As The Bishop Said To The Refugees...
By Gordon WeissSeptember 5, 2012
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)?
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.
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.
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.