Thursday, July 01, 2010



Julia Gillard as part of her intial policy statement as Prime Minister said that she understood the concerns of the Australian people about the arrival of refugees by boats, and would move to address those concerns, signalling that she intends to adopt and even harder stance than that of Kevin Rudd’s Government. She seemed to particularly target her message to the western suburbs of Sydney.

When I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 1950s through to the 1970s, life was not easy. The post war boom was in progress, but families struggled. In more recent times the western suburbs is now a mix of those struggling, but also the aspirational middle class. If I could summarise the apparent concerns of people in the west, it would be that they are concerned that those refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat are queue jumpers, taking advantage of their apparent wealth compared with those still waiting in countries of origin to pay people smugglers to get to Australia on leaky unsafe boats. The taxpayer of Australia then pays for their detention while they are processed.

The big problem with this view is that there is no queue. The Australian Ambassadorial staff in the countries of origin do not put on their pith helmets and go out to the refugee camps and set up a table and chairs and take names on an orderly list. If you are unlucky enough to be in opposition, or an unwanted activist in one of these countries of origin, you probably leave in the dead of night, to avoid attracting attention to your departure. You leave behind whatever family you have, and you don’t want to imperil their continued existence after you leave. You may have sold everything you have ever owned to pay travel expenses. Your travel to a second country, and maybe a third. If you get to Indonesia, and your presence as a refugee and asylum seeker comes to the attention of the authorities there, you may be interned. You pray that you are interned in an Indonesian government run facility, as the standard of accommodation and treatment is better than the Australian run and paid for facilities. In the latter, the guards can threaten you with injury or death, and there is nothing you can do about it. If you are not interned in Indonesia, and can still afford it from what you have sold, earned, or borrowed, you find a people smuggler who will offer you a place on a boat in exchange for the last of your money. You then arrive at the dock to find the boat heavily overloaded, but you have paid you money and the people smuggler does not do reimbursements to dissatisfied customers.

If you are fortunate your fishing boat arrives off the north west coast of Australia, where you are met by Australia’s navy, and taken to Christmas Island for mandatory detention while you are processed. Having left your country of origin in the dead of night, you may not have brought with you your birth certificate, passport and all of the documentation required to identify you, so processing can take some time. Then there is the ASIO check to make sure you are not a terrorist. Mind you what self respecting terrorist would travel this way? ASIO processing takes a very long time. Even ASIO says they are understaffed. Then under the Howard Government system, even if recognised as a refugee under international conventions, you were placed on a temporary protection visa, but allowed out of detention into the community. But the trick of this was that you could not work or receive Medicare health benefits. So to survive, you relied on the goodness of charities, churches and friends. Thank heavens the Rudd Government abolished TPVs, and may they never return. Such bureaucratised cruelty!!

Life on the refugee trail is desperate and disorganised. You do what you have can to survive. Refugees who came to Australia before and after World War Two will recognise these circumstances, and no doubt be able to tell similar stories of pushing their way forward to a new life, against all of the forces arrayed against them.

Refugees arriving in Australia by boat constitute 4% of those seeking refuge in this country. The other 96% come by plane. QANTAS –Australia’s own people smuggler? The numbers of refugees arriving in this country are no threat to anyone, particularly people in the western suburbs of Sydney. I recently saw an election leaflet for one of the conservative parties. It said that the people of the electorate were being deprived of health, education and welfare services because money for these services was being spent on servicing refugee and asylum seekers arriving in this country by boat. Budget stringencies by State and Federal Governments in relation to health, welfare and education services have a multitude of other causes that have nothing to do with refugees and detention centres.

I am a member of Labor for Refugees. Labor for Refugees has become a rank and file organisation within the Labor Party that has improved party policy several times since the dark days of the Tampa Election in 2001, at National and State Conferences of the Party, I wait with interest the next moves by the Gillard Government, but remind the Government and the parliamentary leadership of the party of party policy, plus of course, the real politik that up until Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party was haemorrhaging to the Left ie the Greens, on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers and it is the real politik that matters on election day, not populism.

Jenny Haines