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Where Has Our Humanity Gone?

May 5, 2014 – 12:33 pm9 Comments

By Shira Sebban:

refugee4As an Australian Jew, I am ashamed by the treatment of asylum seekers in both Australia and Israel. I watch bewildered as the two countries I love descend further in a harsh morass of immorality. Where has our humanity gone? Weren’t many of us, or our families, refugees once too?

On a trip to Israel in January, we found ourselves in the middle of a protest march in Tel Aviv, involving thousands of African asylum seekers. Sadly, as an Australian, their treatment is only too familiar to me, being reminiscent of what has been happening to asylum seekers who attempt to arrive by boat here – with one difference: Australia tends to lock up its boat people, who are not free to protest on the streets.

True, the Israeli government is now authorised to detain asylum seekers for up to a year without trial – it used to be three years until the Supreme Court intervened – in the remote Holot “Open” Detention Centre in the Negev. They can then be placed in indefinite detention until the State decides it’s safe to deport them.

Nevertheless, the Australian system is more severe still, with hapless boat people detained seemingly indefinitely in harsh conditions on the now infamous Manus Island or Nauru, with no hope of ever being settled here.

All officialdom seems to agree that such harsh treatment is necessary to deter further boat arrivals. Moreover, since December, boats have been turned or even towed back to Indonesia “when it is safe to do so”.  As a result, our government proudly proclaims that it is well on the way to achieving its popular promise to “stop the boats” all together, with the added advantage, it boasts, of having slashed the number of asylum seekers reaching Indonesia too.

Yet, as pointed out by Indonesian presidential advisor and former long-time foreign minister, Dr Hassan Wirajuda, “who can guarantee that next year they will not try again because the root causes, like conflicts, war, poverty, push people to migrate”?

Isn’t that why our families chose to leave their birthplace too? What about our grandparents or parents, who left Eastern Europe or North Africa, in quest of a better life elsewhere?

While Australia has now seemingly succeeded in blocking the arrival of boatloads of asylum seekers, the Netanyahu Government’s erection of the US$400 million fence on the Egyptian border in 2012 has practically ended the entry of African asylum seekers who, since 2006, had been making the often harrowing trek from war-torn, dictatorial, famine-ridden Eritrea and Sudan.

Everyone knows that Israel was founded by and for refugees and that Australia too has benefited tremendously from their contribution. True, by world standards, numbers of asylum seekers to both countries are now low: Israel is contending with about 55,000 African asylum seekers – less than one percent of Israel’s population – while in 2012-13, just over 24,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat.

Contrast this with the more than 45 million people worldwide – an 18-year high – forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights abuses, including more than 15 million internationally displaced refugees and close to a million asylum seekers.

Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all, it can seem easier to bury our heads in the sand. But haven’t we been taught that to save a single life is as if we had saved the entire world?

The Australian government claims to be acting out of kindness: unseaworthy boats have to be stopped to prevent unscrupulous people smugglers from taking advantage of the desperate, luring them to their deaths. After all, the statistics are stark: more than 1000 people have perished at sea, while the lives of more than 6000 children have been put at risk.

Moreover, what about the 13,750 protection visas – down from 20,000 last year — on offer to those whose places under Australia’s humanitarian programs have been “usurped” by “self-selecting asylum seekers”, those so-called “queue jumpers”, who, or so the argument goes, are really “economic migrants” with enough money to buy a place via people smugglers?

The Australian government’s military “Operation Sovereign Borders” brands such “maritime arrivals” as “illegal”, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses African asylum seekers of being “illegal infiltrators looking for work” – despite the fact that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia and Israel are both signatories, clearly recognises the right to seek asylum from persecution no matter how you arrive (article 31).

Denied legal status, neither country allows those asylum seekers still able to live in the community, albeit provisionally, basic civil rights, such as the official right to work. Issued with only temporary visas and denied any chance of family reunion, a poverty-stricken underclass is being created under our eyes.

And yet, until now around 90 percent of boat people have ended up being recognised as refugees in Australia. In its latest cruel move, the government has now decided that refugees who arrive by boat will no longer be eligible for a visa. Meanwhile, in Israel, only 0.2 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, despite the fact that many more of their countrymen have been recognised as such elsewhere.

