Two images from the weekend have stuck in my head.
The first was of a sprawling, dusty camp, housing thousands upon thousands of Syrian refugees. After years of conflict, 2.5 million Syrians are currently refugees and another 6.5 million are displaced within the country.
Imagine almost half of Australia’s population forced to flee their homes, with millions of people stranded in the Simpson Desert in tents, with little access to water, food or health services and you might start to understand the enormity of this humanitarian crisis.
Then there was the picture by Michael Safi from The Guardian of a slight Sri Lankan woman, carrying her exhausted toddler over her shoulder, arriving on Cocos Island – one of the 157 Sri Lankan people finally allowed onshore after a month at sea in a crowded, airless Customs vessel.
She was being closely watched by a swarm of burly Australian guards or Customs officials. It looked very much like a sledge hammer being used to crack a walnut.
While it’s a relief that the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection has made the sensible, humane decision to bring the 157 Tamils to shore, it feels like a hollow victory.
It is almost beyond belief that our Government would expend so much time, energy and money on preventing a boat load of people from putting their claims for asylum, in the face of the immense refugee crisis gripping the world.
Today, these people will be taking in the full reality of their new temporary accommodation – the harsh Curtin Detention Facility in remote Western Australia – once labelled ‘primitive’ by former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, a micro-step up from the boat that was their home over the past month.
The motives behind the Government’s change of heart in bringing the asylum seekers onshore are hardly altruistic.
It’s a cynical move that attempts to circumvent the High Court challenge against their original plan to leave the asylum seekers at sea, in secret, as they tried to palm them off on Sri Lanka – the country most of them originally fled from – or India, the country they set sail from.
It’s also a nod to the Indian Government, which demanded our Government treat these people humanely as Scott Morrison desperately sought their help to resolve his self-created political problem.
The deal struck last week, whereby we outsource our refugee responsibilities to India on our own land, is unprecedented.
It raises a number of serious concerns that must be addressed by the Australian Government:
As this human drama unfolds, let’s not lost sight of the fact that Australia has a fair, reasonable, workable refugee determination process – it has served us well for many decades in terms of determining whether someone is a refugee or not.
This is how we should be processing the 157 men, women and children’s claims for asylum.
It is unsustainable, unworkable and expensive for the Government to continue to pursue policies that attempt to circumvent Australian and international law, just so they can claim to have ‘stopped the boats’.
What happens when the next boat arrives? And the one after that?
Because, as long as there is conflict in our world, there will be people displaced, forced to flee bombs, persecution, torture, marginalisation and fear. Just look at what’s happening in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine.
The Government purports to be tough on boat arrivals as a way to deny people smugglers a ‘product’ and to save lives at sea.