Sri Lanka’s brutal war against the Tamils, a native ethnic group that has suffered legal, economic and political discrimination for more than half a century, has come at a huge domestic and global cost. Human rights in the Sinhalese-dominated nation are consistently violated, with journalists, activists and Tamils routinely murdered with impunity. In 2009 Sri Lanka’s position in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index fell to ninety-seventh among 180 states, from ninety-second in 2008.
The country’s civil war, in which tens of thousands were killed, ended this year, in an outcome that emboldened the government in Colombo. But the resolution left the Tamils even further from self-determination and resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The government placed around 300,000 Tamils against their will in concentration camps in the nation’s northeast, though the regime claimed recently it would soon release all captives.
This is the context for Australia’s latest asylum seeker drama, an issue generating negative coverage in the international press for Australia’s inability to manage refugees in an orderly manner that comports with international standards. A few thousand refugees, many of whom come from Sri Lanka, are attempting to reach the safety of Australia by leaky boats. It is a perilous journey that surely qualifies people with the kind of tenacity and initiative any country would want to embrace. But Australian authorities prefer to appear tough on “illegals” to appease right-wing claims of soft border-protection laws.
Largely absent from the debate is the fact that Australia annually allows countless thousands of wannabe refugees to land in the country by plane and overstay their visas. But the sight of (mostly) dark-skinned and desperate asylum seekers arriving by boat has created a toxic environment of demonization. Voices of reason, such as Tamil Australians explaining the profound discrimination in Sri Lanka, are heard too infrequently.
Australia is not alone. Italy under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi leads a country increasingly dismissive of refugee claims, with callous measures against those fleeing violence in faraway lands. In America, fury against “illegal aliens” continues unabated, fueled by rising unemployment and tough economic times.
The issue goes to the heart of refugee flows in the shadow of war and the ability of the political and media elites to drum up fear of a handful of people fleeing persecution in conflicts that are often backed, armed and fueled by Western states. Sri Lanka’s war was partially armed by Israel, China and India.
Australia, a largely uninhabited island, has long nursed fears of invasion by its northern neighbors. During the Second World War, Japan filled the predator role, but Indonesia has long remained a mystery to many Australians, despite Bali being a popular holiday destination. As a former outpost of the British Empire, it was perhaps once understandable that Australia saw Asia as a threat. The northern city of Darwin was bombed by Japan in 1942, and white man’s racial purity was a theory widely accepted until the White Australia policy was finally abandoned in the mid-1970s. Nonwhite immigration was barred because, in the words of its key architect Alfred Deakin, “alien races” may threaten the nation. Australia is a Western enclave in a region with vastly different values and concepts of justice to many authoritarian regimes nearby. Fear of the unknown has existed since the English landed in 1788. Though perhaps no more serious than in other Western states, an insular, island mentality sometimes rears its ugly head.
The mainstream Australian attitude to refugees fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle East nations during the earlier part of this century was of exclusion and brutality. Asylum seekers, including young children, were locked behind razor wire in stifling desert conditions.
Paranoia of the foreigner is not unique to Australia–anti-immigration sentiment is growing in Britain, America and across Europe–even as the United Nations claimed in July that more than 42 million people are uprooted worldwide, including 16 million refugees. Asylum seekers are not everybody else’s problem, but the world’s.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has clumsily tried to involve neighboring Indonesia in his “solution” to hold and administer refugees he doesn’t want processed on local shores. Jakarta, not a signatory of the UN refugee convention, has been effectively bribed and cajoled into removing a feared populist backlash against Rudd. The previous government harnessed voter unease and tabloid outrage to demonize refugees from countries Australia was helping to “liberate,” such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is despite the country’s only broadsheet newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s the Australian, acknowledging that, “many Tamils face a dire situation at sea, in refugee camps and in Sri Lanka. The Sydney Morning Herald published a feature that calmly analyzed the changing refugee climate since Sri Lanka declared victory in May against the Tamil Tigers, further indicating the desperate situation of the fleeing Tamils. Sympathy for the dispossessed was growing, and the rhetoric of the Rudd ministry was undoubtedly less threatening toward asylum seekers than heard during past years.
Conveniently forgotten by the more hysterical elements of the country is the fact that the vast majority of refugees arriving by boat are found to have genuine cases and are allowed to settle in Australia.
It’s at least encouraging that, unlike during the former prime ministership of John Howard, many Australian voters have greater concerns than a handful of refugees making a hazardous journey. Unfortunately, the country’s former opposition leader has been unable to resist engaging in the politics of refugee bashing. However, a mature debate about population growth and its environmental effects may be a little easier today than ten years ago.
But prejudice remains. Take this letter published in the Australian in early November:
“Australia must be getting a reputation for being a pathetically weak country, easy to manipulate if you want to enter it illegally. Border protection measures instigated by the government of John Howard have been abandoned and replaced by welcoming customs vessels which try to hand over the problem to another country. But the boatpeople learn that if you don’t want to do as you are told, just make your demands with accompanying threats and the government can be easily manipulated.”
The failure of the Rudd government to honestly assess and condemn the gross human rights abuses in the countries forcing citizens to leave in the first place–Sri Lanka and Iraq and Afghanistan under Western occupation–is indicative of a feeble elite petrified of offending key trading partners, such as Sri Lanka and China, and rampaging and campaigning tabloids.
The issue is no longer whether most asylum seekers are genuine and face credible threats to their lives–years of statistics conclusively prove that they are–but how a fractured world manages peoples rejected by their nation of birth. Refugee flows will inevitably increase because of climate concerns, resource wars, civil strife and Western-backed dictatorships. Attacking the marginalized is the easiest political and media route but most contemptible. It takes no imagination to ascribe ulterior motives to the voiceless.
Over the past few months, Australia has shown the world how not to manage asylum seekers. True leadership means not capitulating to populist fears, a point made by Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan during her visit to Australia in November. This century is guaranteed to bring an explosion of desperate people fleeing difficult circumstances; we have a moral responsibility to shun the invasion analogies and embrace practical solutions toward sustainable resettlement.