Too often we forget refugees are not the seeds of the problem but themselves victims of it

Through much of the Western world, 2016 will again be a year dominated by the politics of caring for the millions of people dislocated by war and oppression. Caring for them in safe areas near their own countries is the big problem, if the one that fails to get attention. The politics of taking, and absorbing a small proportion, perhaps 3 per cent into long term refuge abroad has already become the most contentious issue in Europe and the United States.

Some world leaders, particularly Angela Merkel in Germany, have been extraordinarily generous in offering her nation's help. The task she has set her nation involves a considerable economic and social swallow, from a nation which has yet to completely absorb its own from East Germany, as well as the social problems of an existing large migrant workforce. In Germany, and some of its neighbours, such as France and Hungary, are right-wing nationalistic groups opposed to immigration and multiculturalism, and gaining support from fear of militant Islam. This is a year in which we may find political and social limits, if not economic ones, to human kindness and moral duty.

Here in Australia, many think comfortably that we can keep it a second order issue. We have secure and broad sea boundaries rigorously patrolled by forces with a new mission of repelling helpless boarders. We have terribly effective ways of discouraging those who approach us uninvited. Never has our powerful navy, once established and equipped to fight armed adversaries, been so focused on people so helpless. Its victories, if it has them, are such that the public is not allowed to know. We have returned asylum seekers, after quick and dirty and interested tests to genuineness, to those from whom they have fled.

Those not sent home or to places where they have no hope or prospects are delivered to foreign client Third World countries. Frank bribery has been involved, as well as the corruption and distortion of national aims and processes, including our own. We have systematised mistreatment by tamed officials of Third World governments, hired deniable and essentially unaccountable civil contract warders and prison guards, effectively operating outside our law. And we have immigration officials and politicians lost to kindness, decency, compassion and any sense of a fair go to tired, poor huddled masses yearning to be free. It is idle to argue that public servants involved are merely carrying out government policy; the reshaping of their department preselected enthusiasts for the policies in question.

What is not clear is whether the Australian policy and attitudes to refugees will change because of external pressures, including strong criticism by the international community, or because of argument and debate inside Australia, including responses to fresh events. The odds favour external shock.

Although about a quarter of the population is vehemently opposed to our refugee policies, particularly the mistreatment of children, women and men, the majority give them at least passive support. Both parties in a position to govern support the policies. Labor, after a wrenching debate during which its own doubters were forced to accept that Tony Abbott had them wedged on the issue, now "admits" its old policies were wrong and made the problems worse. Although Labor is itself the author of many of the most objectionable policies, the electorate believes that it was the party that dropped the ball on the subject while in government, and that the foundation of all sound policy, reflected in Liberal practice, is "stopping the boats" and denying any hope to those who gamble with arrival by sea.


Opponents of the policy need new arguments. It's not necessarily that their existing arguments are wrong. But they have not convinced the electorate. Nor have they moved the reasoning processes or hearts of the two mainstream parties. The tide is not turning.

The majority, moreover, has accepted several dubious propositions linking different parts of the policy. Most now believe that we became consciously cruel to boat people because we discovered that some of them might drown if they resort to boats. Others, moreover, think boat people are somehow innocent pawns in a higher moral order battle against wicked people smugglers. We cannot, apparently, show compassion because it would be playing into the people smugglers' hands. That has only ever been dressing for the fact, since Tampa, that our leaders repel asylum seekers wherever we can and whenever we can simply because we do not want them, except on our own terms. Europe's problems in 2015 underline the luxury of this position.

I have no great time for people smugglers – who profiteer from human misery and, in the process, put lives at risk. But I do not see them as morally greatly different from Australian corporations making fortunes from providing least-cost misery and suicidal thoughts to our boat people, or cigarette manufacturers and their lobby groups, such as the Institute of Public Affairs. Our economic community is based on people who exploit opportunities.

Be that as it may, many who adopt the idea that "we must be cruel to be kind" seem to think that it is necessary to make endless exile in Manus and Nauru as awful and uncomfortable as possible, in order that it have no allure at all, even for the most desperate. The asylum seeker who takes advantage of the easy transit through Third World countries may have safety, but no prospects, in Malaysia, or Indonesia. But they must be made to see even such limbos as superior to the living hell created in the Australian concentration camps.

The reality, whether seen as punishment for exercising one's right to seek refuge (if needs be by boat) or so as to "send a message," is supposed to be perpetual loss of right to have permanent resettlement in Australia, not loss of human dignity and ordinary freedom, even for small children. If human rights commissioners, much of the Australian medical and mental health establishment, and most of Australia's religious leaders have not been able to make the point so far, perhaps they never can, at least while government uses active censorship, on water, and in camp, to prevent people knowing what our loyal military, our paramilitary, concentration camp guards and politicians are doing in our name.

