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People of the Boat – A Jewish Perspective on the Asylum Seeker Issue

July 8, 2010 – 7:03 pm41 Comments

Image source: abc.net.au

By Mandi Katz

The Prime Minister has called for an open debate on policy for addressing the asylum seeker issue. I hope that Jewish experience as refugees and forced migrants finds a strong voice in this debate, wherever it takes place. Empathy shouldn’t be the only basis for policy but it’s a pretty good starting point.

You would think that Jewish empathy for forced migrants can be assumed. Expulsion, forced migration, homelessness, persecution and discrimination are so much part of our story. It’s difficult to imagine any serious opposition among Jewish Australians to policies based on compassion for asylum seekers who, like so many Jews last century did, seek refuge here from persecution and poverty by any means they can, often without proper papers in circumstances that would today be called “queue jumping”.

There aren’t many issues on which Jews speak in one voice – the old joke about two Jews and three opinions still rings true. It’s also safe to assume that Jews span the spectrum on all political issues. But I would hope that Australian Jews can be united in our willingness to think the best of people who seek refuge from undemocratic and intolerant governments and who seek to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Add to this our collective memory of detention camps and it becomes important to call out the inhumanity of detaining asylum seekers and removing them from real living, sometimes for years, while their circumstances are examined to determine if they are truly in need of refuge.

In a speech to Lowy Institute yesterday that at least addresses the facts head on, Julia Gillard agreed with Julian Burnside’s contention in The Age on Tuesday that at the current rate of people seeking asylum in Australia by boat, it would take twenty years for that population to fill the MCG. She has also acknowledged that Australia takes in only .06% of the world’s asylum speakers.

In a piece in Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald,  Associate Professor Jane McAdam of the University of NSW calculated the figure as a proportion of the world’s refugee population which parlays into a far smaller percentage – 0.0013%. McAdam also supplied the raw number of total refugees we are committed to absorbing each year – 13,750 – paltry by any measure.

Gillard acknowledged in her speech that the percentage of asylum seekers is 1.6% of our total migrant (not refugee) population and said that the factors in the region that push people to seek asylum are far more relevant in causing an increase in numbers than the way in which this country deals with asylum seekers.

So to me it seems pretty clear. Taking into account the scale of the problem (insignificant) and the inhumanity of current and proposed policy, we should be urging this and any government to formulate clear policy, which acknowledges that people who seek entry in this way are more likely than not seeking asylum legitimately from persecution and poverty. Or at least recognises that people who are desperate enough to risk their lives on leaky boats with no guaranteed outcome, should be given the benefit of the doubt and not detained in conditions similar to prisons. Many commentators have pointed out (we seem to need reminding) that the act of seeking asylum is not criminal, which in turn is a compelling basis to say that ongoing detention of asylum seekers is just wrong.

This leads me to the Prime Minister’s proposed solution for a new “regional” processing centre in East Timor (leaving aside the implications of her reported failure to consult the East Timorese government before making the announcement). I don’t like it. I believe asylum seekers should be ‘processed’ on-shore and given qualified resident status, which leaves it open to the government to deport individuals after due enquiry if it is clear that there is no legitimate ground for residency. The law should treat asylum  seekers in the same way as it treats other people trying to bypass official channels (and as an immigrant I can barely bring myself to use the term ‘queue jumper’ about  people who had less opportunity than me to stand in the right queues), including those who overstay their visas. That the issues are more complex and take longer to clarify for asylum seekers who come here on boats than for people overstaying visas, is irrelevant and adds nothing to the case for detention centres.

And yet the issue continues to divide the broader community. I agree with Gillard that all voices should be heard with respect on this. But when I hear Jews speak about the unfairness of bypassing due process, I struggle to understand their concerns and to forgive their short memories. Due process is irrelevant for people who are making decisions in frightening and chaotic circumstances, and in countries where Australia doesn’t have official representation. There is also tacit concession in certain (and hopefully few) Jewish circles that comments which would generally be unacceptably racist, are OK if made about Muslim migrants.

It would also be pretty unfortunate if Australian Jews added to the voices casting aspersions about people who seek to escape “only” from poverty – considering Jews generally sit at the high end of the socio-economic range within a country which is emerging from the global financial crisis in rude health and in which people have an extraordinary high standard of living in global terms. I’m also deeply sceptical about concern for the environment in this context.  Given the scale of this issue, this is hardly the burning platform from which to take a stand on environmental issues. In the Jewish world we could start instead with a campaign to use less disposable paper products during Pesach.

I would take Gillard’s proposal for a “regional solution” as more than political expediency if she also committed to doubling or tripling the number of refugees to this country each year, with commensurate funding for refugee absorption.

A few months ago I spent some time talking to a young Sudanese migrant in a session facilitated by the  Sudanese Lost Boys Association of Australia Inc.  This young man came to Australia as a refugee through official channels after applying for refugee status in a UN camp in Ethiopia. He described the process and it wasn’t pretty. In addition to the inevitable paperwork and waiting, there were extensive medical tests with waiting periods to be sure he didn’t have any undesirable medical or psychological ailments. The upshot (which I didn’t realise) is that our refugee policy on top of being mean on the numbers side, favours the most resilient of a vulnerable population. Which may be a good thing because when refugees do get here they face a whole new swathe of difficulties including language barriers, social isolation and dislocation, and racism.

The asylum seeker issue in Australia is inextricably linked to the broader issue of refugee intake and absorption. And at least until we do better on that front, I’m using my Jewish voice to ask the government  and opposition to formulate and support  asylum seeker policy by starting with rachmonis (compassion) and taking it from there.

Mandi Katz has worked as a lawyer, and now works in management in the financial services sector. She immigrated to Melbourne in 1985 from South Africa and is enjoying writing again, after a long hiatus involving children, professional life and domesticity.

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