How Can We Treat Refugees Humanely?
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This is an initial starter list for discussing the "Refugee" topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. [Image source: see Norton below]
Australia - Refugee & Protection Visa Requests 2013 (refer Evershed 2012)
Australia - Protection Visas Granted in 2012 (ref. Dept. Immigration)
People born overseas (refer Tenorio 2013)
How can we treat refugees humanely? - Initial notes by Thor
This has been a tough topic to handle because it has so many strands and so many possible perspectives. The notes to follow are my own angle at the moment and should be taken only as a starting point. The long reading list at the end contains many more arguments, historical and current.
1. The terms of discussion
There is a problem even debating an issue like refugee policy and practice without being ineffectual. Everyone has an opinion and a vote. Frequently opinions are emotional but many off the cuff the opinions exhibit a lack of perspective and background understanding. Specifically, in any discussion including the word “refugee” and “humane”, the word “should” is likely to colour every paragraph. The word “should” is a cloak to cover the naked conscience of decent people, and the hypocrisy of others. The word “should” is too often an evasion of responsibility, and in the end can be a barrier to helping anyone, for “should” typically suggests promises without a real world likelihood of solution. Perhaps “should” is best avoided.
2. Who is “we”?
“We” can refer to ourselves as individuals, or to some supposed model of “an Australian” in the culture, or to the actions of government agents or politicians as representatives of a population. “We” can refer whole nations, or supposed cultural groupings, such as “Westerners”. “We” can even refer to the whole of humanity. The ambiguity of “we” is significant in any discussion of refugees, as the focus of reference slips even in our own speech.
3. Personal humanity applied to refugees
The question of treating refugees humanely, or not, is mostly easy at a personal level (you, me). Individuals will treat refugees face to face humanely, or not, according to the personality of that individual, when and how the encounter occurs, the personal sense of security of both individuals, prevailing cultural attitudes, governmental & educational encouragement (or not), recent media events, the actual ethnic origins of a particular refugee, and a host of other factors.
In fact relatively few Australians encounter refugees while knowing that they are refugees. In disguised encounters the actual refugee will be treated as any individual, for better or for worse. As members of voluntary organizations some Australians may reach out in a more systematic way to help. As members of some more insular or selfish sub-culture, others may express hostility in a more systematic way. What is sanctioned politically will reflect these local community divisions. The community will always have this kind of distribution of attitudes, although the margins may swell or diminish depending upon events of the day.
It is notable that Australian immigration detention centres have deliberate policies of separating detained refugees and others from contact with the general Australian population. This is achieved by remote or offshore location, as well as prisoner-like exclusion from contact in the name of security. An unspoken objective of such separation appears to be the prevention of personal relationships developing between detainees and the general public. The policy has a particularly brutal effect on children.
4. The national humane or inhumane treatment of refugees
a) At a national level, at first glance it might also seem relatively straightforward to treat refugees humanely if we are talking about individuals already in Australia who have been accepted as refugees for resettlement (not that it is treated in a straightforward way by actual governments). In practice, the institutions of government - pretty well any government anywhere in the world - are not terribly good at accommodating the personal dramas, let alone traumas, of people under stress. This clumsiness, which can be brutal to individuals, comes from the particular limitations of governmental employees tasked with managing situations, from the institutional and financial frameworks within which they operate, and from the political leadership of whichever administration happens to be in power. No magic wand will ever transform this equation permanently. It can be temporarily influenced by public opinion and the actions of opinion leaders of the day.
b) At a national level, in terms of who, how many and in what manner to accept refugees, for any government which wishes to actually remain in office, the issue can be fiendishly difficult. In implementation, it also depends upon what the agents of that government consider to be humane. A review of the history of decisions on immigration since the 19th Century will show repeated cycles of generosity, paranoia and exclusion. Periods of relative openness can generate heated public reaction which takes careful management to dissipate over time.
