Imagine Abbott calling a press conference and saying this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve called this news conference ….to announce to announce a number of decisions that the Government has taken today in response to the appalling human tragedy that is unfolding in Europe … hundreds of thousands …. are now trapped in a most distressing human situation. ……It is a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions and one that is likely to get a lot worse.”
That really happened. It was none other than John Howard in 1999 deciding to take refugees from Kosovo. Before Tampa. Before TPVs and ‘the pacific solutions’ and Manus Island.
Still it was so long ago that the political strategists thought that Howard welcoming and hugging refugees as they walked out of the plane was advantageous politically. Do you imagine Abbott of Shorten doing that now?
The refugee Australian contradiction
The action of Howard when he welcomed the Kososvo refugees outline beautifully the contradiction in Australia when it comes to refugees. One one hand we see ourselves as generous people wanting to help, but on the other we are afraid of being ‘invaded’. You can see from the press conference the types of questions journalists were asking.
“Mr Howard, can these people be kept under some form of restraint, I mean, effective captivity so that they don’t just scatter in the community?”
“Do you have any concerns, Prime Minister, that it might lead to racial conflict here in Australia?”
This for a grand total of 4000 people. And of course the Howard government had a bob each way. The government decided to fly the refugees to Australia only after a request from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They were sent to military barracks around the country, with limited access to the community granted temporary entry visas for three months only, and had no legal right to apply for permanent asylum.
We wanted to look ‘generous’ but the fear underlying those journalist’s questions remained. Our generosity could go only so far.
Out of sight, out of mind
With Tampa Howard made a decision that being tough on refugees was more politically advantageous than looking generous. From Howard with Tampa onward there has been a deliberate strategy of ensuring that asylum seekers were not seen. Media was restricted. The idea was not to allow Australians to see them, and therefore humanise them. The fact that they remained faceless made the job of governments to label them as ‘undeserving queue jumpers’ or ‘a threat’ much easier. Images were released when refugees could be portrayed in a bad light such as the children overboard lies.
This spiral continues currently with the Australian Border Force Act 2015 where those working in Australia’s detention centres are now forbidden under threat of jail time from revealing information to anyone about anything they come across while doing their jobs.
Australian governments know the danger of seeing the real human images of asylum seekers. And that is why they stop it at all costs.
We saw the power of images this week with the tragic drowning of Aylan Kurdi. Whatever it was right or wrong to publish the photo of his body on the beach it had a huge impact on the world’s attitudes towards Syrian refugees. This is the sort of thing the government and the ALP doesn’t want Australians to see. They want us to see asylum seekers as a threat, as queue jumpers, as greedy people that risk their lives and those of their children to reach the ‘best country in the world – Australia’.
After all Australia already had its own ‘Ayan Kurdi’. Three hundred and fifty-three of them. On October 19, 2001 when SIEV X foundered. Most were women and children.
Of course both the Coalition and the ALP will say that their current policy aptly described by Waleed Aly, built on the sole rationality of deterrence – to create horror ‘saves drownings’. But I don’t really believe it. Is a spiral to create xenophobia and fear for political advantage. And we are all poorer for it.