Asylum seekers and Australia

Julian Burnside


You can also listen to the interview [MP3 24MB].


Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast with myself, Matt Smith, and joining me today is Julian Burnside. He's a leading Australian barrister and advocator of the human rights of asylum seekers. Thank you for joining me, Julian.

Julian Burnside:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

I'd like to talk to you about the current situation with asylum seekers and illegal immigration in Australia. Can you tell me what that situation is as a perception and what is the reality?

Julian Burnside:

Well, first of all, it's not illegal immigration, even though that is the way it's perceived. It is no offense against Australian law to arrive in Australia without papers, without an invitation, and seek asylum. The universal declaration of human rights says it is a right of every human being to seek asylum in any territory they can reach.

Australia was a really important force in the creation of the universal declaration of human rights. And an Australian, Doc Evatt, was Secretary-General of the UN at the time the universal declaration was entered into force in December 1948.

We have very clearly acknowledged, as have most other countries in the world, the right of every human being to seek asylum. The problem is, when they exercise that right, we're not happy about it, even though they come in very small numbers.

Matt Smith:

What are the numbers? What is the reality that we are facing?

Julian Burnside:

Long-term average, like over the last, say, 30 years, the average annual arrival rate of boat people is about 800 or a thousand a year. The short-term average in the last year or so is running between 4,000 and 5,000 per year. We had another peak back in 2001 when it ran out of a bit over 4,000 in a 12-month period.

But you've got to put those numbers in perspective, and there's a couple of ways of seeing the numbers. The first is to see the rate of unauthorized arrivals in other countries. Landlocked European countries will typically get something between 50,000 and 100,000 unauthorized arrivals every year. Countries like Pakistan, various African countries, and so on would expect to get between half a million and a million unauthorized arrivals per year. So on any view of things, Australia's arrival rate of boat people is very, very low.

Second, you need to put it against other relevant Australian numbers. So the number of people who come into Australia every year with permission--tourism, holidays, students, business people, and so on--that's around about four and a half million people per year. Four and a half million entries per year. Against that, an arrival rate of unauthorized arrivals of 4,000 or 5,000 a year is absurdly low. Nearly watertight.

The third set of figures to put it against is Australia's other net migration figures. And at the moment, our net migration per year is something like 300,000 people. That's to say, 300,000 people who come into the country for the purpose of staying here for the rest of their lives. Roughly 300,000, give or take, against that 5,000 is a very low number and it's clearly not a demographic problem in any sense.

Matt Smith:

So why, in that case, is Australia so focused on what should be a relatively small problem?

Julian Burnside:

I really don't know. Except I think the explanation is something like this: Pauline Hanson, who is one of the few Australians I would genuinely regard as a racist, in 1996 played the race card in her maiden speech in Parliament. It upset and distressed a lot of people, but it gave John Howard a glimpse of what was possible. He then exploited the fear that he saw in the community and played it very skillfully, in particular around the time of Tampa and following.

What Howard did in 2001 was to fasten on this idea: we'll call them illegals. We'll call them queue jumpers. We'll say we decide who comes to this country and the circumstance in which they come. And this will play well in marginal electorates. And it did. But it was through cynical political exploitation as well as, frankly, just direct lying to the public.

I mean, if you tell people that one group are illegals, and possibly terrorists, and you put them in prisons in the desert, that seems in a sense a rational, decent thing to do. We put criminals in prisons. That's the way it is.

When you understand that they're not criminals, they haven't committed an offense, they're not charged with any offense, but we imprison them anyway, that looks a bit different. So the 'illegals' tag was probably the most potent propaganda weapon used by Howard, and subsequently by Ruddock, so that people in the community, even people of good moral views, will still call them illegals because it's just sort of rusted onto our understanding of boat people.

Matt Smith:

You said in there a quote from Howard, I believe: "We will decide who has the right to come here."

Julian Burnside:

His exact words were, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstance in which they come." And can I say, when he said "we" of course he means we, the people, and as an expression of migration policy, there's no fault with that. It's a perfectly accurate and reasonable statement of migration policy.

The migration policy involves a selfish transaction on both sides. The migrant wants to move because they think they will see a better life, greater chances, etcetera. The country wants the migrant because they have skills that we need supplemented in this country. So both sides of that transaction benefit.

To say that we'll decide who comes to the country as migrants and the circumstance in which they come is perfectly defensible.

Refugees stand in a different category. The refugee, by definition, is someone who is unwilling or unable to return to their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. There is a domestic analogy which I think is quite useful.

People sometimes get fed up with having visitors around to their house. So they just say, "Look, I'm not going to have any visitors here until Thursday week. I just need some timeout." So we'll decide who comes into our house and the circumstance in which they come.

