Recent events on Manus Island have once more brought into focus this countries attitude to refugees and immigrants. As a country of immigrants it is historically chequered.
The way in which the displaced of Europe after WW2 were accepted into the country contrasts with the treatment of the Chinese after the gold rush (drug laws were aimed as much at the Chinese than at the scourge of opium).
Look around your community. In my own region we have had a growing African population for years now, and Asian faces are commonplace. Much of the country is the same; it is becoming more cosmopolitan by the day and for the most part this is embraced. Multicultural society flourished.
But somewhere between Saigon and Jakarta we foundered on the beach of indifference. Fears fuelled by paranoia created by endless replays of crumbling twin towers and fed by self serving politicians intent on replacing old cold war menaces with a new bogey turned our compassions sour.
The Tampa affair, where 438 predominantly Afghani Hazaras were refuse asylum became a new low point in our nations history.
A bellicose John Howard boasted “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, a timid Kim Beasley aquiessed. Asylum seekers were demonised for political ends. It worked; Howard won. Between Tampa and the October election in 2011 two planes flew into the Twin Towers, New York. All muslims were now suspected terrorists.
Illegal immigrant became the catchphrase and the Pacific Solution was born in 2001. The flow of so called illegals was to be stopped. The policy, a latter day sibling of the White Australia Policy (in existence from Federation1901 until 1973, not that long ago) played on the xenophobia of a nation caught up in the post 9/11 panic. Our borders needed protection.
Boat people were intent on destroying our cherished way of life.
The enforcement of policy or the lack of push factors such as the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, slowed the flow of asylum seekers considerably. In 2008 the policy was scrapped by the incoming Rudd government.
And not long after that, with developing conflicts in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the escalation of the civil war in Sri Lanka the flow of refugees increased. And so did deaths at sea.
When 353 people died at sea in October of 2011 there was political controversy, but more about ‘a certain incident at sea’ occurred rather than the loss of life. How many more died at sea during this time we will never know. We have no idea how many Vietnamese either drowned or were killed by pirates during the seventies and eighties. Australia eventually took 137,000 Vietnamese refugees.
When the boats started arriving again the then opposition ran the border protection line so familiar now. After the drownings off Christmas Island in 2012 suddenly the murmur from conservative politicians and commentators became a chorus and the deaths at sea became the focus of their ire, a thin cloak of compassion over their continued demonization of asylum seekers.
These desperate people fleeing oppression and war were now a threat to our sovereignty.
And then it became a race to the bottom. The Gillard/Rudd government and the Abbott opposition tried continually to outdo each other in more bizarre and morally doubtful policies. Malaysia, Manus Island, Stop The Boats, Operation Sovereign Borders. Both governments stand condemned for their appalling human rights record over boat people.
There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. There are many people in the world facing a life of quiet desperation. There are many who live under oppressive regimes and confronted by persecution, even death. They are all worthy of our help. Some will make their escape. Some will be lucky enough to afford to travel far from the conflict that threatens.
For some asylum seekers there is a chance to use diplomatic channels. For others the option does not exist. Waiting for years in refuge camps takes its toll. Being given an opportunity to escape isn’t something that you turn down.
There may be many in the world in more situations. That does not mean we refuse those relatively more fortunate.
But the treatment of asylum seekers as political prisoners was always going to end in tragedy and the death as a result of the Manus Island Riot was not the first such tragedy. Sadly it will probably not be the last as long as we continue as we have.
And instead of demanding answers conservative commentators condemn the outrage in a glaring display of cant and hypocrisy.
To be outrage by this tragedy is not to deny earlier misadventures, nor belittle them. This death occurred under our government’s watch. Our government’s jurisdiction. The victim is not at fault. The blame game is on in earnest with conflicting evidence in the public arena. Hopefully the perpetrator, the full account of what happened will be brought to light. And justice served. That is the least that needs to happen.
But while wars and persecution exist in the world there will always be refugees. We need to make it easier, not harder to come to our country. This will help stop the boats. This will help save lives.
• Iranian born asylum seeker Reza Barati died on February 17 as a result of riots. At this stage the full circumstances of his death are not known. There are three investigations concurrently under way.