16 May 2011

Addressing the malaise

Australia and Malaysia have a strange co-dependent relationship that brings out the best and worst in both countries: the sort of relationship that usually only happens with countries that are much closer, geographically and socially, than these two.

It began with the Colombo Plan - designed as a means for Australia and other Western nations to "guide" emerging post-colonial nations by educating their future elites, it became a means by which smart-alec members of uppity minorities in Asian countries could be exiled effectively and without making the exiling government look bad. Malaysia largely sent ethnic-Chinese students to universities in Australia, where they began to settle in increasing numbers as opportunity increasingly permitted. A Malay-Chinese graduate who is filling teeth in Brisbane or preparing tax returns in Mildura is not protesting against the Malaysian government or taking up space in a prison; a win-win for both countries.

Australian troops tried to defend Malaya against the Japanese in the 1940s, and a generation later successfully participated (but to a limited extent) in the Konfrontasi with Indonesia that defined post-independence Malaysia. Thousands of Australians lie buried in Malaysia, including victims of the Sandakan death-march. The RAAF kept a base in Malaysia until the 1980s. Until East Timor, it was the Asian country which had the most significant and enduring relationship with Australia's military (South Vietnam had little-to-no relationship with Australia before the AATTV arrived in 1962; a decade later they were gone, and a large part of of South Vietnam followed).

Now we have this deal where we send Malaysia some unaccredited refugees, and they send us some accredited ones. It's part of the relationship between two countries that can't quite deal with racial issues. Australia has taken the enlightened path of multiculturalism but there is plenty of grounds for Malaysians and others to doubt our commitment to inclusiveness. Malaysia has maintained a racially exclusionary policy towards minorities and has largely eschewed international conventions on human rights (not just the UN one on refugees). Paul Barratt says:
Note that under this definition the state of being a refugee is intrinsic to the person concerned: they are a refugee the moment they take flight “owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted ...”, not because some government official in a far-off land taps them on the shoulder with his sword and says, “I dub thee a refugee. Arise, Sir Refugee”.

This means that the process of “processing” refugees is conceptually, and in any decent practice, not a matter of establishing which people are refugees, it is a matter of identifying any who are making a false claim and hence are not entitled to the benefits that refugee status confers as of right.

I think this means that a person who claims to be a refugee is one until proven otherwise. People who arrive by plane need their status and identity confirmed before they start their journey. That said, Ray Hadley's idea that terrorists arrive by boat is well beyond stupid and should only be admitted to public debate with a Contemptible visa.

This doesn't get around the argument that says that a person who turns up here and is a refugee is no less a refugee than someone identified as such somewhere far away, and whose claim to enter Australia under the refugee program is no less or more than that of the refugee in the far-off refugee camp. A person who comes here claiming to be a refugee, and who spends time in the community on that basis but is later found not to be one, has a claim to stay anyway that is denied to others with stronger claims. These were points that Philip Ruddock used to make, but then he also said that there was a "queue" for refugee applications, which there isn't; now that Ruddock is gone you can hold to the logic and realities of regional asylum-seeker issues while discarding the dross of scaremongering and neo-racism.

Tanveer Ahmed said:
After a recent column about the mental health of asylum seekers, I received a flurry of correspondence.

I thought he was going to say a "flood" of correspondence! Aren't deluge-related expressions most appropriate to this issue? I suppose I should be grateful for relief from cliché.
The prospect of a better standard of living is the primary motive for migration.

True enough, but it doesn't address the existential question that a person living in squalor in a refugee camp - here or abroad - is still living while those who stay and fight are not, and are not brought to the attention of human rights campaigners, refugee classifiers, media or anyone but those who mourn for them personally. Ahmed has ducked questions of mental health treatment in those places.

I'm sure that Malaysia's treatment of asylum-seekers is appalling. I'm also sure there has been more coverage of that in the past few weeks than there has been in years, and that increased scrutiny will over time improve the way these people are treated. Bringing the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR into Malaysia's asylum-seeker process is no small thing, and will have real impacts for those affected. One of the best things that we can do for asylum-seekers in Malaysia is not to offer some ritualistic, almost onanistic condemnation, but to offer some of them a place in Australian society. How else are you going to show Malaysia and its/our neighbours the value of UNHCR and other international campaigns for transparency, except by practical measures like this deal promises?

I respect the dedication to process and covenants by Barratt and many others, but I think it's less effective than the engagement that the government is proposing. Gifford and others say:
A regional dialogue would work towards a co-operative framework that emphasises border management, not border protection, and would strike a balance between security and humanitarian imperatives. It would work towards a decentralised, equitable and accessible system for accepting and assessing asylum claims in the countries where people are seeking asylum, including in Australia.

