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<p>Yuli Seperi/Getty Images</p>

Yuli Seperi/Getty Images

As The Bishop Said To The Refugees...

Julie Bishop’s calls to deport Sri Lankan asylum seekers are fighting words, unworthy of a nation devoted to humanity and the rule of law.


If the test of being a refugee is whether you are fleeing war, then the majority of the world's 15 million refugees are in trouble. It's akin to saying that victims of domestic violence are only those currently being bashed. Does Shadow Minister Julie Bishop's call on Sunday that Australia should tag-team with the government of Sri Lanka with a blanket policy to return all Tamils to their homeland represent policy? If so it's the equivalent of the police teaming up with a known domestic basher to return the victim home, on the basis of promises from the crim that he or she has reformed.

So, we should team up with Iran to return the Baha'is; with Iraq to return Assyrian Christians to the villages they were burned out of; with Burma to return the Karen; Uganda to return homosexuals and albinos … We should return the Hazaras to Bamiyan to watch the Taliban blow up their statues, and collaborate with China to deliver them their Uighurs and Tibetans (no war there!). Going back a little, why didn't we think of returning the Vietnamese, who, like the Tamils, fled post-war dangers? Or dissident Russians and Czechs during the Cold War (it wasn't really a war after all)?

Courtesy of ABC Radio Australia.

That such a simplistic proposal regarding "boat people" should emerge from a possible Foreign Minister, and be defended by her leader, is deeply troubling. It does no justice to those many conservatives who have troubled to read the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention, who endeavour to understand ordinary human suffering bred by war, and who appreciate the nuance involved in governing a country and formulating policy, with all its inherent contradictions.

But let's make this really simple: A refugee is defined not just as somebody fleeing war. The legal, internationally agreed standard holds that a refugee is anybody who has a well-founded fear of persecution or violence in their homeland because of who they are, or what they believe in. That includes, for example, being genuinely scared that you might be snatched from the streets and "disappeared", simply because you are a Christian, a homosexual, an opposition supporter, or, in the case of Sri Lanka, a Tamil.

At a time when Australia played a much greater role in world affairs — diplomats like H. V. ("Doc") Evatt were at the heart of such foundational UN treaties as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — we signed on to the Refugee Convention.

Do the comments from Abbott and Bishop represent the possible stance of Australia regarding international rule of law, at a time when we might join the UN Security Council?

Treaties, agreements, and conventions are what countries like Australia hope to strengthen in an uncertain world faced with enormous transnational problems, including global warming and, yes, human trafficking. Do the comments from Abbott and Bishop represent the possible stance of Australia regarding international rule of law, at a time when we might join the UN Security Council?

The Sri Lankan civil war was fought between its minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese citizens for almost 30 years. Before then, Sinhalese had fought Sinhalese in two bouts of violence that also killed tens of thousands. That things got better because one side defeated the other should not be confused with conforming to the standards of safety defined by the Refugee Convention. As with domestic violence, fear almost never ends just because the blows stop. Dozens of Sri Lankans have been "disappeared" since the end of the war, and it doesn't take too many vanishings to make everyone at risk and afraid that they could be next.

<p>Lukas Coch/AAP Image</p>

Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Julie Bishop speaks during question time, August 21, 2012

Moreover, officials like the current Sri Lankan high commissioner to Australia, an admiral who tells us that everything is now better, are the ones the UN is still asking to account for allegations of war crimes. In March this year, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution urging Sri Lanka to reveal what it knows. In March last year, the UN released a report which suggested that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final few months of war in 2009, with government forces probably responsible for a majority of those deaths. Video footage and photographs taken by Sri Lankan troops at the time, depicting executions, mass rape and torture, continue to leak.

Australia is a magnet for refugees and migrants in a tough neighbourhood. Human traffickers are exploiting a weakness. People without a genuine fear of persecution are piggybacking on genuine refugees. We are obligated to offer refugees asylum by a Refugee Convention that is probably outdated. Our national interest is to both deter people from leaving troubled countries, and to accept those who reach our shores, thereby fulfilling our legal obligations. Yet the Australian public has a right to shape its future, and would get very quickly fed-up if we took in too many refugees.

These aspects conflict with each other and there is no neat or happy solution. Too many of "the wretched refuse" from troubled countries have perished, and they will continue to die in the attempt to find peace for their children in Australia. The prescription is certainly not to foolishly do the bidding of those countries from which people have fled, on the basis of glib assurances and flash PR. Our legal and moral obligation is to continue to wrestle with these contradictions, however unhappily.

Gordon Weiss was the UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka for the final three years of the civil war, and is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers. Read Gordon's reports on the compelling evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka — including the murder of children by government forces.

4 comments on this story
by Ian Holland

I listened to the Julie Bishop interview, which I thought was slightly more moderate in tone than the way it has been reported. It seemed that any legitimacy her proposal may have turns very much on her argument that most Sri Lankans now arriving in Australia are having their refugee claims rejected. When persistently questioned about this, she appeared to imply that those who were successful may be getting in only because they were being given "the benefit of the doubt". It would be good if Weiss's article spelt out what are the figures for Australia's current rate of acceptance of Sri Lankan refugee claims. I then wondered whether there is another issue here, of the Australian government judging current Sri Lankan refugee claims more harshly than it did prior to 2009, because it does not share Weiss's pessimism about the likely situation facing Tamils in contemporary Sri Lanka?

September 5, 2012 @ 10:16pm
Show previous 1 comments
by Michael Smith

Weiss's pessimism is well-founded. The Sri Lankan government had effectively lost control of it's north-eastern territory for decades until they eradicated the Tigers in 2009. The LTTE-run zones had their own police, courts, a virtual parallel economy. These are still restive zones, and lacking any genuine conflict resolution mechanisms, the Sri Lankan government will only be able to maintain control of these areas by force; either crashing violence, or slow, constricting subjugation and intimidation.

September 6, 2012 @ 7:11pm
by David Ransom

As much as I deplore the persistent anti-refugee rant, Julie Bishop had a point about the motives of some Tamils leaving Sri Lanka for Australia by boat, as illustrated in a recent report on SBS Dateline. The above critique also has merit. However as with so much of the criticism, has nothing to offer for providing a better, workable way of dealing with the problem.

September 7, 2012 @ 11:00am
by mark hammond

mmm i really wonder about the Tamils, from what i understand their homeland is in Tamil Nadu in India, they came to Sri Lanka over the years and slowly took over the north until they decided they would from a separate country. It would be a similar situation say if hundreds of thousands of Indonesians moved to Tasmania, and then decided that they would make it an independent country, how would we feel about that? i am sure we wouldn't be too happy.

Surely, even if they are being persecuted in Sri Lanka there is a safe haven and relatives, waiting for them in their true homeland of Tamil Nadu, just 50 kilometres away in the worlds most populous democracy; India

i truly believe most of these refugees are economic ones, they want to be safe in a rich country, not a poor one and that is understandable.

i am an Australian that lives and works in Indonesia, and in my opinion this is a fine country and i get tired of hearing otherwise in the Australian media, i think it's just racism too suggest otherwise, refugees are safe here and that is all they can legally ask.

Anyone want to enlighten me?

September 11, 2012 @ 5:07pm
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