c) Politics is the art of the possible. Politically, sometimes less for the moment is more over time. Sometimes political rhetoric is a cover for opposite actions. The man more responsible than any other for developing and expanding Australia’s modern immigration program (post-WW2) was Arthur Caldwell, who as Immigration Minister in 1947 stood up in parliament and declared: “I can promise the Australian people that we will never have a chocolate coloured Australia”. In private he studied mandarin. From 1947 that program has been based upon a mix of humanitarian refugees and economic migrants, with the division between these categories often unclear in particular cases. In addition to regular migration, in Australia (as in almost every country) there are a number of visa overstayers, a small percentage of whom become long term illegal residents. "The estimated number of people who have overstayed their visas and are in Australia at any one time was about 53 900 as at 30 June 2010. The number of overstayers equates to about 0.02 per cent of Australia's population" (the most current Department of Immigration Fact Sheet 2013, see reference below). The basic drill for overstayers is that they are deported and barred from returning for 3 years after repaying the cost of deportation.
While asylum seekers arriving without permission by boat (a relatively small number of people) has been used ruthlessly as a tool for inflaming political passions, there has been political bipartisan agreement on the value of general immigration. The overstayer issue has remained below the political radar altogether.
Waves of immigration from unfamiliar ethnic sources have always met a degree of community resistance, usually followed by acceptance over the course of the following generation. For example, refugee arrivals from Europe after World War II were first denigrated as "refos". The careful promotion of multicultural tolerance has removed any official imprimatur to private prejudice, and this has been extremely important in keeping the peace. However, current populist political exploitation of the "boat people" issue threatens that peace and sways public opinion, with public prejudice not assisted by the oxygen of anonymous Internet comment. An incoming Australian federal government (2013) has unfortunately continued to ride this surge of public prejudice, apparently for ideological reasons, and even to the extent of renaming the Department of Immigration as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Welcome to Fortress Australia. That is, the dividends of tolerance over the last two generations are in some danger of being lost. Recovery might be difficult.
5. The Uncontrolled Entry of Asylum Seekers by Sea
a) At a national level, the official acceptance of refugees has been complicated by three extraneous factors. The first extraneous factor has been an issue since Vietnamese refugees began to arrive in the late 1970s. That factor is the uncontrolled arrival within Australian borders of asylum seekers on boats. In the case of Vietnam, that situation was eventually brought under control by negotiating a “controlled departure” agreement with the Vietnamese government. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers perished at sea before this situation was stabilized. Note that there has been a recent increase in the number of Vietnamese boat people again, and the Vietnamese government has been showing renewed resistance to accepting people who have fled and then been rejected by destination countries. As a result Australia is now holding these people incommunicado in immigration detention (reference: Brummitt 2013).
b) The second complicating factor in refugee arrivals is fairly recent. That is the involvement on both a large scale and small scale of organized crime in establishing “underground railroads” for the undocumented transfer of individuals across national borders. These underground railroad transfers involve many kinds of clients, with many kinds of motive, and the business is worldwide. For example there are transfers of fake students, undocumented workers, sex slaves, fake refugees, and so on.
From a criminal perspective, the “people trade” has much in common with the drug trade, and it is likely that the same principals are often involved. Also in common with the drug trade is that large numbers of genuine or innocent persons become collateral damage. Given the history of the drug trade, it is also reasonable to suspect that certain segments of government in various countries develop a vested interest in “the problem” and seek to perpetuate it. This is almost certainly the case in Indonesia for example. The present Australian government with its “sovereign borders” program has set itself the task of breaking the business model of the human trafficking of asylum seekers by organized crime. Clearly the government is unsure how to break this trade, and by using distressed individuals as pawns (just as the people traders do), large numbers of genuine refugees become collateral damage. No humane solution to this dilemma is in sight.