Some people have hoped for a more enlightened policy from Malcolm Turnbull, even as they have come to realise that there is no hope of different policies from Bill Shorten and Richard Marles. The latter two argue ultimately that the policy is right because it is popular. Turnbull, so far, has argued that the policy is right because it is effective, an entirely different proposition. It allows for the possibility that more effective policies might be found. Yet there is no prospect whatever that alternatives could come from his minister or his department. It would be for Turnbull and cabinet, not Peter Dutton, to specify more effective than what? At stopping drownings at sea, something Turnbull has argued. At stopping people smugglers? In pushing people into the right queue, if such a thing exists? Or simply in maintaining Australia as a fortress isolated from the world, one which, in part thanks to our own policies, has created millions of people without homes, safety or peace?

Many oppose any entry of asylum seekers because they are convinced, notwithstanding all the evidence, that most are not "genuine" refugees. Most are. Some think that most are, at best, economic refugees, people looking for a better future. We have about 200,000 of these a year without great disquiet: they are called immigrants. Refugees might want a better life, but they are not approved on that account. Others fear asylum seekers are terrorists in disguise, or, perhaps, simply Muslim and thus, supposedly, problematic in assimilation terms. The strength of such feelings means that the harder the line against entry, the more popular the policy will be.

Yet if that justified a border blockade, it does not and cannot justify cruelty to detainees, particularly ones involved in the decision to seek refuge. Nor need it prevent – indeed it could argue for – a focus on improving conditions in places of immediate refugee, such as (in relation to Syria) Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Or intermediate refuge, such as Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand, whose "hospitality", such as it is, depends on the assumption that refugees will use their land as a launching pad elsewhere.

It was Turnbull who helped shame Abbott into agreeing to take 12,000 Syrian refugees, a high number by comparison with most English speaking countries, if very low, absolutely or proportionately, compared with Europe. Repeated claims to ourselves, using bodgy figures comparing oranges with apples, that we are among the most generous in the world only highlights how Australian discussion of refugee problems is now very insular and that, in this, we no longer see ourselves as a world citizen, let alone a leader. We are not, at the moment, a nation which deserves another turn at the Security Council, whether for credit in the bank, current policies or the promise of things to come.

Even by Australian standards, Britain's response has been paltry and shameful, taking, annually, about a third of what Australia proposes. The US once promised places for a miserable 10,000, and even that is now up in the air. Canada, this week, promised to take 50,000 this year – more than Australia, the US and Britain put together – and about twice what it has originally pledged. By any standards the acts and interventions of the English-speaking union in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan suggest that they should be bearing a higher proportion of the outcome of their policies than the countries of Europe, or the nations of the Middle East.

But much of the politics, national and international, of refugee movements is focused on the status quo – the 60 million people with uprooted lives, and the small proportion of them, perhaps 3 per cent, who are looking for refuge in the West. The dynamics will change as fresh conflict erupts in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa and northern Africa, and fresh waves of refugees arrive. If Europe is finding it hard to cope now, how then?

It's a debate bound to be bedevilled yet again by domestic terrorism, primarily (of course and as ever) in Muslim countries, but also from home grown terrorists in Western countries. There will be no shortage of those insisting, as Donald Trump seems to, that the solution is a big wall around one's country, and incarceration and or deportation of all Muslims. No doubt along with a national security state empowered to regard all citizens suspiciously, until they prove themselves innocent.

Too often we forget that our refugees are not the seeds of the problem, but themselves victims of it. They are people whose homes have been bombed out of existence. People whose relatives have been vapourised or beheaded or tortured. People persecuted and murdered by fanatical religious terrorists, some of whom (in, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq) we number or have numbered as being on our own side. People who have lost family, land and belongings in fierce tribal and religious wars, ones in which they have had no part and which they have never had any capacity to control. People now, overwhelmingly, eking out a bare existence in enormous refugee camps in adjoining countries with minimal facilities, and no capacity to provide continuing education and welfare to young families. People in many cases with professional or technical skills unable to be harnessed because they have been uprooted.

Not people without hope or prospects, but people whose lives, whose talents and whose futures are presently being squandered. More than 98 per cent of them, most likely, will end up returning home, if and when it is safe for them to return. This will include at least some of these who are presently seeking refuge in Western countries, and have already had ample opportunity to appreciate how many citizens look at them with hatred and distrust.

Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton, and no doubt, legacy protectors such as Tony Abbott and John Howard, must bless themselves with glee when, often, a fresh round of bleeding hearts emerges to express concern about Australia's awful indifference to refugees. They hardly have to respond, given the growl and the sneer that comes automatically from those who support the policies, with extra added spite because it comes from the "usual suspects". Indeed, expression of minority anguish about our official inhumanity may actually serve to reinforce the existing policy, reminding the majority of voters of perhaps the major achievement of the Abbott government.

King Herod was never more alive than at this season of Christmas and Epiphany: a Jesus born today could not have been visited by three kings. Nor could he, and his family, have fled to Egypt if Egypt was following the recommendation of Tony Abbott, that we, for now, suspend any notion of charity to others in need. Praise be our Christian heritage.