Archive for the ‘Christmas Island analysis’ Category

Yesterday I head news that immigration minister Scoot Morrison wants to change the way that asylum seekers are addressed.  Apparently departmental and detention centre staff are to publicly refer to asylum seekers as ‘‘illegal’’ arrivals and as ‘‘detainees’’, rather than as clients.

I recall my experience on Christmas Island several years ago where I accidentally referred to those in the detention centre as ‘inmates’. I’ll never forget what the head of SERCO said to me in response. He said, ‘no they’re not inmates, they’re people. They’ve done nothing wrong’. He said that they correct way of referring to them was as ‘clients’.
I think language matters and to refer to these people as ‘clients’ affords these vulnerable people dignity and respect. It is a term which engenders empathy to their plight and suggest we are actually here to serve them. Yet referring to them as ‘illegals’ and ‘detainees’ provides opportunity for demonisation and antipathy to their plight.
Furthermore addressing asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ arrivals is actually wrong. They are not actually entering Australia ‘illegally’ if they’re claiming asylum. It’s true that they have entered Australia unlawfully, yet there is a sharp distinction between ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘refugee movement’. Unfortunately This distinction is very often misunderstood by politicians, the media and the general public and Morrison’s comments do not help.
Whilst these people have entered Australia unlawfully, if they are found to be refugees, these people aren’t “illegal immigrants”. There is a sharp distinction as the UNHCR said:

Refugees may not be able to obtain the necessary documents when trying to escape and may have no choice but to resort to illegal means of escape. Therefore although the only means of escape for some may be illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation, if the person has a well-founded fear of persecution they should be viewed as a refugee and not labeled an ‘illegal immigrant’.

Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum.

Unfortunately the language suggested by the department pushes Australia’s policy away from the spirit of the refugee convention.
Yet most decisively if Morrison is correct in addressing these people as ‘illegals’, then the obvious solution is to deport them. If they are in our country illegally, then they must be deported. If they’re not deported, then it appears that ‘operation sovereign borders’ has failed.
Yet the fact that these ‘illegals’ are not deported en masse (although the PNG and Nauru ‘solutions’ appear to be de facto deportion schemes) betrays the fact that these people are not actually ‘illegals’. They are seeking asylum and under the terms of the refugee convention they can’t be returned nor deported. Hence, under the terms of the convention they do have a right to be here and they are not illegals.
Ironically there are around 50,000 people at any given time in Australia who are truly illegals in our country. The vast majority of these people are visa overstayers. This occurs when someone legally enters Australia on a student, holiday or working visa and they really like the place and decide to stay longer than the time stipulated on their visa. This contravenes the terms of their arrival and hence these people are illegal visa overstayers. (at June 30 2009, 48,456 people had overstayed their visas. The largest group of these visa overstayers are in fact English backpackers. It’s interesting that the politicians and media don’t make the same fuss about these people.
There is a savage irony here. Legitimate refugees who come via boats are demonised as ‘illegal immigrants’ when in the majority of cases they are quite plainly not. Yet the real “illegal” immigrants, the visa overstayers are ignored.
As I said before, language matters, and they way we address these people implicitly affects how we view and treat them.

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It has been a short while since Rob’s talk on Christmas Island, but we thought we’d share some of what Rob said in his talk. We thought we’d start with perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Rob’s talk – the issue of people smuggling.

This issue has become major news through the Labor party’s political advertising where they vow to crack down on people smuggling. Kevin Rudd once said that people smugglers are “engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth.” (here)

We have some reflections on people smuggling and perhaps one of the best ways of understanding it is through the lens of the retrieval ethic – something Rob was taught in ethics at college . Once we reflect on the situation in this way, we’re unconvinced that this thing known as ‘people smuggling’ is really so evil.

A retrieval ethic operates in an ethically complex situation where the fullness of the kingdom of God cannot be brought to bear in a situation. The goal of a retrieval ethic, as Michael Hill writes, ‘will be to retrieve as much good as one can in the situation, and limit as much harm as is possible’ (Hill, HWL, p133).

People smuggling is no doubt morally questionable. These agents make large profits from desperate people by facilitating unlawful people movements.

Yet at the same time they offer a very valuable service. They offer opportunities for faster processing in more humane and healthy environments.

The conditions in the detention centres in Indonesia are appalling. The camps are overcrowded and this overcrowding leads to terrible sanitation – virtually all the men are infected with fungal infections. Then the water is unsafe – a microbiologist has described the drinking water in this camp as being contaminated with a combination of faeces and fungus.

Hence I believe that people smuggling is actually a form of retrieval ethic, where freedom, health and safety – things celebrated in Anglican liturgy, may be enjoyed sooner by those who are entitled to them.

This is perhaps a controversial view, but it does begin to reflect the complexity in this most perplexing of ethical issues.

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Last night on SBS Insight had a special on ‘Stopping the boats’. We watched the program which represented quite a good analysis of the asylum seeker situation.

The program transcript can be seen here. The program can be viewed here.