c) The third complicating factor to refugee arrival is mostly country specific (although see also the reference to Vietnam above). The Republic of Iran has notified the Australian government that it will not accept repatriated persons who have fled the country, in spite of Australian attempts to negotiate a return agreement. (Since Australia is a party to a sanctions regime against Iran that lack of cooperation might not be surprising). This means that even if Australia rejects the bona fides of an asylum seeker as a genuine refugee, there is no way to deport that person. The current Iranian regime distrusts these individuals precisely because they are usually well educated, middle or upper class, and not at all enthusiastic about religion in the context of a theocracy. That is, they are classed as actual or potential political opponents. The level of actual persecution in individual cases is difficult to establish. Iranians have surged to the top of the list of asylum seekers. In general their level of distress is probably not comparable to that of, for example, Syrian refugees at present. Many Iranians apply for asylum after arriving by air, after arranging forged documents through "agents", while others fly to Jakarta and take a boat at great risk (this is cheaper). As refugees they are knowledgable and articulate about their rights, and for that reason are extremely unpopular with both Immigration Department officials and the Government. Thousands are being held in immigration detention limbo. Recent attempts by the Minister for Immigration to re-introduce temporary three year protection visas (as opposed to normal permanent protection visas) may be traceable to this problem. From a coldly pragmatic perspective (regardless of humanitarian issues) middle class Iranians will probably be quite successful immigrants, whether or not their arrival was legitimate. Of course, many Iranians have also already immigrated to Australia on skilled migrant visas, or as postgraduate students.
6. The Global Dimension of the Refugee Problem
At a worldwide level, treating refugees humanely, let alone resolving the source creation of refugees, might be a wish to be worked for, but a blizzard of social, economic and political factors local to many crises put the wish beyond anyone’s power to implement well. The problem is doubly intractable because of the criminal tendencies of many national governments. The actual number of people recognized as refugees globally is a diffuse and expanding statistic. Hartcher (2013, reference list) quotes a UN figure of 45.2 million, but there are hundreds of millions more who need some kind of humanitarian protection status.
7. A Current Debate Focus
The treatment of refugees by governments, and in particular the Australian government, is probably where this debate can be most usefully centred. The following material comes directly from a Commonwealth of Australia Immigration Department fact sheet (https://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/60refugee.htm ). Since publication, Australia has had a change of government to one probably less sympathetic to refugees, though favourable to more skilled migration, so future statistics are likely to vary quite a bit :
Outcomes of 2012–13 programme:
In 2012–13, the Humanitarian Programme was increased to 20 000 places from 13 750 places in 2011–12. A total of 20 019 visas were granted under the Humanitarian Programme, of which 12 515 visas were granted under the offshore component and 7504 visas were granted under the onshore component. See the tables below for further details on the 2012–13 programme outcomes.
Woman at Risk
In 2012–13, 1673 visas (13.9 per cent) of the Refugee category were granted to Woman at Risk visa applicants, exceeding the nominal annual target of 12 per cent.
In 2012–13, a total of 50 444 people lodged applications under the offshore programme component compared with 42 928 in 2011–12.
1 Includes protection visas and onshore humanitarian visa grants that are countable under the Humanitarian Programme.
8. The Effectiveness of the Australian Government’s Humanitarian Immigration Program
a) In the context of a worldwide official total refugee problem of 45.2 million, 20 thousand people admitted to Australia annually is obviously trivial. It is also obvious that socially and politically Australia cannot diminish the total number of international refugees in a meaningful way. For example, to take a million refugees per annum into Australia would totally distort the Australian economy and lead to massive electoral revolt by the Australian population.
b) By choosing to accept a limited number of refugees from selected sources Australia has in the past enhanced its international reputation (“soft power” is important) and in the long run advantaged its economy. In reality, this cherry picking is likely to continue. There is ample evidence that some cultural groups fit more quickly than others into the existing Australian population mix, and over several generations have a higher level of success. No government is likely to make this explicit in its policy, but all will make it a significant part of implementation. For example, some of the worst refugee suffering is now found in central Africa, but we are unlikely to see more than a token admission of individuals from that region. Syrian refugees with significant skills are likely to find a warmer welcome than Afghanis with few skills, although both will be handicapped for entry by concerns about extreme religious tendencies. Such “hidden rules” in refugee policy might seem unpalatable in coffee table discussion, but they are not going to vanish under any Australian political regime.
c) Any government will only devote limited resources to a refugee program. It is therefore a practical question as to how well these limited resources are actually deployed. In fact, regardless of the humanitarian feelings of politicians and administrators (or the lack thereof), arguments from economic efficiency can be one of the most powerful tools for keeping their actions sane.
