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Blurring the Humanitarian Welcome Mat

April 21, 2011 – 3:32 pm6 Comments

Sri Lankan asylum seekers

Continuing with our Pesach theme of asylum seekers and refugees, Malki Rose attended the launch of the ‘People Smugglers: Friend or Foe?’ exhibit now showing at the Jewish Museum of Australia.

Americans refer to them as ‘coyotes’, the Chinese refer to them as ‘snakeheads’ but most people believe that the appropriate label for people smugglers is just ‘opportunistic’. Ordinarily they are viewed as a breed of amoral predator who seeks out the desperate to illegally move them across borders and oceans for a price.

At the end of the Holocaust, the United Nations launched the International Refugee Organisation to respond to the large volume of refugees seeking asylum from war torn Europe.

By 1947, Sir Arthur Calwell had established the immigration policy that would ultimately see over 180,000 refugees find safety on our shores and become “New Australians”.

But Australia’s policy, particularly for European Jews remained somewhat inconsistent, haphazard, and reflected the widely felt public fear that Jews did not easily assimilate or adapt.

To curb white Australia’s ‘cultural concerns’, the previously welcoming government established quotas for many ethnic groups who had been arriving in large numbers. Calwell insisted that priority be given to British immigrants and to ensure that Jewish and European refugees represent no more than 25% of the total number granted asylum. This scheme, borne of the ‘Populate or Perish’ policy was designed to preserve the British character of Australian society.

When these quotas had been filled, those who had missed this humanitarian ‘boat’, designated for their ethnic origin, were often left without one.

European refugee families were forced to seek the aid of people smugglers and accept ‘opportunities’ such as to travel aboard inappropriately filthy cargo ships with revolting conditions (such as the SS Misr).

Over the next two decades, Australia would from time to time be in a position to accept waves of refugees as foreign workers depending on economic needs and political trends, especially after the abolishment of the white Australia policy in 1972.

But the timing of Australia’s latest social enterprise did not always match with the needs of those seeking asylum.

Despite the shift away from an Anglo Celtic society and although the white Australia policy had been easing throughout, there were many Vietnamese and Korean refugees who spent much of the latter half of the 70’s desperate for Asylum.

Almost 90,000 Asiatic people had been accepted into Australia under refugee status and the quota was now said to be nearing capacity as there were renewed concerns that despite the new multicultural face of Australia, that Asian refugees were becoming too many.

Again, rather than a sense of overriding humanitarian urgency, it was politicking, policy and questions of quotas which dominated the agenda of Australian Parliament.

On June 10, 1977, en route to Japan, an Israeli cargo ship encountered a vessel of 66 Vietnamese people. They had depleted their supply of food and water, were lost and scared, and their boat was now leaking. The Israeli captain and crew immediately offered food and water and decided to bring the passengers on board and transported them to Israel. Once they had arrived Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized their Israeli citizenship, citing their situation as similar to the plight of Jewish refugees seeking refuge after the Holocaust.

Of course Australia’s doors are said to be wide open to anyone who cares to apply for the appropriate visas and refugee status. Certainly Australian law permits and welcomes Asylum seekers.

But the harsh reality is that many of those who seek asylum do not have access to civil services or immigration offices, or their paperwork and monies which were lodged with corrupt governments are mysteriously lost. Asylum seekers are victims of prejudice, corruption and utter desperation and the remaining option becomes the people smuggler.

Many feel that the people smuggler is an unscrupulous and exploitative individual. Greedily rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation of taking the last pennies of a desperate individual in his ultimate hour of need.

Last week Liberty Victoria, together with the Jewish Museum of Australia and Amnesty international, launched the exhibit “People Smugglers: Friend or Foe”, which explores the role that People smugglers have played in the lives of refugees from post Holocaust Europe right up to Afghani and Iraqi refugees of recent years.

Morry Schwartz, now a successful property developer, spoke of how his family were aided by people smugglers in leaving Hungary after the war and the opportunity afforded to his family, due to the assistance of this vital ‘service’.

In May 2010, the Government strengthened Australia’s people smuggling laws to ensure tougher penalties to target those who finance or provide support for people smuggling activities.

But Liberty Victoria have asserted that the scope of the new bill, Anti–People Smuggling and Other Measures Bill 2010, is too broad and too far-reaching.

The loose terminology of the bill casts the net wide enough that innocent family members sending money overseas to loved ones for the purpose of travel could too readily be viewed by the law as having acted criminally and become liable to imprisonment as a ‘people smuggler’.

In his letter to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Liberty Victoria’s president, Mr Michael Pearce states that the Bill “signals a retreat from the more humane policies originally introduced by the Government” and that the “about-face represents a failure, not of policy, but of politics.”

According to the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, “tackling migrant smuggling necessitates a comprehensive, multidimensional response, which begins with addressing the socioeconomic root causes of irregular migration to prevent it, and goes through to prosecution of criminals who commit smuggling-related crimes”.

Only last week Indonesia similarly passed a ‘people smuggling’ bill which introduces penalties of up to 15 years in prison for those convicted of people smuggling offenses.

Brendan O’Connor, Home Affairs Minister stated that “Comprehensive and robust laws are essential to deter, investigate and prosecute people smuggling activity across our region” and further remarked on the “deaths and injuries that these dangerous ventures can cause… these laws will help us better target the organisers of people smuggling operations.”

However, much like its Australian counterpart the loose phrasing of the Indonesian Bill leaves too much room to incriminate the innocent.

Liberty Victoria insists that criminalizing people smuggling is not necessarily a straightforward issue and is riddled with moral complexities.

Mr Pearce remarks on the danger that the bill is part of a program of demonisation of people smugglers, which is, in truth, about demonising asylum seekers by proxy. Vilifying people smugglers has become the socially acceptable way of demonising asylum seekers”.

But Liberty’s insistence is in no way irresponsible or starry-eyed. They do propose an even-handed and practical approach to assisting with safety of both Australian borders and Asylum seekers by establishing the installation of “a controlled, robust and fair assessment and resettlement process” and assert that were these “recommendations implemented, the need for people smuggling would collapse entirely”.

Whether the victims of war-torn Hungary or Kurdish refugees, asylum seekers enlist the support of people smugglers when other options do not exist and regular processes have failed. When they can no longer rely on the protection and support of an upstanding government. When food is scarce or safety is threatened. When they must flee tyranny, and survival becomes the key motivator.

If they have elected to enlist this unscrupulous service and can be properly processed upon arrival at Australian shores with a chance at safety and a better life, then the only concern for our government should be the shame of not being the agency to bring them here in the first place.

When the downtrodden and oppressed are left wondering who to count on when the only face of mankind they see is that of evil and inhumanity, the people smuggler can become the last remaining ‘Robin Hood’ of one’s plight.

The exhibit ‘People Smugglers: Friend or Foe?’ is on until the 8th of May at the Jewish Museum of Australia, 26 Alma Road St Kilda.

To find out more about asylum seekers in Australia, from the perspective of Liberty Victoria, click here.

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