The human flotsam of Asia is coming closer to our shores, questioning the cocoon we live in. A longer-term answer is needed, better than sending boats back to sea.
Lost in time, a floating wave of people
By Louis A Coutts*
They came from everywhere; first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands and now by the millions…and no one wants them.
At first they were accepted, then they were processed, then they were locked up..but now they are sent back to the same oceans where many have perished.
They are asylum seekers fleeing from their country, their families and friends but also from the horrific and oppressive lunatics that murder with abandon, rape and mutilate women and children and enslave others.
The people fleeing from Iran, Syria, Egypt and other North African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries risk everything to escape the murderous regimes in their own country. They are aided, abetted and robbed by one of the lowest and most obscene segments of society: “People smugglers” who, for a price that is often the entire savings of these demented individuals, promise them freedom in another country. They take their “customers” by unseaworthy boats into some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Asylum seekers consider the risks greater than the risks that they face from the regimes in their own native country.
Some are luckier than others. The people fleeing from Syria merely have to cross borders into Turkey or Jordan where millions of cities of tents have been erected by the host countries to provide protection to those fleeing the horror of civil war, murder, torture, bombs, poison gas, rape and mutilation.
It is not so easy for those who have to take to water for refuge. Aware of the risks and knowing that many of those who have gone before them have not made it, they nevertheless embark upon their voyage of hope. Two million people sought asylum in the year 2014/2015. Admittedly, some are so called “economic refugees” who, tired of suffering inescapable poverty in their own country, have the timidity of seeking refuge in an affluent country.
Now, when it was hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands, some countries such as Germany indulged these homeless stateless people with kindness and processed them, finding that by far the majority were genuine refugees entitled to asylum. However, when the numbers in Germany reached the magical 100,000, everyone said “enough is enough” and the time has come to stop this outrageous practice by locking them up.
In Australia, we drew the line at a few thousand. Italy is still taking those who survive the crossing of the Mediterranean but other countries such as Australia, Thailand, Indonesia etc have refined the process by locking people up indefinitely in offshore detention centres.
The reason for indefinite detention is quite exquisite. The authorities could process them but the difficulty is that, if they did, the authorities would find that they are genuine refugees entitled to asylum and, for heaven’s sake, who wants that? So, we will just lock them up without processing them and the message will soon get through to their mates back home that they have a choice of repression in their own country or repression in some offshore detention centre such as Cambodia.
And by the way, if they get murdered in one of these centres, there is no risk to the murderer because he or she is never going to be prosecuted. It is a great deterrent technique.
So around the world, this enormous number of boat people are being rejected and sent back into the oceans, locked up or escorted to the country they are fleeing,,,and we breathe a sigh of relief because our policies are working and we no longer have to trouble ourselves with this wretched band of people.
But they are not going stop being persecuted in their own country; they are still going to have to suffer deprivations the likes of which we could never imagine; they are not going to disappear and the reasons for their desire to flee are increasing year by year as the result of the emergence of murderous regimes.
So we either have a problem in Western society or we don’t. We can say we don’t have a problem by simply closing our borders to asylum seekers or locking them up in oppressive detention. That works for a time and it is working here in Australia at the moment but – and here is the rub – is such a policy really solving the problem of this epidemic of people suffering persecution and danger in their own countries? All this policy is doing is closing the problem from our mind. One can understand the argument that the problems of people with genuine claims to refugee status are not ours. In any event, we have refugee centres around the world and occasionally take a few thousand to salve our Western conscience but, in reality, the problems are in these people’s own country and it is not up to us to pick up the cheque for those problems.
This is what I call the “cocoon” argument. We are in this precious wonderful cocoon in Western society with all the modern benefits of civilisation. We have homes, cars, jobs, air conditioning, holidays and lots of other stuff that we take for granted. If we open our door to refugees, our Western way of life might be flooded with undesirables and we will have to surrender some of our wonderful treasures.
That is certainly not a flippant argument. It is not incumbent upon people to extend generosity to unknown people from other countries. People cannot seriously be criticised for holding this view which is a legitimate philosophic position. People used to our society and the efforts that they have had to make in order to enjoy its advantages can justifiably resort to the argument of self-interest. Self-interest is a fundamental and reasonable concept.
But there is a flip side. If we believe that we can forever protect our cocoon so that we can continue to enjoy all the benefits of Western Society, then the self-interest argument is fine. We can let the poor wretches continue to be the outcasts of society. But there are so many of them. They are now fleeing their countries by the millions as the bombs are not stopping and the guns are not disappearing and those with authority, unrestrained by the rule of law, are not accountable for their infamous behaviour. The refugee problem will not disappear even though countries close their door to them and send them back into the ocean in their unseaworthy boats or lock them up indefinitely.
Our rejection of them will increasingly be seen as cruel while the number of people who are genuine refugees will increase. So now they will come in their millions (that is the number this year) and we may be able to man the bulwarks and barricades but cracks are appearing in this defence. I wonder whether the maniacal militant murderers who are now terrorising so many Middle Eastern and African states are using our indifference to the plight of would-be refugees as one of their excuses for their horrendous escapades.
I think our cocoon is threatened and that we have a choice between extending a charitable welcome to the distressed people of the world or continuing to reject them. The consequence of the first option is to not only to preserve our way of life but to share it with the less fortunate. The consequence of the second is too awful to imagine…but the present militancy – that is so terrifying to us in western society – will find ways to destroy our cocoon.
* Louis A Coutts is a Melbourne lawyer and author and a member of Civil Liberties Australia.