The current budget for the humanitarian refugee program is hopelessly distorted away from actually assisting refugees. Here are the numbers (see Bianca Hall, April 30 2013 in references):
” While the figure is expected to be revised in the May budget, offshore processing is currently forecast to cost $2.3 billion over the next four years.
The United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees' regional spokesman, Richard Towle, said this was a matter for Australia, but said: ''I would say, however, that UNHCR's global budget for this year is $3.7 billion and with that money we're expected to respond to the crises of Syria, Mali, Afghanistan, for 25 million globally.''
Added to the current expenses is not only the enormous cost of offshore detention, but the bottomless cost of a “sovereign border” solution by the navy. Both of these are driven politically not by the needs of genuine refugees but by the struggle (“war”) to defeat the alleged people trade by organized crime. The ‘war on drugs’, American style, is not a promising model for an effective solution to human trafficking. There needs to be some very creative thinking put into this dilemma, and a search for solutions which do not put genuine refugees at risk.
Immigration detention, if and when we decide it is unavoidable, remains problematic in many ways (see paragraph 9 to follow). From a financial perspective, offshore detention is the least rational of all solutions. Supporting asylum seekers financially onshore, either embedded within the normal community or in closed detention, does imply significant governmental expenditure, especially when they are barred from employment. However this apparent expenditure is recycled directly into the Australian community through the purchase of goods and services. The money goes around, which is what provides the momentum for everything we do in a national economy. A national economy is not analogous to an individual's household budget (a point which less sophisticated voters never grasp). Offshore detention in foreign countries does not generate anything like the same stimulation through recycling into the Australian economy. A large part of the funding haemorrhages as foreign exchange expenditure - a net loss.
9. Making sense of immigration detention
a) Where the Australian government is involved in immigration detention of some kind, offshore or onshore, there is also an intense need for creative and humane solutions. It is no kind of “solution” to multiply the psychological damage accumulated by refugees by warehousing them under punitive conditions. These people are not criminals, and it would be useful in Australian law to make it illegal to refer to them as criminals.
b) For those asylum seekers who are eventually given permanent residence in Australia, it is in the national interest that they enter as stable and optimistic individuals, not people psychologically crippled from years of unpredictable, punitive incarceration. Where they are involved in a waiting period it would make absolute economic and humanitarian sense to have them involved in productive activities which exercise or develop their skills.
c) For those asylum seekers whom the Australian government does decline to accept into a humanitarian program, it is important both for common decency and for Australia’s “soft power” reputation that they be turned away in good condition and without a lifelong resentment of this nation. After all, the Middle Eastern wars in which Australia has meddled hopelessly for a decade have all contained a large element of blowback based on local resentment from earlier, poorly conceived policies. It would be in Australia’s interest to actively help these individuals to find and accept the best available solutions to their personal problems.