But let's suppose the next day you see an eight-year-old running along the street. She's being chased by a rapist, and she knocks on the door and says, "Please let me in." Only the most heartless person would say, "No, come back on Thursday week."

It's just not governed by the same considerations as migration policy is. When Howard was talking about refugees, he was just plain wrong.

Matt Smith:

What is the difference between locking up and mandatory detention? When does the line become blurred as to how we're treating asylum seekers?

Julian Burnside:

Well, a mandatory detention just means detention which is compulsory despite the fact that you have committed no offense. Indefinite mandatory detention means that you are detained for as long as it takes to resolve your refugee status: months, years, whatever.

The circumstances of mandatory detention in this country have been notorious in recent times because, typically, it has involved holding people in high-security prisons in the desert. Generally speaking, remote from centers of population.

Baxter was perhaps the prime example. It was an ultra high-security facility, four hours out of Adelaide: a primitive fence which was electrified, an inner fence topped by razor wire, and within that, compounds which were so designed that the people living inside them were not able to see outside at all. They never got to see the desert around them; they could only see within the detention center.

All of the doors in Baxter are electronically controlled so that a person could not move from one block to another block without the approval of the guards. Getting into Baxter to visit someone, there were much more security measures than going to an airport, for example. The initial screening and x-rays and all that sort of stuff, that was just the start of it. Getting into Baxter took around about half an hour of security processing. Ultra high security. And these are innocent people we've got there, OK? Now you throw innocent people into a place like that and tell them, "We can't tell you how long you're going to be here," you very quickly get pretty adverse mental health outcomes.

And the legacy of the Howard years is thousands of refugees assessed by us as being genuine refugees who, in addition to the consequences of the torture or trauma they were fleeing, have had added to it the terrible burden of years of imprisonment knowing that they are innocent.

Matt Smith:

Do other countries have similar approaches to this? How does Australia... I hate to rank us or compare us that way, but I kind of am asking if we're bad or good in our treatment of asylum seekers?

Julian Burnside:

We're conspicuously bad. Every international NGO who's come to Australia, during the Howard years especially, and investigated our detention system has commented on how appalling the conditions were, how dispiriting it was, and the extent of the mental health issues that it was creating.

Let me think. It would be a few years ago now. I acted for a bloke in Adelaide who was charged with escaping from Woomera. In Easter of 2002, there was a protest outside Woomera. Lots of Australians gathered there and they managed to prise apart a couple of the bars around Woomera. And about, I think, 60 or 80 asylum seekers stepped through the gap in the bars. A few of them ran away. All of them were later recaptured and they're all charged with escaping from immigration detention.

Now I was acting for a number of these people, but one in particular comes to mind. This bloke was a Hazara from Afghanistan; therefore, a near dead certainty to be a genuine refugee. By the time I acted for him in Adelaide Magistrates Court, he had been in detention for five years, initially in Woomera and later in Baxter. Now in order to defend him, I got a plan of the Woomera Detention Centre, which showed that, as gazetted, Woomera is actually an enormous area, and the infamous compound with its razor wire and everything is just a small block in the centre of this much larger declared area.

Now he had stepped out through the gap in the fence straight into the arms of about 50 federal officers and had been immediately put back inside the compound. He had never left immigration detention. And so my aim was going to be, "Well, when those facts came out, plainly enough, he hasn't escaped from immigration detention." So we went down to the cells to chat to him because I wanted to make sure that he understood the process and that his evidence was actually going to be helpful for the defence. So I asked him a few questions and he was obviously having trouble. And I'd bet anything, maybe he couldn't understand the words properly, so I said to him, "What's my name?" and he told me my name. So he was understanding.

I asked him his name and he gave me his name. And I said, "What's your mother's name?" And he looked into the distance for about half a minute and said, "I can't remember." And I said, "What about your brothers and sisters? What are their names?" And again he gazed off into the distance and he just said, "I can't remember. It's too long ago."

I asked him a number of questions. He didn't even know which detention centre he was in. His mind had destroyed all traces of his past because of the effects of long-term hopelessness in detention. I've never seen such a terribly broken person. His past had ceased to exist. He was, I think, 19 at the time I was speaking to him. But he had lost his entire past.

And we should not do that to people. Now I can't think of any decent argument why innocent people should be reduced to that by the way we treat them knowingly, deliberately, and as a matter of government policy in order to deter other people from asking for help.

Matt Smith:

How did the governments approach the asylum seeker issues in the recent federal election? What struck you as being notable in their approach?

Julian Burnside:

Both sides were hopeless. That's what was notable. Julia Gillard tried to play both sides of the street and Tony Abbott, for all that he is a self-professed Christian, was putting forward policies which no Christian would be prepared to embrace.

