from being squalid enclaves of isolated and isolationist groups, these areas are arguably some of the most interesting, culturally diverse and bustling areas in our cities.  Yes, there are social issues and crime can be higher than the norm but, in general, what you witness in these areas is people going about their business, setting up small and medium enterprises and generally becoming that diverse cultural mix that epitomises our successful Australian community.

Disappointment with the major parties’ refusal to take up the moral challenge and address this issue from a fresh policy perspective is, anecdotally at any rate, becoming more prevalent.

However, both parties have indicated continued support for current policies.  The Labor Party is cornered by former Prime Minister Rudd’s late adoption of the PNG solution and fear that a quantum change in ALP policy in this area will be criticised roundly on the floor of Parliament and Prime Minister Abbott’s recent pronouncements in the media seem to indicate, if anything, a hardening of the Coalition’s position on this issue:  “We will not succumb to pressure, to moral blackmail’’ and “[w]e will ensure these camps are run fairly, if necessary firmly’’. 

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The Asylum Seeker issue will not go away. Continued unrest in Syria, in particular, increases the risk that the problem may even worsen. A clear indication from the major parties that new and positive thinking on this issue is happening is well overdue and whilst the Australian public may not get the opportunity to judge this thinking until the next election, I’m not sure our Asylum Seeker brethren can wait that long –this week’s tragedy on Manus Island highlights how urgent this is.

Australia can and should address this issue with new vision.  Whether that is done by exploring ideas like the ones above or through some other means Australia is ready for change.  It shouldn’t take more deaths before we do.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Activism, Social Media and the Zeitgeist Illusion

The dominant paradigm with any tribal grouping, including social media – is that we tend to congregate with “like-mindeds”.  Facebook and Twitter are our new tribes.

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 My Facebook pages are chock full of leftist, social justice-laden content which I dutifully “like”, “comment” and “share” on in the knowledge that my “friends” will also “like”, “comment” and “share” them too.  I can tell by the number of times a story – outrage on Asylum Seeker policy for instance – comes around on my newsfeed, that this is absolutely the case.

This “self-indoctrination” informs me and my like-minded friends, that the horror we might have towards asylum seeker policy or the continuing inequality of women in society or the appalling plight of fruit cannery and car manufacturing workers in Australia represents the groundswell of popular opinion in this country.  We collectively believe that the era of the neo-cons up the hill in Canberra will be mercifully short lived and the progressives will sweep back to power in 2016.  But, maybe it doesn’t.

Could it be that  Australians actually agree with Morrison’s asylum seeker policy?  Or maybe we just don’t want to contemplate the untold horrors and deprivations our fellow humans are escaping.  Maybe the prevailing mood is that workers do have outrageous employment conditions that give them just about enough to buy a house and a car and have a lifestyle that you might expect for a developed economy.  Maybe a return to work choices is justified in order to save the ‘tanking’ economy that the Treasurer constantly reminds us in such bad shape.  Maybe Australia fundamentally doesn’t believe that we can afford Medicare or that a disability insurance scheme benefitting all Australian families coping with a family member requiring 24/7 care and a school funding model that benefits all students regardless of where they attend school are bridges too far given our “parlous fiscal condition”. 

For me, it beggars belief that this might actually be true.  Australians pride themselves on the clichés of egalitarianism (a fair go for all); on mateship.  Indeed, in many respects the average Aussie farmer (for example) is the quintessential agrarian socialist and there is still a preponderance of collectivist ideology in many of Australia’s rural communities – common ownership of equipment, growers collectives etc.

But our political history is littered with evidence of deeply entrenched bigotry and conservatism: from the original declaration of terra nullius to the rejection of non-white immigrants from the 1930s. 

Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce opined in 1925 that he “wanted Australians to remain essentially and basically a British (and white) people" and, in general, the “Australian community supported this ideal and favoured policies which prevented alien immigrants from competing for (white) 'Australian' jobs”.  Up until 1939, there was official support across the political spectrum for a policy espousing that 97% of immigrants should be of Anglo-Saxon origin and that all migrants from Europe were to be considered "alien"

The White Australia Policy, which informed Australia’s policy on immigration from federation until the latter part of the 20th Century took many years (25) to dismantle.  The essence of that policy remains in the psyche of many Australians.

Indigenous Australians were only allowed to vote as recently as 1967 and we are still debating the inclusion of Indigenous Australians in our Constitution and the recent “closing the gap” report shows huge room for improvement.

Universal women’s suffrage was adopted Australia-wide by 1911 but inherent sexism and objectification of women in Australia continues.  Gender stereotyping in advertising, “traditional” gender roles in television dramas, residual pay inequality and a raft of other discriminations show Australian society is as sexist as it ever was.

So maybe the Australian zeitgeist is conservative, self-interested, racist, sexist and bigoted.  But how would I know?  All my “friends” would rather “un-friend” their entire friends list on Facebook and pretend that a society reflecting these ideals in their newsfeeds just couldn’t exist.  We would rather abandon our Social Media tribe.

If this is the ugly truth, how did we get here?  Why are we like this?  And, at least for those of us who find the possibility that we are like this totally abhorrent, what can we do about it?

From a grassroots perspective, quite a lot: 

Billy Bragg said it quite well in Waiting for the Great Leap Forward: “You can be active with the activists or sleep in with the sleepers while you're waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”.  Embrace activism then: in your community, in your local paper, at your local show, at the pub, in your workplace.  Join your union, or a political party, have a voice.  “The revolution is just a t-shirt away.”

The social media zeitgeist is still helpful.  Support for and vindication of a set of values and ideals by the tribe is healthy for any societal group.  Social Media, by any definition, is a ‘society’.  Belonging, then, is everything and, if belonging creates security and security motivates action then I’m all for it.  So bring me my iPad and Facebook newsfeed!  Don’t forgo social media: your friends will support you and, who knows, through the organic nature of this medium, you never know who you might reach and influence.  The zeitgeist might be an illusion but at least you have a voice!

The tribe has spoken.  Don’t forget to: “Like”, “Comment” and “Share”