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Kenny, Mark (January 31, 2014) "Morrison's conviction in the face of anger". Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/morrisons-conviction-in-the-face-of-anger-20140131-31szj.html
Kestenbaum, David (February 21, 2013) "Three Ways To Totally Transform U.S. Immigration Policy". National Public Radio (U.S.A.), online @ http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/02/21/172501563/three-ways-to-totally-transform-u-s-immigration-policy
Larson, Krista (February 13, 2014) "'Ethnic cleansing' fears in Central African Republic". Sydney Morning Herald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/world/ethnic-cleansing-fears-in-central-african-republic-20140213-hvc55.html#ixzz2t9YP51js
Laughland, Oliver (20 July 2013) "Nauru detention centre burns down - Riot destroys most of asylum-seeker processing facility on island, with detainees being moved to second, incomplete site." The Guardian, online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/20/nauru-detention-centre-burns-down
Laughland, Oliver (23 September 2013) "Scott Morrison defends vow of silence on asylum seeker boat arrivals". http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/23/scott-morrison-border-policy
Laughland, Oliver with Paul Farrell and Nick Evershed (7 January 2014) "Manus Island reports reveal four months of suffering for asylum seekers". The Guardian, online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2014/jan/06/manus-detention-reports-four-months#undefined
Laughland, Oliver (11 February 2014) "Australian government targets asylum seekers with graphic campaign". The Guardian, online @
Laughland, Oliver and Asher Wolf (12 February 2014) "Asylum seekers: consultancy behind graphic campaign holds $2m contract". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/12/asylum-seekers-consultancy-graphic-2m-contract
May, Thor (1984) "The Price of Freedom". [true story of an escape by boat from Vietnam]. Academia.edu website, online @ http://www.academia.edu/2430900/The_Price_of_Freedom_..the_true_story_of_a_Vietnamese_military_officers_escape_from_Vietnam_and_its_aftermath
Minas, Harry (8 October 2013) "Getting the facts about refugee and migrant mental health in Australia". TheConversation website, online @ http://theconversation.com/getting-the-facts-about-refugee-and-migrant-mental-health-in-australia-18902
Morton, Rick (December 20, 2013) "Scott Morrison revokes cap on protection visas". The Australian, online @
Murphy, Catherine (March 5, 2013) "Free-for-all on foreigners as leaders chase votes". Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/freeforall-on-foreigners-as-leaders-chase-votes-20130305-2fhwh.html
Murphy, Katharine (January 24, 2014) "Coalition trumpets border protection success after no boat arrivals in 36 days." The Guardian, online @
Needham, Kirsty (October 3, 2011) "Surge in numbers of Iranian boat arrivals". The Age, online @ http://www.theage.com.au/national/surge-in-numbers-of-iranian-boat-arrivals-20111002-1l3x1.html
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Persian Tribune (June 3, 2013) "Canada to Welcome 5,000 Iranian and Iraqi refugees Now in Turkey". Persian Tribune Website, online @
Phillips, Melissa (16 November 2013) "Outsourcing refugee policy: the Australia-Indonesia ‘people swap’". TheConversation website, online @ http://theconversation.com/outsourcing-refugee-policy-the-australia-indonesia-people-swap-20333
Power, Julie (February 25, 2013) "Survivors grab chance to help refugees adjust". The Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/survivors-grab-chance-to-help-refugees-adjust-20130224-2eznh.html
Reilly, Alex (20 August 2013) "FactCheck: are Australia’s refugee acceptance rates high compared with other nations?" TheConversation website, online @ http://theconversation.com/factcheck-are-australias-refugee-acceptance-rates-high-compared-with-other-nations-17151
Reuters (February 7, 2014) "1100 migrants rescued off coast of Sicily". Sydney Morning Herald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/world/1100-migrants-rescued-off-coast-of-sicily-20140207-hvbj7.html#ixzz2saapRuDr
Reuters (February 4, 2014) "UN appeals for Sahel aid as conflict, climate change take their toll". Sydney Morning Herald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/un-appeals-for-sahel-aid-as-conflict-climate-change-take-their-toll-20140204-31xye.html#ixzz2sJ6zDOZq
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Sigona, Nando (4 October 2013) "Italy ignores real cause of Lampedusa refugee tragedy". TheConversation website, online @ http://theconversation.com/italy-ignores-real-cause-of-lampedusa-refugee-tragedy-18928
