“Our home is girt by sea”
So rings out the fourth line of the Australian anthem, Advance Australia Fair.
“Girt” that awkward, uncomfortable word meaning “surrounded”.
But now the line is firmly planted in my head as the national debate about our hardline approach to asylum seekers continues.
I flicked on the radio last weekend and found myself tuning into a conversation on ABC Radio National (3RN) about the new immigration policy announced by our prime minister Kevin Rudd, which will see genuine asylum seekers settled in Papau New Guinea (PNG), a place he says is “an emerging economy with a strong future; a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention”.
Not so says the government’s own travel advisory website, Smart Traveller, which has an “Exercise a high degree of caution” warning about PNG and has a list of things to be careful of that includes “high levels of serious crime”, public gatherings that may turn violent, “heightened risk of armed robbery and attack at well-attended shopping centres in urban areas” and an “increase in reported incidents of sexual assault, including gang rape [where] foreigners have been targeted”.
The list goes on and on making me wonder if the South African government should not have stepped in and offered my old town of Johannesburg as an alternative off-shore centre. It actually seems a lot safer and certainly offers better opportunities for economic advancement than PNG.
This apparent government contradiction on the merits of travelling to and residing in PNG fits in just about perfectly with our feverish, illogical, national obsession with asylum seekers who arrive by boats.
Indeed I have blogged about this very issue before – on Crikey.
This point was put most eloquently by professor Michelle Foster, director of the International Refugee Law Research Programme at Melbourne University, who said on the same radio program on 3RN that we have this strange fear of being invaded when in reality – surrounded or “girt” by water – it should be low down on our list of national fears.
Perhaps we should also consider some of the other lines of the anthem:
- For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
Sadly, the spirit encompassed in these words seem to have been forgotten or discarded when it comes to the most desperate in society seeking a new life on Australian shores.
The prime minister says we are punishing the “scourge of people smugglers” by effectively making their illegal trade null and void, but it is refugees who are being punished – banished to a strange island, rife with social problems, and according to this opinion piece in the Fairfax papers, where they will be left to fight for survival in squalid urban conditions, with no rights to own land due to their foreign-born status.
None of this makes any sense and must surely confound human rights advocates looking in from overseas who can only wonder what we mean by a “fair go”.
Asylum seekers are a small problem made huge by something in the national psyche that’s turned it into an enormous political minefield.
For those Australians who say these people will take their jobs – this is apparently the burning issue in the key Western Sydney electorate – consider the facts and do some research.
Official Department of Immigration figures show that 6,004 refugees came to Australia in 2011-12, less than 5% of the 190,000 economic migrants who arrived courtesy of ‘official’ migration programs.
So if anyone is going to take their jobs and jump queues it’s skilled migrants and their families, not refugees arriving by boat or any other means.
Indeed if you have $5 million to invest in Australian bonds or managed investment schemes, the Australian government will give you a visa to stay, without even the requirement that you learn the national language. Just hand over the dosh and the government will throw out the welcome mat, complete with a jar of vegemite and a bowl of lamingtons.
But for those who are the most desperate, who risk their lives on rickety boats, they will be dumped on an inhospitable island, one deemed by our own government to be dangerous and rife with crime to be forgotten.
(For more on this debate, these are some excellent opinion pieces worth reading from former Howard-era immigration minister Amanda Vandstone and Victoria Stead is a researcher at RMIT University’s Globalism Research Centre.)