But there are so many of them

Bob Carr has brought to the surface one of the undercurrents in our political debate which is usually left un-analysed and has long intrigued me – the connection between refugee and population policy.

This article does not seek to critique our Foreign Minister’s ‘warning’ that people smugglers could very soon be bringing 180,000 people to our shores each year – at least not beyond noting that Greg Sheridan calls it “neither alarmist nor hysterical” and that Jon Kudelka nailed it yet again. But it does bear some analysis that one of the foremost proponents of a “small Australia” has used this kind of claim in his articulation of why we need to “deter” refugees.

It highlights the uncomfortable truth that refugee “deterrence”, an attitude that has its natural home in the political right, is frequently deeply entangled with small population, traditionally seen as an issue of the left. This entanglement goes deeper than the convenience for the right in co-opting a socially acceptable progressive view as an excuse for turning away people they don’t want here; and the concomitant convenience for the left in co-opting a touchstone issue to justify an exclusionist policy they find deeply distressing.

My thesis is that both refugee “deterrence” and small population are essentially bound up in the same myth-conception of Australia, of Australian identity and of our place in the world.

From the right, example number one is Peter Reith who lectured Catherine Deveny during the first episode of SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From on the basis that we simply can’t be too friendly to refugees or all the millions of displaced people in the world will want to come to Australia – and we simply can’t take them all. Let’s put aside the obvious point that the great majority of those people don’t actually want to come to Australia and aren’t seeking to do so, treat this as the straw man it obviously is, and move on to the more interesting opposite perspective.

Amongst the innumerable conversations I’ve had with a vast range of people about refugees in recent months (yes, there were those that were openly racist or descended into overt racism within a few sentences) the great majority were genuinely caring and torn. An upliftingly large number actually wanted to talk through the issues, to understand the factors better so as to reach a more informed opinion. When you talk with people about the realities that refugees face, about what they are fleeing and the conditions they are living in, almost everybody ends up acknowledging that shunting desperate people out of sight out of mind won’t “stop boats”, and therefore won’t save lives. It is simply common sense, backed up by hard evidence, as Angry Anderson discovered in Go Back, that desperate people will do desperate things and throwing ever more obstacles in their way won’t deter them. These conversations have made me genuinely hopeful that caring and generous people, in the end, will care and will be generous.

But what really struck me is how often people sympathetic to the plight of refugees and wanting to help, after a conversation leading to this point, all of a sudden fall back to:

“That’s all very well, but what are we supposed to do when they just keep coming? After all, there’s so many of them (and so few of us)!”

While with some this might be dismissed as racism, in the vast majority of cases I don’t believe that it is. This is a different, parallel phenomenon – a form of self-definition via exclusion of the other, certainly, but one that is more akin to NIMBYism than to racism.

This brings me to what I mean by the “myth-conception of Australia, of Australian identity and of our place in the world”. Both opposition to refugees and advocacy of a small Australian population are often driven by a conception of Australia set apart from history and placed in an exclusive bubble separate from the rest of the globe. Both imagine not only that we can bubble-wrap the country and keep its problems separate from our own but also that this would be a good thing, fearing that too many people from elsewhere will change the character of the nation.

So, if we can bring people to support refugees up to this point through a better understanding of their plight, what really needs to be done, to bring them the final step, is to develop a better understanding of ourselves.

A couple of years ago, during the small Australia discussion we had in the lead up to the 2010 election, I wrote a post over at Crikey’s Rooted blog that I called, somewhat floridly, Australia is not an island. What I meant by that was that global population pressures are far greater than they are in Australia and we cannot pretend that a small Australia will insulate us from the global ecological impacts. What’s more, the world where Australia was isolated and far away is long gone. We can’t be a fortress keeping out increasingly over-crowded neighbours.

This was written about population policy but applies equally to refugee policy. The view that Australia’s only responsibility for refugees is to stop them drowning on our doorstep is a view from an island, and not that of a global citizen.

The only long-term sensible approach is to embrace a realistic vision of Australia and our place in the world. We should be using our position to reduce the pressures on people across the world – population, ecological stress, poverty, war – and open our doors and our hearts to those in need now.

There is another part of better understanding ourselves which, I believe, could be most successful of all in bringing people to support resettling refugees here, and that is telling the stories of who we are, of how the Australian identity and character we all cherish has evolved, been adopted and improved by generations of immigrants and refugees. Experience shows that Australia changes those who come here at least as much as they change us.

I’m lucky enough to have been brought up in Australia by parents and grandparents who know first hand what it is to be a refugee. They came here in the 1950s after years of persecution. Their welcome here was not always with open arms – there were plenty of jibes about “dirty Jews” and stinky, strange food (“Sour cream! Why don’t you just leave it out overnight?”). But nevertheless they and the many thousands who came with them were made to feel part of Australian society, given an education and support, and went on to make a very substantial contribution to Australian society as doctors, teachers, architects, entrepreneurs, parents. They have Australian attitudes to work and play and family. They share the distinctly Australian humour, flavored with the equally distinctive Jewish jokes.

The same can be said of other waves of refugees and immigrants to our shores – what would Australian culture (and I don’t just mean cuisine) be without Greeks and Italians, without Vietnamese and Chinese, without Indians and Lebanese and Ethiopians? And what right have any of us whose ancestries don’t go back 40,000 years in this country to even question what new arrivals bring? Our unique Australian culture is a delightful melange of English and American, European and Asian and islander and so much more, with everything from the larrikin Irish to the Indigenous Australians shining through everything else.

If we get our next steps right and treat the next wave of new Australians with respect and warm welcome, why shouldn’t they also bring their own best qualities to make us even more Australian?

If we think about who these refugees are, and if we consider who we are, there can only be one approach – a safe welcome.

Photo: CC licensed from Hadi Zaher

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