Stephens, Kim ( August 17, 2013) "Queensland reflects on its slavery past". The Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/queensland-reflects-on-its-slavery-past-20130816-2s2bn.html#ixzz2cAYerJbj
Stewart, Cameron and Paige Taylor (July 18, 2013) "Border patrols at breaking point over asylum boats". The Australian, online @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/policy/border-patrols-at-breaking-point-over-asylum-boats/story-fn9hm1gu-1226681034941
Taylor, Lenore (20 June 2013) "Julia Gillard working on 'regional solution' to slow asylum boats - Government rethinks asylum seeker policy as backbenchers warn of political consequences". The Guardian, online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/20/julia-gillard-regional-solution-boats
Taylor, Lenore (4 December 2013) "Scott Morrison uses ministerial decree to halt permanent protection visas - Asylum advocates label move that will leave about 33,000 people on bridging visas without working rights 'heartbreaking'". The Guardian, online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/04/scott-morrison-uses-ministerial-decree-to-halt-permanent-protection-visas
Taylor, Lenore and Oliver Laughland (16 December 2013) "Asylum seekers living in Australia forced to sign code of conduct - Code of conduct threatens cancellation of visa and transfer to offshore processing if asylum seekers fail to meet obligations." The Guardian, online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/16/asylum-seekers-living-in-australia-forced-to-sign-code-of-conduct?CMP=ema_632
Tenorio, Robert (Sep 17 2013) "232 Million People Left Their Countries for New Ones—Where Did They Go?" http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/232-million-people-left-their-countries-for-new-ones-where-did-they-go/279741/
The Royal Society (April 24, 2013) "Original Australians numbered 1000 to 3000". The Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/technology/technology-news/original-australians-numbered-1000-to-3000-20130424-2ie2u.html#ixzz2RNEtl5Yu
UNHCR (2014) "2014 UNHCR country operations profile - Europe". United Nations Refugee Agency website, online @ http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a02d9346.html
Vasilyeva, Nataliya (November 5, 2013) "Anti-immigrant nationalists rally in Moscow". The Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/world/antiimmigrant-nationalists-rally-in-moscow-20131105-2wxse.html#ixzz2jilvPH2A
Whyte, Sarah (February 4, 2014) "ASIO warned over blocking refugee access to lawyers." http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/asio-warned-over-blocking-refugee-access-to-lawyers-20140204-31yj6.html#ixzz2sLwvREKg
Whyte, Sarah (February 11, 2014) "Greens, Labor aim to kill off new temporary visa". Sydney Morning Herald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/greens-labor-aim-to-kill-off-new-temporary-visa-20140210-32cnq.html#ixzz2syPUwo9z
Wikipedia (2014) "Immigration to Australia". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_Australia
Wikipedia (2014) "Asylum in the United States". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asylum_in_the_United_States
Wikipedia (2014) "Refugee". Wikipedia, online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugee
Wikipedia (2014) "Temporary Protection Visa (Australia)". Wikipedia Website, online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporary_protection_visa
Wikipedia (2014) "Vietnamese Boat People". [ The number of boat people leaving Vietnam and arriving safely in another country totalled almost 800,000 between 1975 and 1995 ... According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea ...] Wikipedia, online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_boat_people
Wood, Stephanie (December 16, 2013) "Abbott sacks asylum seeker health advisers." The Brisbane Times, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/abbott-sacks-asylum-seeker-health-advisers-20131215-2zfg8.html#ixzz2naDLAdDD
Wroe, David (January 10, 2014) "Turn-back angers Indonesia." Sydney Morning Herald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/turnback-angers-indonesia-20140109-30kkh.html#ixzz2pwn85s5o
Wroe, David (February 11, 2014) "Lifeboats used to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia only used once". Sydney Morning Herald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/lifeboats-used-to-send-asylum-seekers-back-to-indonesia-only-used-once-20140210-32cvc.html#ixzz2sxrl4q2F
How can we treat refugees humanely? (c) Thor May 2014