Sharing responsibility would work towards ensuring that asylum seekers have their human rights protected while their claims are being assessed and this includes being able to live in the community without fear and with dignity. This would entail no detention centres, no transferring our irregular maritime arrivals to other countries and a timely, fair and humane regional system for meeting the needs of refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants.

A regional co-operative protection framework would also address the upstream causes of forced displacement with a view towards developing effective polices that address the root causes.

Oh, spare us. Regional dialogue would have to include those countries that are effectively exiling their own citizens, and would have to do so in a way that didn't ruffle feathers. Save "regional dialogues" for trade. Engaging with the refugee issue through non-government agencies - including various media platforms - will build a regional awareness of asylum-seeker issues far more comprehensively than "regional dialogues".

The Fairfax subs do themselves no favours with headlines like this:
Parliament set to condemn Malaysia deal

No it isn't. If you read the piece, you'll see Bandt secures support from the Coalition then promptly dumps on them:
"The coalition is the party of razor wire and children overboard so we don't look to them for more humane and compassionate treatment of asylum seekers and refugees."

Mr Morrison said the coalition would support Mr Bandt's motion.

"We might have different reasons for condemning this (Malaysia) deal but the deal is condemned."

In other words: opposition to this deal is fractious and confused. Bandt + Wilkie + the Coalition is 74 members of the House of Reps, two short of a majority: close, but still short, and squabbling among themselves. Which self-respecting independent wants to throw in with these arseclowns? The silence of the other four independents means they're holding out for pork, and they'll get it.

If the Senate condemns the Malaysia deal, then turns around and passes the Budget and the carbon tax, only the Murdoch papers will count it as a win for the Coalition. My guess is that the Malaysia deal will be shunted off to a committee and seasoned professionals in the press gallery will of course adhere to the highest - oh look, the Prime Minister's hair!

This is one area where the government should just get up on its hind legs and tell people to get stuffed:

  • Go to Inverbrackie and turn those fearful people back on the Liberals - tell them that if their local member, Jamie Briggs, votes against the Malaysia deal then there will be 10,000 Afghan rapists set loose in the district before the month is out.

  • Tell people in Fitzroy and Brunswick that the Malaysian deal means more scrutiny and openness in refugee rights rather than less.

  • Tell people in Hobart that any poker machines removed from Australia will be reinstalled in some wretched, cholera-infested camp on the Thai border, and that the Four Thousand will come here with a raging pokies addiction well advanced, unless Wilkie thinks again.

  • Go to the camps and dress people in teal, black and white and teach them to chant "go Sharkies!".

Then we'll see who's against what. Then we'll see a government that's boxing clever for a change, and which reminds us that compassion can be life-giving and enervating and can involve us all, rather than the stuff of dull legalism and obtuse spin.

It does not do to indulge a pampered people by engaging in a victim-fantasy that we're being swamped. This piece inadvertently links the Malaysia deal to the Budget that reduced some middle-class welfare: there is no placating some people when it comes to reform, you've got to go ahead and hope the polls will pick up rather than trying to massage the polls and hope you can find a policy idea that will survive tinkering and spinning.

What killed Labor in NSW was that voting for that party just came to be seen as a stupid choice. A politician standing foursquare and fighting for a policy will attract more votes than someone who tries to spin away opposition without really addressing it. If Bowen wants a future in politics he will die in a ditch for this one, and not squib it like his mate Burke has squibbed water reform.

We could use it as an opportunity to show Malaysia that it will never be a developed nation while it has such an institutional hang-up about race. This is a lesson we are learning and re-learning ourselves: clever, hardworking Malay-Chinese migrants have helped teach us that, in a way that no amount of finger-wagging from funny old Mahathir ever could. It is a lesson we helped teach South Africa a generation ago.

The Malaysia-Australia migration deal promises a practical and fruitful end to a co-dependent relationship of mutually reinforced racism, if only it had a chance. Tell your Malaysian friends to read this blog while you can!

1 comment:

  1. What really gets up my nose the most about reaction to this Aus-Malay deal, is the self-interested complaints of people such as Ian Rintoul, for whom hemorraging of our borders with boat-borne refugees is the only thing that will ever shut him up(no mention from such a Bleeding Heart about what effect that will have on our poor environment), or David Manne, who is presently watching his business model blow away on the winds of change, no longer able to make a motza out of the interminable legal challenges to refugee status by the Asylum Seekers. Yet their comments are given a disproportionate weight by the media to the value and veracity of what they have to say.
    The Coalition, on the other hand, well, you can predict that they won't like whatever the government want to do about boat-borne Asylum Seekers because it's been playing so well for them up till now and taken them from a back-biting, disorganised rabble, to the 'Toppermost of the Poppermost'.