Tuesday, 23 July 2013

CAN OF WORMS


CAN OF WORMS

Planet Earth has a monumental refugee problem. It’s estimated that, world-wide, there are over 40 million displaced persons, or refugees, seeking a safe place to call home. The so-called ‘Lucky Country’, Australia, has not been spared from this problem and is a preferred destination for many asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries where persecution of minorities occurs.

   Those lucky enough to have valid passports, appropriate papers and resources fly into the country, obtain temporary visas and then disappear from sight hoping to elude the authorities as they start a new life. Those with families, or without passports or necessary documents and with limited resources, somehow find their way to Malaysia or Indonesia which they use as launching pads to get to Australia. Refugees from Sri Lanka generally sail from there directly to Australia.

   They pay outrageous amounts of money to people smugglers to obtain passage on unseaworthy and leaky boats and head south to Australia. Many make it, but hundreds don’t, as their over-crowded boats capsize or sink on the way. Over 100 men, women and children have drowned in the last few months.

   Undeterred, thousands of asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia have been queuing up to take the high-risk voyage and Australia’s onshore and offshore detention centres are bursting with interned refugees. And although these isolated centres resemble up-market concentration camps and internment can last many years, still the refugees risk their lives and keep coming.

   This is a dilemma and a can of worms for most Australians. The majority of refugees are desperate to find a safe and secure place to live, and many would face persecution and even death if they returned to their countries of origin. However, many Australians believe we would be swamped if we just open up our doors to everyone. Even a lucky country like ours hasn’t got unlimited resources. Our health, education, social services and infrastructure just wouldn’t be able to cope and the potential stresses – economic, cultural, political and religious – would be mind-boggling.

   We are currently upping our intake of legitimate and screened refugees to about 27,000 a year, which on a per capita basis (Australia’s population is around 23 million) seems reasonable compared with other countries. Should this be more? Probably.  

   The two major political parties have struggled to come up with a feasible and morally sustainable solution to the problem. The Liberal/National Coalition (currently the Opposition) favours a simplistic ‘Stop the boats!’ policy, which apparently involves stopping the boats before they reach Australian territory and having the navy either turn them around or tow them back to where they came from. Oh yeah, that’ll work given our miniscule naval resources! What if an armada of refugee boats suddenly appears on the horizon?

  It seems that Kevin Rudd, our new/old Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party has just gazumped the Opposition. He’s done a deal with Papua-New Guinea’s Prime Minister to ship all newly-arrived boat people to PNG where they’ll be interned and eventually resettled. For this, Australia will throw heaps of dollars PNG’s way, allegedly to be spent on hospitals and education as well as fund the concentration camps  detention centre’s infrastructure, among other things.

   The idea is that once the word gets out that no boat people will ever be allowed to go to Australia, but at best, can look forward to PNG as their future permanent place of residence, the boats will stop and the people smugglers will go out of business. There is a certain amount of sense in this rationale, because PNG is an under-developed Third World country beset with problems, including massive unemployment, an ailing economy, corruption at all levels, poor education and health services etc. and a society wracked with violence, murders, robberies and rape. So, provided the Australian Government can get this message across to would-be boat people, you’d have to believe they’d think twice about jumping on the next boat.

    Problem solved! Or is it?

   What if the money thrown at PNG by Australia falls down a black hole? What if the refugees wither away in the isolated jungle camps because of inadequate care, or if they’re ill-treated or abused or worst? Who’s responsibility will it be? PNG’s or Australia’s?

    What if the boats keep coming? What will the indigenous people of PNG make of the strangers in their midst, with their different appearances, languages, customs and religions. How will they feel about sharing their land and meagre resources with unwelcome guests?

   Be that as it may, I’m sure many Australians share the Prime Minister’s optimism that the problem is now solved and we can resume our normal daily lives, watching soapies or sport on TV; complaining about the declining Australian dollar and its impact on our next Bali holiday; eating and drinking too much and waiting with bated breath for the P.M. to announce the date of the general election now he’s on a roll.