What part of the parable of the Good Samaritan has he forgotten about? He is saying every arrival of boat people is a failure of policy. He is saying the best thing we can do is to turn people away who are asking for our help.

I'm not a Christian, but I have real trouble understanding that any practicing Christian would think it's a good idea to treat people harshly so that others won't come and ask for help. And neither side was any good.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that any politician approaches asylum seekers from the right perspective?

Julian Burnside:

Yeah. I think the Greens' policy is pretty good. Now the Greens actually do want to help. They have suggested that we should increase our self-imposed quota of refugees, and that would be good because that would take some of the pressure off the politics of boat people. But bear in mind, when they're talking about refugees, they're not just talking about boat people. We get more refugees in Australia than merely boat people. Far more come by plane, with visas, than come by boat. And others, of course, come here because we've assessed them offshore as refugees and they're brought in on refugee visas that we've already given them. The curious thing about public excitement concerning boat people is the boat people is the smallest stream of refugee arrivals.

Matt Smith:

They're also the most visible as well, because I found it a bit strange that during the election, it seemed that the most amount of fear about boat people seemed to have come from Western Sydney.

Julian Burnside:

When you say they're the most visible, I don't think that's right at all. They are visible in the sense that Tony Abbott can bang on about the boat arrivals. If you go and look at the very place where they are arriving, then in that sense they are visible. But if he hadn't pointed a spotlight at the boat arrivals, I don't think anyone in the community would have the faintest idea whether we were getting boat people here or not.

People in Western Sydney may be responding to the fact that their areas are changing demographically. There are now more people of Middle Eastern appearance in some suburbs. OK, well, that's actually not because of boat people. That's largely because of our broad migration intake.

But of course, if you talk about boat people, demonized boat people, and people in marginal electorates say, "Oh, yeah, we've got foreigners around the corner," they'll immediately equate the boat people and the foreigners and say, "We want to get rid of them," turn them back at gun point, that sort of thing.

So I said before, I reckon Pauline Hanson's about one of the few racists I can think of in Australia. I don't think Australians are racist by and large. I think we're xenophobic. We are scared of outsiders. And it's importantly different.

I do remember when I was growing up in the 1950s, the post-war migration included many people from southern Europe, in particular Italians and Greeks, certainly in Melbourne, and I distinctly remember in the mid-'50s a lot of people saying, "Oh, those Greek women, they dress oddly. They don't learn the language. They cook weird food. They're too religious. They have too many children," also the stuff you hear now said about Muslims coming from the Middle East.

It's going to take us probably half a generation, maybe a little longer, to starting, "Oh, how cool. There's an Afghan restaurant just opened up around the corner," or "There's a shop bringing in stuff from Iran. We'll be able to go and buy stuff that we've never seen before."

We can either embrace the opportunities that cultural diversity offers or we can stand back in fear, merely because they're different. And unfortunately because we're largely xenophobic, we do the second.

Matt Smith:

If we were more accepting of asylum seekers, would our fears be justified, do you think?

Julian Burnside:

Fears? I can't even understand the fears, to be honest. I'm not sure what the fears are.

Matt Smith:

Well, the fears seem to me that… I don't know, foreigners will take Australian jobs, they'll drive their prices of houses up...

Julian Burnside:

OK. I'll take that by stages. Let's assume those are the fears in the Australian public at large. Well, it's true, the foreigners coming to Australia who hope to make their home here will want to work. We should applaud that. Will they take Australian jobs? Well, I suppose it's possible that at the margins, there will be some people from outside who take a job that an Australian might otherwise have taken.

Although typically, what you find with refugees is they usually get jobs at the bottom end, jobs that most other people don't want. But let's accept all of that. You're still talking 5,000 people a year. If you're worried about foreigners taking our jobs, then have a look at the Section 457 Visa Intake.

457 visas are specifically visas for people with particular skills. They come in in order to work, in order to get jobs here. At the moment, the average 457 intake each year is around about 100,000 people.

So if you're worried about Australian jobs, do you look at the 100,000 or do you look at the 5,000? Frankly, to focus on boat people rather than the 457s is just a category mistake.

Second, it'll drive up the price of houses. I guess the numerical argument works again. OK, is 5,000 people coming into the community going to have a relevant effect on the economy in any sense? Or is it the 300,000-a-year migrants coming into the community that have a relevant economic effect? Probably it's the bigger number that's going to have the effect.

But more than that, any economist will tell you that our system is predicated on growth in order to maintain profits. And if the community stops growing, then economic prosperity will tend to taper off fairly quickly. The notion that house prices will be driven up is just an indirect reflection of the fact that there is increased economic activity because you've got more people in the community. And most people would probably prefer to see more economic activity than less.

