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By Austin G Mackell

Understanding the knee-jerk racist responses the issue of refugees evokes from large sections of the Australian public is the first step to overcoming them, and bringing them round to a more humane and pragmatic position. Apart from good old fashioned racism and an irrational panic about a loss of territorial control – the colony old fear of a tiny white population clinging to a recently stolen continent with a mass of Asians to our north – the minds of those hostile to refugee arrivals by boat seem occupied by not one but two deeply wrong headed ideas.

The first, and most blatantly wrong of these is that allowing refugees to come here somehow costs us something. The most honest expression of this that I’ve come across actually came from two young men from western Sydney, “Bob” and “Bummo”  who were outside Villawood Detention Centre the day of the threatened mass suicide, not to join the protest held there in solidarity but to “see someone jump”. When it was explained to them that the reason these guys were talking of jumping was that “we won’t let them in”, Bummo blurted out angrily, “that’s coz we have to pay for them!” When it was pointed out to him that it cost much more to keep them locked up or militarily repel them than it would to house them in the community or he fell into a thoughtful silence.

Daniel Burke, an activist from the Refugee Action Coalition, who has been visiting those imprisoned in Villawood since he moved to Sydney a few months ago, says he is familiar with this attitude.  He remembers the 1999 Tampa Incident, “I was in high school at the time, in a small town, and couldn’t believe the things you heard people say on the issue… It was a case of complete ignorance.” Not only have things not improved, he says, conservative politicians have been able to – without ever actually making the ridiculous claim- successfully link the pressures facing people in small towns, as well as western Sydney “battlers”, with the perceived free-ride given to these outsiders.   As he puts it, “even if they don’t know about the issue they feel they should be pissed off, because the issue is framed as though people are coming to take something from you.” As an example of politicians pandering to this ignorance he offers Abbot’s “Stop the debt. Stop the waste. Stop the Boats”. Debt. Waste. Boats.

It sounds like it should be too silly to work, yet as the blurting of Bummo shows, as non-existent as any causal relation is, the perception amongst many Australians is that a government that’s soft on refugees is hard on them.  Of course, we should not overplay this angle, the humane thing would be the right thing to do even if it did have economic costs, but it is worth pointing out this fallacy, which adds weight to much anti-asylum sentiment even when not voiced.

There is another fallacy however, that is openly argued by many in the public sphere, is that some adequate “deterrent” -mandatory detention or the more extreme “pacific solution” -can actually work to prevent boats setting off to arrive here. In a recent edition of The Monthly this point was argued by one of the chief baby-boomer know-it-alls, Robert Manne. Manne, thankfully, both identifies and debunks the first fallacy I’ve described, describing it’s adherents as “those who believe they are doing it tough and who bitterly resent the supposed privileges given to outsiders”, and adding that “downward envy is a potent force in all western societies”.  Unfortunately, like so many others, he falls face first into the second trap.  He first calls Keating’s policy of mandatory detention a failure, and hails the effectiveness of Howard’s “new system of military repulsion and offshore processing on godforsaken Pacific Islands”.

His proof? The numbers, “Between 1999 and 2001 some 180 boats bearing around 12,000 asylum seekers reached Australia…. In the six years between 2002 and 2007, 18 boats arrived with fewer than 300 asylum seekers.”

This argument is rejected “absolutely” by Bala Vigneswaran of the Australian Tamil Congress. As the majority of the recently increased numbers of arrivals Manne refers to, “some 2800 in 2009”, are mostly Tamils, it might have been worth Manne’s time to speak to someone, like Mr Vigneswaran, with some insight into their motivations.

Mr Vigneswaran explains that from about 2002 until the last few years the situation in Sri-Lanka was, relatively stable, but that with the failure of talks and the appointment of Gotabaya Rajapakse (who he describes as a “maniac”, and advises those who doubt him to find the general speaking on youtube) as head of the army, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. Those who follow international news will know what he means.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced to India, Malaysia and other places, forming the diaspora ghettos that are (apart from being hellholes) the favourite hunting ground of intelligence services looking for dissidents in exile.  Once it became clear that things would not be getting safer for Tamil’s in Sri Lanka any time soon these people started looking for other options and arriving on our shores. When asked if he thinks that deterrent measures could encourage refugees to seek asylum elsewhere rather than in Australia (such as the example of a boat of Tamil refugees making it all the way to Canada to claim asylum) he was equally scornful, explaining that very few of the boats used were seaworthy enough for such long voyages and that people were going wherever they could, not picking and choosing.  He added that most refugees were too ignorant of Australia’s policies for those policies to ever be an effective deterrent. He gave as an example of the naivete of some refugees a young man who brought single US dollars with him on the boat to Australia, thinking to buy a chocolate on-board to eat on the way.

In concluding Manne falls back on that comfortable and well worn prop of the apathetic humanitarian –  no point trying, the awful mob will never change. Specifically he says “Neither ‘education’ nor ‘leadership’ ” would make Australians “open their hearts”, as if we had had much of the former or any at all of the latter on the issue in recent years. Here he seems to be forgetting where his article started, with the bi-partisan humanitarianism which greeted the first big wave of (non-white) boat people, the Vietnamese who came fleeing the war there. Dan Burke commented much more intelligently, pointing out that racist scaremongering would have presented “probably a greater political opportunity” back then, what has changed, he suggests, is the quality of our political leadership.

Of course what Manne could respond that once the link was made, once the boat people genie was out of the bottle, everything changed irrevocably for the worse, and the opportunity for courageous moral leadership on the issue had passed.  This however, would be another empty, untested hypothesis, since no leader has tried anything remotely like it.