Solution we paid for in dollars, not sense
By Ian Macphee
5 August 2002

Enough inhumanity John Howard should take a leaf out of Malcolm Fraser's book on refugees, suggests Ian Macphee

IT'S time for the Howard Government to declare an amnesty for the fewer than 700 asylum-seekers in detention centres funded by taxpayers under the Pacific solution.

The refugee issue was the grit that produced the 2001 electoral pearl for Prime Minister John Howard. It is now poisoning the oyster: Australia's soul.

Even Labor now questions the Government's policy. The Greens want children released pending refugee determination. But more is required in the name of humanity, internal harmony and our international reputation.

The senate committee investigating the sinking of a ship carrying Middle Eastern asylum-seekers has revealed callous indifference on the part of government officials, a reflection of the ruthless disposition Howard displayed to other boatpeople.

For generations, refugees have enriched our culture, provided needed skills and enlarged our population, to our economic benefit. Subject to appropriate environmental policies for water conservation and preservation, and minimising greenhouse-gas emissions, we can sustain a greater population.

Sadly the Government has dishonoured these obligations. Having helped render the Kyoto Protocol as toothless as possible, it refuses to sign it.

The Government canvasses ideas to enable Australians to have more children. But even if working hours and cost pressures are relieved, most couples will probably not do so. This is a pattern in all developed countries.

We should increase our intake of needed skills and use the family reunion process to assist the emotional stability of migrants and enable some to afford an additional child.

Special humanitarian cases not satisfying refugee criteria or strict migrant entry also contribute to our economy and society.

Finally, there are the refugees: people fleeing persecution stemming from their ethnicity, religion or political views. Such people abound.

Former governments worked with UN agencies and other nations to ensure that they selected those most likely to integrate well into Australia. While we claimed to be compassionate in taking them, we had a selection process geared to our needs. Even so, we had frequent intakes on purely compassionate grounds.

The Howard Government has lacked clear policy on these issues. Its failure to work with other nations and UN agencies in processing refugees on unpopulated but habitable islands in the Indian Ocean caused the flood of people brought by smugglers. With a heavy hand, ruthless heart and hundreds of millions of squandered dollars, the Government has rectified its omissions.

Cases such as those of the Bakhtiyari family are vexed. The Government asserts they are from Pakistan, whereas those with cultural and linguistic knowledge are convinced they are from a minority long persecuted in Afghanistan and for whom the future is bleak. Surely it is time to abandon the legal mantra and adopt humanity.

Having failed to work with other nations in the region to anticipate the problem of people-smugglers, the Government has brutally resolved it. In so doing it has heightened fears of migration in all forms from certain nations.

This mind-set will stifle our capacity to relate to the world at a time when nations and people are interacting as never before. This compounds our sense of insecurity and inferiority, products of geography and white settlement.

Twenty years ago the Fraser government had a general amnesty with the support of all parties. The law forbade future amnesties by executive action.

An amendment to cover the remaining asylum-seekers would be a tangible expression of a fair go. If parliament was united on this exceptional policy, it would end a sorry saga without encouraging further illegal immigration.

The Government should then direct some of its saved millions to detecting the far more dangerous aspect of illegal immigration: those who enter our airports under false documents with criminal intent. Such action should replace farcical legislation that purports to exclude parts of our territory from the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees honoured by all governments since Robert Menzies ratified it in 1954.

Ian Macphee was immigration minister in the Fraser government from 1979 to 1982.

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