Potentially Problematic Opinion Month: Australia Should Withdraw From the UN Refugee Convention

That’s it. I’ve had it up to here with this nonsense. The race to the bottom has got to stop somewhere and it’s about time both parties spelled out exactly what that means.

The ultimate way to “stop the boats” is to withdraw Australia’s support for the UN Convention for the Rights of the Refugee.

Yes, the idea makes me sick. But really, it’s pretty much the only move that either party can make that can’t be beaten.

At this point, we’re already looking at a pair of parties whose policies on this issue have made me literally retch and cry. (Well, their policies on a lot of issues have pissed me off, but I can’t help feeling that the ones that deal with vulnerable people fleeing persecution are the the ones that make me the most disgusted.) I’m so furious at both of them that I have reached the point where I have refused to vote for either of them.

Both Labor and the Coalition seem to be always trying to one-up each other in terms of scare tactics, seemingly to see who can score the most votes from the southern-cross-tattooed, wife-beater-and-flag-wearing, racist-bumper-sticker-toting dickhead constituency.

So if you have the humane treatment of asylum seekers as an issue that could influence your vote, I’ve got some bad news – these are your options:

  • A government who will send people to a country that we already accept asylum seekers from, robbing them of the right to ever come to Australia, even if they already have family here. This government has already been found guilty by the United Nations of 150 breaches of the Refugee Convention over the treatment of a number of asylum seekers and the use of indefinite detention since the reinstatement of off-shore processing, with five more cases pending.
  • Or you can vote for a potential government that will not only maintain the status quo, but build on it, reinstating Temporary Protection Visas, which only allow certified refugees three years of residency in Australia, after which they have to reapply and be reassessed. This type of visa also rules out the possibility of family reunion, and has been accused of being the cause of a spike of women and children getting on boats to Australia to join male relatives, many of whom died in the SIEV X disaster. They are also suggesting a Work For The Dole-type scheme, which sounds good to the average punter, but if you ask anyone who has actually been on government payments, you’ll discover that these sorts of programs actually reduce the time that could be used to search for work, or to volunteer as part of the community.
Two “leaders”.
No vision. No compassion. No solutions.

Both parties have said they are trying to stop people smugglers by taking away their product, namely permanent residency in Australia, but really they are just trying to pander to poorly informed voters with action that looks like it’s doing something, without having to address the actual problem, which is that there is an increase of people fleeing persecution. Indonesia doesn’t want them, Malaysia doesn’t want them… Where else are they supposed to go? Perhaps to a country that is safe, can offer them support and has signed the UN Convention for the Rights of the Refugee? (Hint: That would be us.)

The fact that we have signed the Convention is the reason why they are coming here, but if we are so keen to breach it, why are we even on board any more?

It seems I’m not the first to ask this question. Kevin Rudd has already indicated he would like to “update” the Convention, saying it no longer addresses the traffic flow of asylum seekers. Tony Abbott has said that he supports the notion of changing the Convention, but experts say that changes to the 1951 Convention, which came about after the Second World War and the exposure of the full effects of the Holocaust, are unlikely.

So what are we waiting for? Well, Australia recently won a seat on the UN Security Council, so pulling out of one of the biggest UN Conventions would probably be a bad look for us right now, especially if the time comes that Australia has to shake a finger at other nations for breaching their human rights obligations.

But really, we don’t need to jump to end point that I have suggested. There is a far better option, but one that neither political party seems to have the balls to float to the electorate.

Human rights campaigner and QC, Julian Burnside has proposed an alternative solution: process asylum seekers in Indonesia using Australia resources, to reduce the waiting time and in turn eliminate the incentive to seek out people smugglers.

I entirely agree with this suggestion because it not only allows us to reduce the burden on our Indonesian neighbours, it also offers a range of opportunities for Australians. Consider this: Australian students studying social sciences like psychology, social work, law and other humanities could go to assist the work in Indonesia, and in return for a set period of work, receive a discount on their HECS/HELP debt. It also gives them priceless professional experience that will serve them throughout their careers, as well as bringing back cultural knowledge that they can share with family and friends, which would slowly spread through the community, making it easier to integrate asylum seekers and refugees into the community.

Julian Burnside also suggests that refugees could be required to live for a period of time in regional and rural areas, working locally and boosting populations in towns that are struggling to survive. This sounds like a brilliant idea to me, especially as it will expose Australians who otherwise might not have had previous interactions with other cultures to new experiences and perspectives.

So we might not need to pull out of the Refugee Convention just yet, but one thing is certain: our political leaders need to shift the focus of the discussion from simply stopping the boats to fixing the broader problem. It’s time to stop freaking out about the symptoms and treat the cause, and in turn, fulfil our obligations not only as a nation, but as human beings.

*****

If you’re looking for a little bit more info on what the difference is between refugees and asylum seekers and roughly how many we take a year, this video is a good place to start. It was produced by the ABC’s Hungry Beast in 2009, so the stats are a bit out of date, but the most important part of the message is pretty clear: for asylum seekers, there is no queue. This is something that is being conveniently left out of the debate by both sides of politics.

The other thing the video notes is that emotions tend to run high on this issue. As you can tell, I am no exception.

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