Home > News, Society > A Rant on the Refugee Issue

A Rant on the Refugee Issue

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For those of you unaware of Australian politics or reading this at some future date, there was recently an election in Australia, wherein the right-wing National-Liberal Coalition won a sweeping victory over the left-wing Labor party, ushering in the Tony Abbott prime ministership. One of the most visible issues during the election campaign was the increased arrival of asylum seekers in boats from places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran and how their arrival was handled by the federal government.

Now, this issue was first put into the national spotlight by the government of John Howard (another Liberal Party prime minister) who, in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US, elevated the issue to become a matter of national security. There were strategic electoral reasons he did this, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that attitudes toward boat arrivals, which had been quite lenient since the Vietnam war, hardened considerably. When Labor took government under Kevin Rudd, this policy did not change. Public opinion had shifted sharply to the right on the issue and the new government was terrified of being painted as “soft” on the issue.

This last campaign (2013) had the hysteria over the topic reach fever pitch, with prominent newspapers actively reporting a count on the number of boat arrivals daily. The Labor party announced ever tougher measures on the issue of boats, promising to resettle asylum seekers arriving by boat in places such as Papua New Guinea, while the Coalition promised to use the navy to turn or tow boats back into Indonesian waters.

No policy was too harsh, no measure too draconian, no rhetoric was too xenophobic during the campaign, and it came from both sides of the narrow aisle. Mandatory voting in Australia means that parliament is closer to representative of the electorate, but it does mean that substantive policy differences are often either nonexistent or illusory.

I wrote the following rant during this election campaign, with emotions running high. I was angry and disgusted, first at the politicians themselves, for pandering to these xenophobes and at the news media, for their complicity.

My family came to Australia under a refugee visa, fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War.

I used to play with some kids who lived across the road. Their names are César, Maria Elena and Edgar. One day, soldiers bashed down their door and seized their dad. He was never seen again.

For much of my childhood, I was afraid of soldiers, police and helicopters and knew that I was to hide under my bed when I heard the sound of a helicopter or a door knock after nightfall.

My uncle and aunt had to duck and weave through the streets of the village while she was in labour because it was after dark and the midwife refused to break curfew for any reason, not even for a birth. People were being shot on sight if they were caught in the streets at night.

I saw the decapitated body of a man lying in the village square as my grandmother and I were going out to breakfast. He had been executed by the army in the night and left there as a warning to the other villagers that this is what happened to anyone who joined the leftist guerrillas. My grandmother covered my eyes and rushed me away as soon as she realised what was going on, because that isn’t the kind of thing you want a four-year-old to see.

That war took a nation of people and turned them mean, violent, callous and uncaring. Law and order broke down because people were torn between two sides and it was never clean. The sheer terrifying scale of the slaughter and rapine turned people numb, because to face what was happening otherwise would be unbearable. It is an awful thing to watch people you know and care about suffer this kind of brutality. It is downright perverse when the perpetrators of that violence are your neighbours, people you know and share things in common with.

Neither the army nor the guerrillas were some invading force, some clearly visible other onto whom we could project all our fear and hatred. The soldiers and rebels both were us, they were people we could name, people we had visited, had meals with, were related to. You couldn’t even discuss what was happening openly, because you never knew who might be listening. Owning a tape of the wrong kind of music could get you killed. God help you if had you ever made an enemy or crossed someone who was particularly vindictive, because a whispered word in the right ear could make inconvenient people vanish.

People who like post-apocalyptic dystopias in their fiction often do because the kind of conflict this sets up is exciting and because the complete breakdown of a society allows a kind of freedom from the moral boundaries that hem in our worst tendencies. Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a kind of twisted, sinister joy in the fantasy of violently killing with impunity, free of the inconvenient baggage of a guilty conscience. Why else would games like GTA or Call of Duty be so popular? Why else would the premise of The Last of Us be anything but utterly repellant?

The people who come here by boat are coming from places where society has, for whatever reason, broken down. They’re not coming so they can live high on the hog off our welfare system and mooch off the Australian tax payer. They’re not coming here because we’re bleeding heart suckers who’ll believe any sob story thrown out way. They’re not packing their children onto rickety boats, paying some shady thug their life savings and crossing an ocean because they want to bask on our sandy beaches and impose their ways onto the land of strangers they’re heading to.

They come here because Australia is safe and has a reputation for being so. This country is blessedly free of the rampant violence, the constant fear and the unending horror of life in a war zone or as a member of a persecuted minority. Nobody who was born and grew up here had to deal with the kind of horror they’ve been witness to and to shut them out simply because it threatens our safe, comfortable existence is a selfish, neglectful kind of evil.

I may vehemently disagree with and strongly condemn the Anglo-Celtic nationalist lunatics who inhabit the fringes of Australian politics, but at least they’re honest about their attitudes on this topic. I hope someday to live in an Australia that believes in a “fair go” for all, and not just for those already here, an Australia that can sing the line of its national anthem “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share“, and mean it.

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  1. 16/10/2013 at 3:37 pm

    Fantastic writing and interesting too. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading what you have written because it is relevant and important.
    You have a very readable style too and that makes reading your blog even the more enjoyable. Some people tend to write above my head. You write so people can understand. Thank you for that.
    After finishing the article I was reading here, I actually feel like I have learned something. Keep up the good work.

    .

  2. 16/10/2013 at 8:26 pm

    Wow, what a fantastic piece. Being born and bred in Australia, I am often truly ashamed of the way this country treats those who are less fortunate than us. You’re right too – it’s because most Australians have lived a very blessed life and don’t stop to think about those who haven’t. I think at it’s core, the issue revolves around a sense of entitlement many Australians seem to have, when in my opinion we’re all human beings, citizens of the world, no one person more deserving of freedom, safety, health and happiness than any other. Thank you for an eye-opening and articulate blog post. I too hope that some day the attitude will shift and all Australians will learn to treat others, regardless of their background or how they came to this country, with dignity, respect and love.

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