I mean, that's kind of easy to say because I'm talking a very general level. When you get to the specifics like it's getting hard to find a house in Western Sydney or marginal electorates in Brisbane or whatever, then you need to do a little bit of creative thinking to help mollify public opinions.

One thing that stands out very plainly in Australia at the moment is that there are an increasing number of regional and rural centres that are losing population as we gravitate to the coast, especially the southeast and increasingly the northeast. The movement towards the Queensland coast is very substantial.

Now, towns that are shrinking in their population would dearly love to see an infusion of new residents. I can see no strong objection to a refugee policy which incorporates an element that for the first, say, two or three years of their protection visa, they would be required to live in a broadly defined regional area.

You don't want to say, "You have to stay in that town or else you're out," but if you said they have to live in rural Victoria rather than metropolitan Victoria, that would not be unduly restrictive, and as a matter of demographic planning, it would have some real benefits. And, interestingly, as we saw in Leonora early this year, small towns getting infusion of refugees are actually grateful for it because the increased population certainly stimulates economic activity in those towns.

So that might even change attitudes because people will say, "Thank goodness for the refugees." I'm making these as pretty broad sweeping propositions, and of course they would need to be fine-tuned with reference to the specific facts.

The point is to adopt an approach which looks at refugees as an opportunity rather than an approach that looks at refugees as a threat. And once you shift your gaze, then you see a whole range of creative possibilities to make it actually work.

Matt Smith:

I think that even if we did see them as a threat even in a minor way or even in a technically economical way, that from a humanitarian standpoint we should be doing things differently.

Julian Burnside:

I agree with that, but it's not a winning argument that's the problem. It doesn't actually cut much ice in Australia.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that activism is helping the situation or hindering the situation?

Julian Burnside:

I think, obviously, activism has to have some limits. If activism involved Australian bombs at the doors of detention centres, I would be strongly against it. But activism that is slowly sensible and responsible, I think it's always a good thing because it draws people's attention to a difficulty. And although some activism can be a little bit annoying, I think it's probably appropriate that the community should get annoyed about some of these issues, you know?

If it draws attention to a real problem, and gets people thinking, then that's probably a good thing. Beyond that, I'm not sure I want to generalize about activism.

Matt Smith:

And what do you see as your role being in the public debate, if people listening to this interview are going to take away from one thing from it, what would you like that to be?

Julian Burnside:

Well, I think it would be this: in Australia, we live a very comfortable, sheltered life, and most of us in Australia have gotten very little idea of why it is that people flee and ask for our help. There's a sort of arrogant assumption in the community that the reason boat people come is that, "Hey, Australia is the best country in the world, so who wouldn't want to come here?"

Oddly, Iranian refugees I have spoken to think that Iran is the best country in the world and they'd love to go back there. They just don't want to go back and be killed. And people from Afghanistan think Afghanistan is the best country in the world. A very strange thing, our attitude to this country and the reason people come.

The reality is, for example, one bloke I was dealing with from Uganda, he watched as government forces attacked his father, tore out his father's eyes, cut out his tongue, and then threw him alive into a vat of boiling oil. That's the way he saw his father killed. Now, someone who runs away from that, frankly, I think, we deserve to say, "Please, come in. You're welcome. We'll protect you."

The Hazaras from Afghanistan are fleeing centuries of persecution. On the day Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, a van driven by a Hazara man with 11 other Hazaras in it were stopped on the road, I think, in Oruzgan. This is outside Kabul. They were stopped, they were dragged out onto the roadway, and they were summarily executed, and their heads were placed beside their bodies. They were killed by the Taliban because they're Hazaras. They haven't done anything wrong, but they're Hazaras so they get killed.

Kate and I have got a foster son from Afghanistan. He's now 17, but when he was 8 in Afghanistan, he was a shepherd. And his friend came up onto the hillside to muck around with him as they were watching the sheep. His friend saw something interesting and poked at it with a stick. And it blew up, took his arm off, and he bled to death on the hillside. Things like that. These people, frightened. And they come here and ask for our help. If we could understand why people flee, we might have a slightly different attitude to them.

And I would challenge every Australian to learn something about why refugees run away, why they try to escape, why they come here and ask for help, and then ask themselves, what would you do? What would you do in that situation?

Now I know that I would run from a life, I'd take my family and I'd do whatever I could to make them safe. I would not let them rot in an Indonesian jail if I thought that using a people smuggler and getting on a boat to Australia would get them to freedom. I really wouldn't.

And I find it incomprehensible that people can be critical of boat people because all they are doing is what most of us would do in the same situation. If we can understand their situation, then we might treat them a little more thoughtfully.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the LaTrobe University podcast today. If you have any questions about this podcast or any other, you can get in contact with us at Julian Burnside, thank you for your time today.