Mahendra Sukhdeo –
Last year, nearly two million refugees made their way to the gateways of the European nations in the wake of the Syrian conflict and this fleet is likely to grow as the Middle East crisis continues.
Conscience of Europe
The initial euphoria of opening the doors to the refugee exodus was ignited by the image of a drowned toddler on a Turkish beach.
While the spark has eviscerated by the emergence of ultra-nationalistic islamophobia following the Paris and Brussels violent attacks, the humanitarian efforts to resettle the refugees epitomises the unstinted generosity and conscience of Europe.
It was the European refugee crisis in the aftermath of WW II that gave birth to the UN Convention on Asylum in 1951.
But, Western Europe, like all other recipient nations, cannot instantaneously graft their knee-deep ‘western values’ on the African, Middle Eastern and South Asian refugees, most of who have endured colonial subjugation and post-colonial authoritarian dictatorship engineered by the Western powers.
Diversification of society requires years of liberal education and pluralistic integration. Fast-tracking integration is a recipe for isolation and the consequent radicalisation.
Australia on the other hand, has evolved an unconscionable, xenophobic detention regime that flies at the face of international obligations and international law.
Ironically, the strategy has a bipartisan support symptomatic of its subservience to over 70% of Caucasian voters.
The Australian Labour Party has more shades of blue rather than red. The ripples of this diktat are being replicated in Western Europe and also in New Zealand.
Australia’s hard core detention policy was shaped during the Howard era when Prime Minister John Howard stopped the ship ‘Tampa’ in 2001 and his ‘Pacific Solution’ of imprisoning in Manus and Nauru led to a walkover election victory.
The ‘Tampa’ episode epitomised Australian insularity and parochialism. Since then a claustrophobic mind-set has prevailed that blocking the boats is the signature strategy to win an election. Liberal leader, Tony Abbott proved it in the last General Elections. Australia has struck to this short-sighted platform against all humanitarian considerations.
Off-shore detention at any cost
In 2002, Australia began to develop Christmas Island, an external Australian Territory in the Indian Ocean, as a detention centre. The initial costing of A$ 60 million escalated to A$ 400 million.
Oxfam estimated that it cost A$ 1600 per day more to hold anyone externally than to house them in the mainland.
For the budget-conscious government, the expenses did not matter as long as the Australian electorate is beguiled into the trap of stopping the boats carrying unauthorised arrivals. No one lifted a finger at those arriving by air.
No one alluded to the scenario of convicts arriving by boat.
No one referred to the ongoing arrival of settlers from Europe before and after the Wars and no one referred to the richness of the Australian culture with the infusion of Vietnamese boat people.
Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s Labour regimes explored to detain the refugees in Malaysia where the opportunity for rehabilitation was much greater on account of a semblance of religious homogeneity and the prospect of economic involvement.
As the talks faltered on Malaysia, their policy of offshore processing and no mid-sea navy interception resulted in boat loads of 50,000 new arrivals and about a thousand drowning.
The new Liberal Government of Tony Abbott last year opted for the isolated, insect-infected Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the phosphate-embowelled, diabetic island of Nauru in the Pacific to detain the asylum seekers indefinitely till resettled in a third world country.
Further, the Abbott government passed an unsavoury policy of returning the boats from international waters to their originating destination.
Last year, a boat-load of asylum seekers heading towards New Zealand was intercepted by the Australian Navy and ‘u-turned’ to Indonesia.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is now emboldened to seek Australian interception of boats destined to New Zealand as a quid pro quo for resettlement of Australian detainees.
In May 2015, Australian officials paid $32,000 to the boat crew to return their vessel to Indonesia (Amnesty International Report, June 2015).
Both the means and the end do not justify reasonable standards of global behaviour.
Recently, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the detention of refugees at Manus Island.
This judicial ruling has torpedoed the government’s nefarious detention policy and has put the Turnbull regime on the defensive in the wake of the General Elections to be held in July.
Mahendra Sukhdeo is a Fiji born academic and author of the book, ‘Aryan Avatars.’ Its second edition is being published by the University of the South Pacific. He now lives in Australia.
A Detention Centre in Australia (Picture by David Hunt for AAP)