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Treatment of refugees - an expensive farce

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Monday, 15 October 2001

Australia’s recent public debate on asylum seekers and refugees has been one of the most extraordinary political episodes in recent years.

After years of deliberate vilification, half-truths and distortions about asylum seekers from the Government and the Coalition, the use of our defence forces to detain the good-Samaritan rescue vessel MV Tampa touched off a political firestorm that resulted in the ALP supporting the Government in guillotining 7 pieces of legislation through the Senate. This legislation included two Bills the ALP had long opposed, plus four others that virtually had no opportunity for public scrutiny, but were severely criticised by the UN High Commissioner Refugees and many other church, refugee and legal groups.

The Government successfully rammed legislation through Parliament that fundamentally undermined the rule of law and the foundations of our democratic system, which enabled unprecedented discretionary powers for Ministers and government officers (outside of wartime), and removed legal rights from refugees and many Australians. It is a salutary lesson that the Coalition has apparently also managed to get majority community support for this draconian power-grab (even though it has been at the expense of our international reputation), hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and quite probably the lives of a number of refugees. All this without actually fixing the problem, which it was supposedly meant to address, including preventing the majority of refugees ending up in Australia!


The whole sorry saga highlights why it is so important to stand up strongly on principle and truth from the outset, regardless of whether it is unpopular or not. The Government got away for so long with their campaign of half-truths and lies that they became accepted fact by many in the media and the public.

Just a few of the falsehoods:

  • Asylum seekers are illegal. The fact is that it is legal under Australian law (and that of many other countries) to enter the country to seek protection from serious persecution. Such claims are then assessed according to our law.
  • Our borders or sovereignty are under threat. The fact is that all asylum seekers are detected, detained and assessed. They do not breach our borders. We choose who is entitled to stay or not.
  • Australia is the 2nd most generous country in the world when it comes to accepting refugees. The fact is that we are not even in the top 10 if you count all refugees accepted into a country by all means.
  • Boat people are queue jumpers. The fact is that there is no queue and even Australia does not accept offshore refugees in order of application or degree of need. The international system for resettling refugees is highly dysfunctional. Australia should be cooperating with other nations to dramatically improve this system, not sending out a message that we will turn refugees back at our borders.

The Australian Democrats have been a proud (and sometimes lonely) voice of opposition to the Coalition's divisive and dishonest message, but it has proved not to be strong enough on this occasion.

There is a clear lesson here; we must speak up stronger, louder and sooner when fundamental principles of human rights and justice are being challenged.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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