In recent days PM Tony Abbott has strongly reiterated his government’s dis-compassionate stance on asylum seekers and refugees. At least those coming via boat. The ‘nope, nope, nope’ comment came in response to questions about Australia accepting the Rohingya refugees who have been captive to the high seas, with up until recently no country willing to accept them. Last Wednesday saw Malaysia and Indonesia change their stance, saying they are willing to take refugees as long as they are settled or repatriated within a year. Our government, that looks after a country with more ability and space to care for refugees remained steadfast.
I have no evidence to back this up, however I feel over recent years our successive governments have ruled with an increasing hardness of heart. Both sides of politics have sought to keep some of the worlds most vulnerable off our shores a potential safe harbour, refuge and source of new life. Whilst the vulnerable living amongst us continue to be shunned and exiled, often effectively prisoners on their own land as was seen in the Northern Territory intervention. Of course the most recent example being the government cutting funds to essential services for people experiencing homelessness.
Trying to work out the government’s motivation, I heard on a recent episode of Hack someone lament that refugees and asylum seekers use to be a bipartisan concern, above party politics, but that unfortunately the debate has slid and parties now respond to political pressure, rather than a humanitarian conscience. Questions are raised for me about individuals versus party politics. I find it saddening and hard to believe that our leaders are so distant as to give such a flippant response to the suffering of two thousand fellow human beings. I’m sure there are all kinds of rationalities that can be offered about choice and so forth, but I guess I’m left wondering does Tony Abbott go home to a quiet place and cry for the lives of these people on the boats and then feel powerless to move from the position held by his party? Do those in government care, can they see the pain of others or are they simply blinded by power, wealth and the concerns of this wealthy nation that is all around them. I guess compassion fatigue hits us all at some point or another however this government seems to have gone beyond that to a meanness of spirit, that leaves one wondering how we are perceived on a world stage. And as for motivation is it simply political expediency, following the loudest, most convincing voice or is PM Tony Abbott, genuinely scared that these people from across the sea are a threat to our way of life?
Up until writing this blog I’ll admit I was ignorant about the plight of the Rohingya. The ethnic group calls Rakhine state in the west of Myanmar (Burma), home, with the area bordering Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. They number about 1.1 million and are considered by Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Burma does not allow them citizenship, education, to register marriage or to work, the government even encourages communal violence against them. The United Nations (UN) considers them one of the world’s most persecuted people. Two waves of violence in 2012 aimed at the Rohingya and instigated by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine sparked religious unrest throughout the whole country.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Senior Researcher, Sunai Phasuk states ‘The atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state is a crime against humanity and bordering on ethnic cleansing.’ Essentially the Burmese government want them out of Burma, and will use any measure to achieve their end. They have become a scapegoat for all the country’s poverty and lack of social services.
The survivors of the waves of violence have not been able to return to their homes, forced to live in ghetto-like facilities. And so the motivation to leave for a better life becomes clearer. However the journey they sign up for, hoping to get to the mainly Muslim Malaysia is a dangerous one, and expensive. The people smugglers charge US$5000 and then they have to pay twice more, at risk of death or rape for non-payment to enter either Thailand or Malaysia.
Even if they survive all this, the Thai government is officially seeing the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and they are under threat of being put in indefinite detention, with no access to Un refugee channels. On a brighter note the US has pledged to help the region ‘bear the burden’ of the refugees. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says, “The US stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today. We have a common obligation to answer the call of these migrants who have risked their lives at sea.”
The small nation state of Gambia is also willing to help the refugees by offering them a place to land. They believe it is there ‘sacred duty’ to alleviate the suffering of fellow Muslims. They are appealing to the international community to send tents, bedding, household materials and medicines to set up “habitable camps with decent sanitary conditions.”
I can’t help but feel our Government’s response in comparison is juvenile at best and like a petulant child at worst. An article in the Drum by Dr Matthew Davies of the Australian National University, argues our ‘Stop the boats’ policy has helped unravel global norms around refugees, which in part has been the cause of the Rohingya being catapulted around the South East Asian Oceans
The same article points to the wisdom shown by Bill Clinton during a speech at Yale University in 2003. He suggested that American foreign policy should be conscience of the Nation’s eventual decline as a superpower. America sat on a crossroads in 2003, it could enjoy its power and break the international rules it helped to create or it could “create a world with rules, partnerships and habits of behaviour that we (the US) would like to live in when we’re no longer the military, political and economic superpower in the world.”
Davies points out that Australia too has a choice like this to make. Currently we can throw our weight around, and begin to fracture the web of the international regime around asylum seekers, but not without consequences, which some of the Rohingya are paying with their lives. We are again at a point where our professed beliefs around human rights and our actions don’t match up. This contradiction must stop! Australia and Australians have the ability to be a nation that displays generosity, hospitality and offers hope to the most vulnerable around us. There is a sense throughout the Bible that those who are blessed have an obligation to be a blessing. This can be interpreted at a national level but also interpersonally as we think about our interactions with those around us, especially those who aren’t like us.
Perhaps as we do this we can change the heart of the government to see that the humanitarian cost of going down its current path is too high and that there is another way. They cry ‘but we stopped the boats.’ The events of the past week clearly show they have not stopped the boats, merely, like playing classical music at a train station to stop drunk teens gathering, they have just pushed the problem further up the line. After all out of sight is out of mind.