Monday, July 05, 2010

Turn and turn a-boat

Still waters by Pants

I'm about to participate in my first Australian election since 1980. Not that I know when yet. I suspect it's coming soon as our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has opened the last and most complex file in her 'fiendishly hard' basket - the vexed question of our national response to the small but very visible number of asylum seekers who take the short but scary journey from the Indonesian island of Java to the Australian territory of Christmas Island by clapped-out boat.

The arrival of boat people was an issue thirty years ago too as I dimly recall. Refugees were still trickling in from the 'fallen' South Vietnam. The general rule of thumb hasn't changed since those days - if you make war on countries, you tend to create a situation where a lot of people want to leave. It remains the case that most people who try to get to Australia have found themselves on the weaker side in a deadly conflict, whether they be Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghan Hazaras or belong to a persecuted religious or ethnic minority in one of the civil warring African nations.

Australians have a long history of invasion anxiety that is quite irrational but is probably an acquired neurosis trailing back to the Second World War and the well-founded threat of attack by Japan which was immediately followed by the far-fetched yet prolonged spectre of the 'yellow peril' during the Cold War. That neither of these scenarios eventuated makes the virulence of the condition even more curious. Australians feel picked-on and some seem to think that the raggle-taggle of wretched asylum seekers who make it here are actually an advance guard for a full-scale seizure in the near future.

The reality is much more prosaic. Flight is a response to crisis which is why there are sometimes lots of people doing it and sometimes hardly any. This is worth remembering because the political orthodoxy in Australia would have it that asylum seeking is a direct result of government policy - i.e. if the government is 'soft' the boats will come. Refugee routes grow organically as a response to a need and use whatever resources are available. Ten years ago persecuted Chinese were fleeing to Britain in the vast lorries used to transfer produce across Europe and displaced Kosovans were concealing themselves in Dover-bound trucks at Calais. Boatloads of men row to the Canary Islands from West Africa. Cubans still make the 90-mile journey across the Caribbean to Florida.

Australia is one of the cheaper destinations for Middle Eastern refugees, which suggests that the operation is a comparatively trouble-free one with an abundance of options. The only way to get here without valid entry papers is to bypass the customs system altogether. That means coming on a boat. For Afghans, say, the process is relatively straightforward. If they make it to neighbouring Pakistan, they will find conveniently bribable officials. They can then fly to another Muslim country, Indonesia without a problem. Christmas Island is less than 200 nautical miles from the Indonesian island of Java. It's not exactly a fun cruise but neither is it a completely crazy endeavour either. Most of the very small number of people who undertake it, make it. Australia isn't being 'targetted' in any kind of ideological sense . It's a question of optimalisation.

But the fear of porous borders persists and has caused election havoc before, most memorably in 2001. The Prime Minister has not yet announced a policy-shift from the current position, which is dangerously stalled in the territory of cluelessness. Currently there is a suspension on the processing of asylum claims from Afghan and Sri Lankan nationals. The Government is under pressure to get down off the fence.

Yesterday, Julia Gillard made a statement in an informal setting clearly calculated to give notice that she is about to do something. In this statement, she appears to validate the idea that there are two clearly defined 'sides'.

"For people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant, it certainly doesn't make them a racist, it means that they're expressing a genuine view that they're anxious about border security."

That would appear to be Team A.

"By the same token, people who express concern about children being in detention, that doesn't mean they're soft on border protection, that just means that they're expressing a real human concern."

That would appear to be Team B.

And then she said this,

"People should say what they feel and my view is many in the community should feel anxious when they see asylum seeker boats and obviously, we as a government want to manage our borders."

'Many in the community should feel anxious'? Why should they feel anxious? If the Prime Minister is encouraging 'open debate', as she claims to be, (although what the point of that might be on the eve of a policy announcement is anyone's guess), why would she want to prejudice that 'open debate' by validating what is basically an inexplicable fear?

And where exactly is this 'community' of the many who should feel anxious? If she's talking about the marginal Labor seats where there are concentrations of refugees living whose claims were accepted and who are now no longer asylum seekers but citizens of this country, and I suspect she might be, then aren't we talking about a completely different thing? These hypothetical people who 'should feel anxious' would not be concerned with 'border' protection. They would be concerned with 'culture' protection, surely. Racial tension must be recognised for what it is, not buried under a metaphor.

At times like these the quality of Australian discourse appears to flee from the middle ground faster than you can say, has anyone seen my nuance? When you've been out of the loop for as long as I have, it's all a bit confusing. It's not that I haven't experienced societal division over asylum-seekers before. The British tabloids certainly fretted a lot about Kosovans. It never really reached the level of hand-wringing insolubility that it inevitably does in Australia though and I think isolationism plays a big part in that. I was most relieved to read this finely considered piece in The Sydney Morning Herald by Adele Horin confirming my hopes that the hysteria is indeed an anomaly. She says the national narrative is completely at odds with the national character and I hope she's right.

On the question of 'what should we do about the boat people coming?' I would say nothing, or at the most, nothing much. There is very little worthwhile action the destination country can take when there is such an efficient enabling operation in the transit countries. A senior police officer in London once told me that the police never imagined they would stop drug distribution because there were just too many resilient vested interests in the chain to break it. His focus was on managing the consequences. He was careful to be seen to be doing something though because drug trafficking was, after all, illegal.

And this is what we should do. Expensive crackdowns and confrontations have been a public relations disaster both nationally and internationally. By all means make some threatening noises in the direction of Pakistan and Indonesia and maybe even toss a little money at assisting them in rounding up some of the 'people smugglers' and corrupt officials. It might be useful to concentrate on the seediest ones so that at least the asylum seekers, who will always try to come here if they can't stay where they are, have a better chance of making it in reasonable physical and emotional shape.

But let's not waste billions of dollars on navy patrols and detention centres. This is not money well spent. Once asylum seekers have made the journey, let's get them off the boats, through the immigration system and back into normal lives as quickly as possible. It's the least we can do for people who have risked their lives in pursuit of the highest human goal - to live free.

Where there are tensions between new arrivals and host communities, let's tackle that openly and honestly, and in the context in which it actually belongs. We still haven't had the policy announcement. It won't change the way I vote. I just hope it's not insane. It's my first Australian election for thirty years. I'd like to be able to vote with conviction.