There were many interesting exchanges and the debate got understandably heated at times. We were excited to see Sam on the panel. He was one of the refugees we met on Christmas Island. We befriended Sam and Rob enjoyed reading the Bible with him and a number of the others in the detention centre. Sam looked incredibly nervous on the show, which was quite understandable. Even on Christmas Island when we got Sam to stand in front of the church (some 30-40 people) to share his testimony, Sam was incredibly nervous. So we understand his nervousness on national TV.

There were a couple of things we noticed and confusions which were made. There was a confusion over the difference between ‘unlawful entry’ and ‘illegal immigrant’. The refugee advocates were pushing the ‘unlawful’ side yet the liberal party policy refers to them as ‘illegal’. Philip Ruddock failed to refer to them as ‘illegal’ yet apparently this is the official liberal party position. We’re not quite sure of the significance of this difference but if they are ‘illegal’, then it appears they have broken some law and then they should naturally be punished. How should they be punished and what do the liberal party offer in terms of punishment?

Another thing we noticed was the confusion over ‘migration’ and ‘seeking asylum’. Some people failed to recognise that these boat people satisfied the definition of a ‘refugee’ under the refugee convention. This places them in a different ‘immigration’ position to ordinary economic migrants. Hence they should be afforded money and benefits, which are different to ordinary economic migrants.

These two confusions combined then contribute to the confusion over Australia’s ‘border protection’ policy. If these people were simply entering Australia as illegal immigrants (similar to the situation with Mexicans moving to the USA) then this would be a ‘border protection’ policy. Yet as these people are asylum seekers seeking refugee protection, this is why we get mad at the media’s description of this situation as ‘border protection’.

We highly recommend the SBS program it is a great introduction to the topic, though there is much more to say.

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Tony Abbott yesterday announced a new Coalition tough policy on “illegal” arrivals here.

There is much to say on this and it will take us some time to go through all the claims and arguments used.

But our initial reactions suggest this is a selfish solution completely lacking in compassion or empathy. Indeed we agree with the sentiments of Liberal backbencher Petro Georgiou who described it as “cruel”.

Abbott intends to stop legitimate refugees arriving in Australia. He says he wants to “stop the boats”. Yet Abbott gives no clear indication as to how these “illegals” could actually enter Australia, given they are prevented from entering legally (their governments will not give them visas to enter Australia).

We have been very disappointed by the Rudd government’s approach on this issue (particularly with the freezing of processing of Sri Lankan or Afghan applications), but this gives us no sensible, reasonable or compassionate alternative.

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This Blog is becoming a place for discussion on the Christmas Island refugee situation. I suppose it is quite natural because Rob and Di both met and interacted with refugees on Christmas Island and we are both frustrated at the media (for mis-reporting and distorting the true situation on Christmas Island), frustrated with the political left (the Christmas Island detention system is not nearly as bad as is claimed) and the political right (many of these people are legitimate refugees who have few other choices than to seek asylum via a leaky boat over the ocean). So we will continue discussing present claims and counterclaims of the Christmas Island situation (and we will also continue reporting exciting things we do as a family in Melbourne).

I noticed on the news last night that certain groups were arguing that ‘detention’ in and of itself was wrong. This is ambiguous, partly because when people think of detention they think of the main Christmas Island detention facility, the one in this photo.

As you can see it has large fences and looks much like a prison. Yet, to Rob’s surprise, when he went inside, the feeling inside the camp was less like a prison and more like a weekend away venue. Certainly there were restrictions on movements, but it didn’t feel like a high security environment. Indeed when one of the refugees produced a usb flash-drive one day at church so we could email him mp3 files, made us think these people were hardly mistreated or denied the basics!

The ambiguity of detention occurs in that no women or children are housed in the above facility. They are all kept in different ‘centres’ on the other side of the island. In these places there are no bars and no fences and the children can play in the playground amongst other things. Ambiguity is further created when we met a family in ‘community detention’. This form of detention was completely unknown to us before we arrived on Christmas Island, but here a family could live and move around the island completely freely. The mother even volunteered in the op-shop! This form of ‘detention’ seems quite humane and very reasonable to us. Yet this makes the blanket condemnation of ‘detention’ misleading.

We went to Christmas Island fully expecting to find the refugees being mistreated and fully expecting to find detention an evil place, yet we found this not the case. There are difficulties with detention and life on Christmas Island for sure, but to simply say detention is wrong is misleading.

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Recently Rob wrote a letter which was published in the NSW Uniting Church magazine, ‘Insights’. The letter was a response to the call by the President of the Uniting Church for all families and children to be removed from the Christmas Island detention centre. This call puzzled us because it appeared remoteness was the sole reason given for removal and we disagree with this reason. Rob wrote a letter outlining our puzzlement which was published. Well, now the President of the Uniting Church has responded. This is a transcript of his letter:

Insights, May 2010, p3-4

Bad policy unacceptable

In his letter (April, Insights), Robert Martin writes that he is puzzled by my call for children and families to be removed from Christmas Island. In fact, the Uniting Church has for many years advocated for the closure of offshore facilities for asylum seekers.

