23 November 2012

Back to the past -- temporary protection visas re-introduced, only worse

The recent announcement from Chris Bowen, Minister for Adopting Opposition Policies While Pretending Not To, has taken the art of political dissimulation to new lows. The dreadful Howard government policy of punishing "bad" refugees (the ones who pay to get on a boat rather than paying to get on a plane) by giving them time-limited visas with no security for the future and, most importantly, no way of reuniting legally with their families, has now been resurrected by the Gillard government as a "no advantage bridging visa".

So has the Labor government given in and adopted the rest of the Howard asylum seeker policy? Actually no, they have gone further. People who have been found to be genuine refugees, I repeat, genuine refugees, will be shoved out into the community with no permission to work, no future, some sort of minimal "living allowance". Importantly, they will have no right to reunite with their families, legally at least. Under the Howard TPV system this led to more boats, not fewer, with more women and children forced to take their chances at sea.

Unlike the old TPV, there will be no time limit. This fact alone is guaranteed to increase the despair and mental damage done to the refugees, as well as creating a threat to the general community in the form of a deprived, despised underclass at large with nothing to lose and no hope for the future.

Meanwhile, at least as many people who take the desperate option of a leaky boat arrive every day by plane, often having paid as much as the others for forged documents, bogus visa applications and airline tickets. Some of them, statistically far fewer than the boat arrivals, are genuine refugees as well, but there is no detention, no Nauru, no denial of work rights for them. Recognition as a refugee gets them permanent residence immediately, although if anyone has jumped the queue, they have.

Why? Spineless stupidity springs to mind as an obvious explanation. In fact, I think I'll leave it at that. Plane people don't get on the six o'clock news, boat people do. It's as simple as that.

Not to be deterred by the fact that Labor has adopted another of his policies without ackowledgment, Opposition leader Tony Abbott has been quick to up the ante. Not only would his government keep asylum seekers on starvation wages, he would make them work for it.

If anybody cares any more, here is a link to the Convention on the Status of Refugees. Jump to Article 17. It says "The Contracting States shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wage-earning employment." Read on from there to find obligations regarding self-employment, social security, housing, education etc., and then you get to Article 28 which says that the Contracting State has to issue refugees with travel documents to allow them to travel outside the country. All of these obligations apply to refugees, that is to people whom the country has recognised as coming within the definition of a refugee in the Convention.

Only Australia distinguishes between "good" refugees and "bad" refugees, entirely on the basis of their means of transport to the country. If the Gillard government manages to get its latest changes through Parliament, the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill, the distinction will be complete. An asylum seeker arriving by air will be given permission to work and allowed to live freely in the community, while one arriving by boat will be locked up, shipped out to a camp in a foreign country or forced to beg on the streets of our cities. Why? Oh yes, of course, it's our overriding humanitarian concern to stop people drowning at sea. If so, for a fraction of the billions of dollars we are spending now we could institute real offshore processing in our region so that people wouldn't need to get on boats, and enhance our maritime surveillance and rescue systems if they do.

Or we can just keep competing to come up with the most offensive measures we can think of to demonise, punish, humiliate, psychologically torture, physically demean, socially ostracise people whom we have an international obligation to protect and welcome into our society.

Meanwhile, the boats keep coming. You just can't deter some people.


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