Thursday, April 19, 2012

The quality of mercy is, er, well, it depends...

Asylum Seekers by Pants

We thought we had our attitude to those wretched waifs who periodically fetch up on our shores with some spurious tale of being persecuted, or what not, in their own country... well, we thought we had the asylum-seeker problem sorted. Our strategy was simple - we sent a strong signal out that we are the most stern nation on the planet when it comes to distressed peoples thinking that they can arrive here in a disorderly fashion, having been burnt out of their own home and lost all of their belongings and perhaps a family member or two, and expect a show of sympathy for their extraordinary human effort to survive. Our compassion is at capacity. Everyone knows that the global financial crisis gave us a right battering. We can hardly maintain our own children's obesity levels, much less overfeed extra mouths.

And then, something very odd happened. Recently, a 'yacht' carrying ten Chinese asylum seekers was towed into Darwin after signalling that it was in distress. The passengers were practitioners of the oppressed Falun Gong spiritual discipline. Now, vessels in distress that arrive in Australian waters carrying asylum seekers, are normally referred to as 'leaky boats'. A 'yacht' is something that takes part in a grand ocean race or transports one of our plucky teenagers to global stardom.

These refugees had gotten themselves to Malaysia, where they obtained the 'yacht' on which they set sail, something that would become quite important in the complex picture that unfolded. And 'a yacht' this dubious vessel would remain for the purposes of reportage, even though it had ceased to function as such.

But, I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. The critical piece of information that you need to know, intrigued reader, is that once these asylum seekers had arrived in Darwin Harbour under tow, they immediately announced that Australia had not been their goal destination. They had set a course for New Zealand, and they intended to put up for repairs, re-provision and be on their way to the land of the long multicultured cloud.

Imagine, if you will, the sound of a perpetually retold tale suddenly disintegrating along with an already shaky national self-confidence. Our gut reaction was to move mountains to enable this desire and make these ten asylum seekers someone else's problem, possibly as payback for some perceived infringement of the MoU in regard to our sporting superiority. Government spokespeople lined up to recite chapter, verse and chorus, articles on mariners' rights. Far from being a 'boatload', (the collective noun we normally apply to asylum seekers who travel together on sea craft as opposed to hiring individual jet-skis to get here), these people were 'passengers' with 'rights'. And, of course, they were and are, just as any people who pay a shipping company for personal passage are 'passengers' with 'rights', no matter how dodgy the company is.

The initial ploy didn't go well. Our compatriots 0'er the ditch were having none of it. In any case, that tactic was quickly overpowered by the rapidly worsening wound to our national pride. You'd prefer to live in New Zealand? What fresh identity hell is this? Well, because they didn't fancy being indefinitely billeted in Darwin, was one reason given. That wasn't so mysterious. You'd be hard pressed to find an Australian who'd want to live there. Don't these asylum seekers know that most New Zealanders would prefer to live here in Australia? Although, possibly not in Darwin. The asylum seekers also mentioned, in passing, that they didn't fancy being locked up for years in detention centres awaiting a residency decision. Go figure.

The slap of rejection resounded around our jagged land. Suddenly, every available resource was being mustered to convince these mariners with rights that their proposed onward journey to New Zealand could be be hazardous. I wonder how many round-the-world, life-changer families with toddlers, dogs, cats and satellite iPads with homework apps on board are so advised when they pull in to Darwin en route to Rotorua. Apparently, these travellers had some help from New Zealand authorities who 'had been able to explain to the group how dangerous the onward boat journey would be'. 'Would be'? Whatever. The persuasion worked and, for once, Australia was jubilant at the prospect of accepting asylum seekers.

After the confetti had been swept away, there remained the formality of weaving this anomaly into the national conversation without disrupting the hard line. Something else, beside the 'yacht/leaky boat' variation, set this particular group of asylum seekers apart. They had not paid any intermediaries to transport them. They had organised and realised their own trip. Crucially, they were not 'people-smuggled'. With that one decision, they had cauterized one of the two main sources of prejudice. Their story could easily be directed on an alternative course from the 'queue-jumper' narrative that we usually deploy to de-legitimise desperate souls fleeing from persecution. These people were not wittingly enabling the dreaded 'people-smuggler business model' to blossom in its tax-free vacuum. They could be recast, in the national consciousness, as freedom-seeking wanderers, pilgrims for a progressive world that respects religions it hasn't even heard of. They were also, most luckily for them, not Muslims.

This variation from the groundhog grind of grim, drenched asylum-seeker arrivals begs a further question. It's well known that Australia privileges individuals who arrive by air and claim asylum. It's also universally accepted that the people who are most likely to be in need of help are those least likely to have the means or the contacts to arrive anywhere easily or legitimately. We've gotten quite good at ignoring people who fly in under the public radar and disappear at the end of their visa period. We're even better at treating already traumatised boat arrivals to extended periods of detention without hope, jeopardising their future use either to themselves or to our society. The general public has been quite happy to fall into these right/wrong camps based solely on visibility. The begged question here is, by what right do we permit ourselves to job-lot human experience?

When a group like the Falun Gong putter in, more or less under their own steam, defying categorisation, it throws into sharp relief the dehumanising process to which we subject those who've trudged the more common trails out of Afghanistan or Iran. Suddenly politicians were falling all over themselves 'to judge each case on its merits' and throwing down welcome mats in every conceivable direction. Or, perhaps, we just can't stand the thought that someone would choose New Zealand over us.

Attention potential asylum seekers - here's a tip for you. When the border patrol boat approaches you as you reach Christmas Island shout out very loudly, 'we're saved - here come the All Blacks!'