The excision of territories from our migration zone is a political response to ill-founded concerns that we are “being over-run” by asylum seekers coming by boat and the well entrenched myth that there is some kind of queue that people are jumping by arriving in this way.

This policy denies asylum seekers the right that others who arrive by plane have to the Australian legal system. It has in the past been a way of discriminating against certain asylum seekers by providing them with a lesser form of protection (temporary).

It denies asylum seekers access to a full range of spiritual, pastoral, phsyical and mental health services that others access on the mainland. It denies them contact with their religious and cultural communities.

Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention which was developed out of the context of the Second World War – Jews and others escaping persecution and death, fleeing without their papers, led by people smugglers across borders wherever they could.

Mr Martin paints a very benign picture of life inside the Christmas Island Detention Centre. It is also important to note that there are no families currently living openly in the community – all are in detention compounds of various kinds.

There is no doubt that for many asylum seekers the detention centre and compounds are preferable to the dangerous and stressful conditions from which they have come and the Government, assisted by the Christmas Island community is doing well to provide a decent environment  as they can. But this does not make bad policy acceptable.

Surely we can do better than keeping these desperate people in an overcrowded, high security prison environment, full of deeply anxious people – a situation which will only get worse following the Government’s decision to suspend the processing of protection applications from Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

This could lead to an extremely concerning situation of indefinite detention for some. I wouldn’t want my children staying in sich a place.

The Rev. Alistair Macrae, President Uniting Church in Australia

Well, our initial response was one of utter disappointment. We have written a further response outlining our disappointment, but the chief disappointment is that the President has shifted the goal-posts of our discussion. Rob was challenging ‘remoteness’ as the sole criterion for removal. Yet here the debate has revolved around ‘bad policy’ – which nowhere formed part of the originally reported call.

In our view the telling paragraph was this one…

There is no doubt that for many asylum seekers the detention centre and compounds are preferable to the dangerous and stressful conditions from which they have come and the Government, assisted by the Christmas Island community is doing well to provide a decent environment  as they can. But this does not make bad policy acceptable.

In our view this paragraph actually supports Rob’s original letter – the conditions for asylum seekers on Christmas Island are actually not too bad and everyone is doing a pretty good job. But the President has shifted the debate onto ‘bad policy’ which formed no part of the original call. If ‘bad policy’ is the issue, why not call for the closure of the whole detention centre and the removal of everyone? Families and children only make up a quarter of all asylum seekers. This inconsistency is even more puzzling.

We have written a fuller response and we hope it will be published again (as the debate continues). But we were intensely disappointed in this response (and also in that it almost insinuates we support the change in Government policy to suspend visa applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and we assert these are ‘queue jumpers’!). We felt it is important that people know the conditions on Christmas Island are outstanding and easily outstrip any rural or remote area anywhere else in Australia.

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Rob recently had a letter published in the April edition of ‘Insights’ – the magazine of the NSW Syndod of the Uniting Church. Rob was writing in response to an article which appeared in the March edition of that same magazine.

In the March edition of ‘Insights’ (on page 8) where the President of the Uniting Church has called for removal of children and families from the Christmas Island detention centre. After visiting the centre Rev. Alistair Macrae called ‘for families and unaccompanied minors to be immediately transferred to the mainland for processing’. He claims “there is no reason for vulnerable children to be held in such a remote facility’.

We read this article and felt we needed to respond. So Rob wrote the following letter of which the bold part was published.

My family (my wife, and our two small children) recently spent 2 months on Christmas Island. I served as visting pastor of the small Christmas Island Christian Fellowship (an independent non-denominational group) and we had the privilege of meeting a number of the refugees in the various detention centres. We noted the call for the removal of children from the Christmas Island detention centre by the president of the Uniting Church and are a little puzzled at the rationale for this call. [We are a little puzzled at the rationale for the Uniting Church President’s call for the removal of children from the Christmas Island detention centre.]

We were wondering who they consulted before making this call? We met some of the refugees on Christmas Island and one young woman with two young children described the life on the island as being ‘part of a family’. We’re not entirely sure the refugees would feel similarly if they were transferred to the mainland. In our experience we never felt the need to transfer the women and children elsewhere. Remoteness alone hardly seems a suitable criteria for moving these refugees to the mainland when the life on Christmas Island is relaxed, friendly and safe. Certainly Christmas Island is remote, yet if remoteness is the decisive factor, why not call for the removal of children from all remote indigenous communities on the mainland? Such a policy would be regarded as unnecessary and in my opinion the policy advocated by the President of the Uniting Church is similarly unnecessary

Interestingly the ‘pointy end’ of Rob’s letter was edited out i.e. the comparison between indigenous children and Christmas Island children. If the President’s call were to be heeded, were we reckless in taking our two young children to Christmas Island for 2 months? Would he recommend us not go to this remote facility? We still think the policy advocated as unnecessary. However we feel that the thrust of our point still remained in the edited version of the letter. At this point we haven’t heard any change in policy from the President of the UCA (and we also haven’t received any more offers to speak on our experience on Christmas Island).

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