There is a leaked document, supposedly in draft form, recently leaked to the media, which indicates the Liberal government is considering a major shift in refugee policy. In his article in The Conversation, 18 February 2016, Professor Michael Humphrey writes that it “…suggests the idea that refugees are a potential source of terrorism and radicalisation will soon shape Australia’s humanitarian resettlement policy.”
If all refugees are seen as a security issue, the whole program will become dominated by deterrence. It also indicates that all refugees will only be able, if they are successful in gaining that status, to become temporary residents.
It mentions that several arrivals on humanitarian or refugees visas have carried out terrorist acts. It also points to Lebanese Sunni Muslims, who are the most prominent ethnic group among Australian Sunni extremists, as a particular problem. The inclusion of this opinion, linking ethnicity to extremism, ignores current research and the lessons of history, and is itself cause for concern.
The refugee crisis, Humphrey correctly points out, is related to “… our profound failure of political vision in the Middle East.” To attempt to conflate the terror threat with refugee policy will not assist us to deal with the global refugee crisis. By stepping up brutal deterrence policies we will only serve to further undermine our reputation for respect for international law and further outrage a substantial proportion of the Australian population. More and more influential members of the community, many of them quite politically conservative, are speaking out.
The President of the AMA, at a forum on the health of asylum seekers, 21 February 2016 said: “Doctors, along with nurses, lawyers and lobby others, must lead a debate on an issue of national importance. I believe that is the case when it comes to the issue of children in detention and Australia’s provision of health care to asylum seekers. Each of our presenters today has demonstrated clearly why there is a need for the medical profession, and others, to speak up and to advocate to remove children from detention.”
The widely acclaimed stand of the Lady Cilento Hospital staff, refusing to allow baby Asha to be sent to the camp on Nauru, and the huge public response outside the hospital, convinced Minister Dutton to change his attitude, at least for now. He has not ruled Nauru out for the future.
This strong stand in defence of justice by the medical community was further enhanced by the psychiatrists. “In a paper published in the Australasian Psychiatry journal this month, Dr Michael Dudley, a psychiatrist at Sydney Children’s Hospital and a senior University of NSW lecturer, wrote that prolonged immigration detention shows “reckless indifference and calculated cruelty”. Such policies misuse health and welfare professionals to “underwrite state abuses and promote public numbing and indifference resembling other state abuses,” he said, citing the so-called “war on terror” and, with qualification, Nazi Germany.” [The Age 18 February 2016]
The declaration by churches all over the country that they would provide sanctuary to refugees, showing up the narrow intolerance of the extremist sectarians who support anti-refugee and anti-Muslim organisations, struck a chord with the nation. They may no longer have legal power to protect, but the moral authority of the churches is still strong.
The Turnbull government may well fly kites about conflating refugee policy and counter-terrorism, which is possible what the “leaked” document was about, but public opinion may have changed. There are many indications that this is underway. What may save its political hide is that the Opposition, led by Mr Shorten, has not taken up the challenge to develop a more civilised refugee policy.