Saturday, May 29, 2010

OPINION: Refugee Hysteria Suggests Aussies Have Forgotten Their Own Ancestors

YOU can always tell when Australia has entered election mode. Suddenly the really big issues come to the fore - issues that affect the economy, national security, indeed Australia's very survival. Issues like the occasional arrival of a handful of desperate boat people from Afghanistan, Iraq or Sri Lanka via Indonesia.

On Sunday, March 28, Rupert Murdoch's tabloids across Australia ran the front-page story of a mass invasion of asylum seekers. In Brisbane, the headline was THEY'RE HERE.

And who were they? The paper reported that 2000 asylum seekers had made it to Christmas Island, while 425 people were being housed on the mainland. But the real nightmare was seven adults and three children going shopping in Brisbane. They spent an hour and a quarter in a shopping centre, the paper howled.

The group returned with two shopping trolleys loaded with grocery bags. Their purchases included Home Brand Hawaiian pizza, Smith's potato chips and cartons of Coca-Cola.

How selfish of seven adults to share pizza, chips and soft drink. And to think these people claim to be desperate refugees!

Anyway, back to the world of sanity. Readers with even a basic knowledge of Australian history will find the current immigration hysteria ironic. For some reason, non-European illegal immigrants seem to bring out the worst indignation in white Australia. It's as if Aussies have forgotten their own ancestors came here from mother England on boats. And many were here as a result of being sentenced for the kinds of offences for which our migration laws today would bar them from leaving Sydney airport.

Australians are all too quick to forget the key historical role people from Afghanistan played during the mid-19th century. For 60 years, these men and their camels were the only transportation available through the centre of Australia, servicing distant mines and sheep stations as well as being involved in Australia's first overland telegraph line.

With troops fighting in Afghanistan, Australia has an obligation under international law to restore order. Australia and its coalition and Nato partners have singularly failed to do this. Hence, when it comes to accepting Afghan refugees, Australia has a major responsibility. Sadly it is the conservatives, self-declared protectors of Australia's Christian heritage, who show the least Christian attitude towards refugees.

The prejudice in Australia's popular media toward anyone deemed a Middle Eastern migrant is so endemic that one can only hope God in his good sense doesn't send the Son of Man to Australia for the Second Coming.

IN AUGUST last year, on an ABC television chat show, Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop reminded viewers of the perils posed to Australia by an increase in the number of people arriving by boat.

She shared the panel with conservative American humorist P J O'Rourke. He found all this hysteria about boat people in Australia and some parts of the EU rather amusing.

You know, we in the States have much, much more experience with being all wrong about immigration than you do. I mean, 36,000 you said in Italy? We laugh. That's a day in the United States. And we are so wrong about it. I mean, build a fence on the border with Mexico, give a huge boost to the Mexican ladder industry, you know ...

Ms Bishop tried to rescue her conservative credentials after being showed up by O'Rourke. She recited the usual Liberal Party mantra about people smugglers.

O'Rourke's response?

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. You know, if you open your borders, you don't have people smugglers ...

These people are assets. One or two of them might not be, but you can sort them out later. Oh, I think conservatives are getting this wrong all over the world, I really do.

The Rudd Labor Government is not much better. Australia's immigration minister recently announced that the processing of new asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan would be suspended. The government says circumstances have changed in both countries such that it is now safe enough for asylum applicants to return.

That being the case, one can expect Australian troops in Afghanistan to prepare for their imminent return. Yet the reality is that the US is getting ready to send 17,000 more troops into the country and has requested its allies (including Australia) to increase their troop presence. Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay has told Nato and other allies that the military alliance cannot take its foot off the gas in Afghanistan, simply because the US is about to send 17,000 more troops.

And so we have all this fuss over 4500 boat people. Meanwhile, there is little fuss over 50,000 illegal immigrants from Britain and the US.

In the Australian psyche, illegal immigrants must necessarily be non-European and non-white. Either that or some illegal immigrants are more illegal than others.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. This article was first published in the Dominion-Post in Wellington, New Zealand.

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