(Photo: Simon Foale)
Yesterday thousands of Australians from all round Australia took part in the March in March as a national vote of no-confidence in the policies of the Abbott Government. At the Townsville event there was a fantastic turnout of well over 500 people. I marched for a number of reasons but for me the greatest failing of the current Government is the complete and utter lack of compassion shown towards Refugees and Asylum seekers.
My own involvement with refugees began in 1975 on a visit to Thailand from Malaysia where I was working as an Australian Volunteer Abroad. The wars in Indo-China had just ended and outside the Thai city of Nong Kai I came across a vast refugee camp housing 20,000 people who had come across to Thailand from Laos.
12 months later I was back in Thailand to work at the Ban Sob Tuang Refugee Camp in the Northern Thai province of Nan. There were 10,000 refugees in the camp from the Hmong, Yao and other minority ethnic groups. Many had worked with the US forces in Laos and feared retribution now that the Communists had taken power. As a water engineer I spent eighteen months working with people in the camp building two earth dams for water supply. By most standards conditions were harsh but the atmosphere in the camp was positive as there was a steady flow of people out of the camp heading for resettlement in third countries – mainly US, France and Australia.
Late in 1978 I returned to Australia where the Fraser government was settling more than 25000 Indo-Chinese refugees a year. A large factor in the success of this program was that it had bi-partisan support in the Parliament. The Labor opposition had decided not to make refugee resettlement a political issue and supported the resettlement program.
In 1980 I visited Thailand and discovered that the situation in Ban Sob Tuang had changed for the worse. The flow of people to third countries had slowed to a trickle and many of those remaining had lost hope. Some of the men I had known from my previous stay had turned to opium for solace and were now shadows of their former selves.
The other shock was to find that there were now more than one million refugees living in Thailand. The most recent arrivals were from Cambodia where the policies of the Pol Pot government had driven more than six hundred thousand people across the border. The Thai government and people had great sympathy for the plight of these people and were happy to offer them refuge for as long as was necessary. Perhaps if the Thai government had been lead by men of the likes of Abbott, Morrison, Shorten and Marles an extra six hundred thousand people might have perished in the Cambodian killing fields.
Throughout the1980s I was actively involved in the resettlement of refugees into the Townsville community and also became involved in Amnesty International’s campaigns on the refugee issue.
Fast forward to August 2001 and the infamous Tampa incident when the Howard Government were prepared to over-ride the principles of International Law in the interests of short-term political gain. I will never forget a conversation I had at the Culture Fest that year with several young Norwegian visitors. Access to Australian waters had been denied to the Tampa, a Norwegian vessel with its cargo of 438 asylum seekers who were for the most part Hazara people from Afghanistan. The young Norwegians kept asking why Australia had refused access to the Tampa. They were not angry – but perplexed. They had found Australia to be a civilised country with values similar to their own and could not understand the lack of compassion shown by our Government towards refugees and asylum seekers.
Both the Tampa issue and the ensuing Pacific solution pale into insignificance beside the policies of the Abbott and Rudd Governments. Who would have thought that Australia could have come up with the current policies towards asylum seekers that have lead to riots on both Nauru and Manus Island. We should not have been surprised by what has happened. What should we expect when people are detained in hopeless situations? In the Manus Island detention centre people are repeatedly told that there is no chance to come to Australia and that the best they can hope for is to return to their own country or to be resettled in Papua New Guinea.
The message implicit in Australia’s current policies is “come to Australia and we will do our best to make sure you will end up in a place that is worse than where you came from”. David Marr, writing recently in the Guardian, said we should not expect the boats to stop. Marr said that the boats will always come back, and that Australia will have to “draw on fresh reserves of cruelty” in response.
Will Australia, once recognised for its compassion and respect for human rights, become renowned for the cruelty we are prepared to inflict to protect our precious borders. Yesterday I had the chance to join thousands of others around the country to say “Not in our name!”.
Some of the speakers yesterday called for an alternative government. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can expect better from the current Opposition. Many of the current harsh policies were inherited from Labor, and only last week Opposition Immigration Spokesman Richard Marles berated the Government for not being committed to the Manus Island solution.
It’s not an Alternative Government we need but a Compassionate Government!