Being cruel to be kind? Or rather, out of sight, out of mind?

Of course we cannot expect every asylum seeker to end up in Israel, Australia, or another first world country. Moreover, one day, circumstances may even improve so they can return home. Meanwhile, however, there must be another option to indefinite prison or ultimate deportation for those requiring protection. Surely the ends never justify the means.

As Jews, we are constantly reminded not to mistreat strangers because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt … and Poland … and Algeria … So why not work towards a humane resolution of this global crisis, which respects the inherent dignity of our fellow human beings and treats others as we would like to be treated ourselves?

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9 Comments »

  • Alon says:

    Very well written and argued.

    Worth mentioning that second and third world countries like Chad, Jordan and Lebanon are being criped by pop up cities with hundreds of thousands of refugees while Australia decreases it’s intake from 20 to 13 thousand.

    I don’t think the same expectation of absorption can be had of israel as Australia for obvious reasons but certainly bridging visas and the right to work at minimum should be granted.

  • letters in the age says:

    I’m appalled and disgusted at those selfish apparatchiks who are from Jewish heritage that allowed these repugnant policies and actions to take place.

    Narcissism has sadly lead to these awful outcomes.

    I predict that the next generation of Heebs will be conducting a national sorry day for Asylum Seekers.

  • R B says:

    It is so nice and easy to be innocent…

    True, some of them are genuine asylum seekers who escape persecution, but most are simply looking for a job and a generous welfare package.
    I do not believe that 90% of them are genuine asylum seekers.

    They successfully abuse guilt feeling as expressed in this article, combined with newspeak and ignoring important questions; for example, if these migrants are so miserable and poor, who paid for their trip from Iran/Lebanon/Chad to Indonesia and then to the smugglers? Why didn’t they end up in countries which are closer to their countries of origin, geographically and culturally?

    This is a good deal for third-world citizens: Spend some time in a detention centre, and get into the promised land, without waiting in the queue for a quota and paying high processing fees like legal migrants.

  • TheSadducee says:

    @ R B

    There have been some arguments made to suggest that the criteria for assessing the irregular arrivals’ refugee status has been too broad and this is what has constituted the 90% rate, however, unless this is challenged legally and changed, you have to for the time being, respect the law as it is applied and its results.

    Nonetheless as I would suggest to Alon as well, unless the root causes of these migration impulses are addressed this problem will not be resolved, even through draconian enforcement. It will merely temporarily delay and/or divert the issue elsewhere which is not a real solution.

    In saying that, I would suggest that you note that Chad, Jordan and Australia are all current UN Security Council members and yet have taken no apparent substantive action in this forum to address any of the root causes of these human movements.

    I’m particularly uncomfortable about the fact that an individual was killed while in custody and several injured during a fracas and yet there doesn’t appear to have been anyone charged or any consequences for those responsible in any capacity despite multiple investigations – that is serious food for thought about the policy and its future.

  • letters in the age says:

    That poor individual that was killed was a middle class man who would have contributed so much to our society….

    Ugh

    Ugh

    Sigh

    Protests on Q and A are just a small sign of the anger from the electorate on many issues.

  • Leon says:

    [Personal attack removed]

  • TheSadducee says:

    @Letters

    The protests on Q&A were hardly representative of anything other than typical university student political shenanigans which don’t particularly play well to the general mass of middle/lower classes of Australian society.

    They would be better suited developing a serious think tank, soliciting funding, and providing serious contributions to public issues rather than indulging their perceived entitlement of 15 mins of fame.

  • letters in the age says:

    Sadduce…

    So we just put them in suits and under the guise of a think tank to do media engagements and it’s ok?

    They’re still opinions with no specialization at all suited for hollow propaganda.

    You just create another hollow professional political class that’s full of selfish careerists.

    Malcolm Fraser was correct this week where he criticized individuals who need politics to be dependent for their careers and do nothing else outside of it.

    They need a life outside of politics or it’s a sheltered shop with ideological nerds out of touch with society

  • TheSadducee says:

    @Letters

    Yes, because chanting slogans on Q&A is going to get your point of view taken seriously by the general public, isn’t it?

    And re. Fraser – you always have to love those relics of a bygone age, who criticise the profession where they made their career because back in their day it was all different and so much better…

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