A column about the First Boat Peoples of our nation

Boat-peopleAUSTRALIANS have to hate somebody. We’re famous for it. In the 1960s and 70s, we hated the ‘Eyeties’ (Italians, for those too young to remember, which includes me). Then it was the Greeks. In the late 80s, and early 90s we turned on the Vietnamese. Then during the ‘Noughties’ we discovered how much we hated the Lebanese. Today, it’s the Sudanese.

None of this, of course, should surprise.

At our Federation in 1901, Australia’s first major act of parliament was to pass the Immigration Restriction Bill, a nasty piece of legislation aimed at keeping Australia white. Never mind the fact that all over this continent, the Traditional Custodians were black, a fact we were able to neatly avoid by pretending that Aboriginal people were so sub-human they were incapable of being recognized as anything but flora and fauna.

This was the mindset that endured until the 1967 referendum, a poll which gave Aboriginal people citizenship. The Immigration Restriction Act – aka the ‘White Australia Policy’ – also endured, until 1976, when the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act rendered it void.

So those who express surprise at Australia’s ‘racist present’ clearly know very little about our racist past. But I digress. This column is not about our First Peoples. This column is about our First Boat Peoples, and in particular how we went from being the demonised to being the demonisers.

The subject might seem a world away from Aboriginal affairs, but it’s not as distant as you might think. I’ll get to why shortly.

Currently, our two major political parties are engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ to prove they’re the toughest on boat people, as though breaching international law is some sort of Australian badge of honour. But there’s nothing new in that either, as anyone with 30 seconds experience in Aboriginal affairs could tell you.

Thus, in writing this column, it was, unfortunately, necessary to read quite a bit about our recent past. As a (more or less) white Australian, this can be a decidedly uncomfortable experience. The more I did, the more I was reminded of our Federation roots. And the more angry I became.

A few weeks ago, my revulsion finally boiled over onto my Facebook page (which, unsurprisingly, happens quite frequently!), where I posted the following: “So, Australians are outraged that asylum seekers ‘break the law’ (even though they don’t) when they arrive by boat to claim asylum…. and then we break international law by mandatorily detaining them and jailing their children. What a country…”

For the record, there is no such thing as a ‘queue jumper’ or an ‘illegal’ asylum seeker. Every person on earth has a fundamental human right to seek asylum.

The term ‘illegal’, however, can be fairly applied to tourists and others who overstay their visas. In Australia today, there’s about 50,000 of them. By comparison, in 2010 just over one-tenth of that number arrived by boat seeking asylum, the highest number on record for a single year.

Call me a bleeding heart, but I reckon there’s a pretty big difference between a British backpacker and a family fleeing death, disease, persecution and torture.

In any case, to my astonishment, a Facebook ‘friend’, who I’ll refrain from naming in the interests of protecting the ignorant, replied to my posting.

The spelling mistakes and poor grammar are hers.

“I’d like to say, gov should detain people who arrive by boat as there is no way identify them. We don’t know if they are fugitive from a crime or they have a contagious disease or so on.”

I think I speak on behalf of all humanoids when I say, ‘There’s some traffic, go play in it.’

FACT NUMBER ONE: People who arrive by boat are mandatorily detained. People who arrive by plane with a visa are not.

FACT NUMBER TWO: There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that people who arrive by boat have a greater level of disease than people who arrive by plane. The claim is simply untrue.

FACT NUMBER THREE: On August 22, 2002, the Director General of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, told the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s Human Rights Subcommittee that of the 5,986 inquiries into every asylum seeker who arrived in the previous two years, not one of them was assessed as being a security risk.

My ‘friend’ forged on, undeterred: “A very little number are genuin refugees escaping from war or discrimination, the rest are seeking better life and I believe they are responsible for their children life and comfort not the others. They risk their children’s life just from ignorance and following smuggelers advice or a member of family in most cases, I can tell more than %95. its a sort of fun for them n follow fashion to go to another country ! And feel no responsibility about their children’s lifes!”

Risking your life in leaky boats across vast oceans is “a sort of fun”? I don’t imagine the 353 people who died aboard SIEV X in October 2001 thought they were having “a sort of fun” as they drowned in the sea south of Java. Nor do I think the 50 people who died off Christmas Island last year thought they were “following a fashion” as their boat was smashed to pieces and they were propelled into the ocean.

I asked my Facebook friend (admittedly in less than flattering terms, with at least one reference to her head being buried in a less than hygienic part of her own body) how she could possibly defend her claim that asylum seekers risked their lives by boat as a “kind of fun”.

“The reason i said its fun for some people is the simple fact that many of them come to this country for center link money (i said some not all) so shut up and again learn some manners you idiotic, rude naive person.”

I’ll cop rude, but I’m refuting idiotic. Moving on… FACT NUMBER FOUR: Asylum seekers who are living in the community receive about 89 percent of the Centrelink monies that everyone else can access. Those held in detention centres do not. Period.

And here’s some more inconvenient truths.

FACT NUMBER FIVE: Around 90 percent of all claims for asylum from boat people are found to be genuine. That compares to around 40 percent from those who arrive by plane with a visa.

In 2000 – the year before John Howard played his Tampa race card – there were 2,688 arrivals by sea. Of those, almost 70 percent – 1836 of them – came from Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries we deemed so despotic that within a few years we helped the United States invade, shortly after bombing the daylights out of them.

Throw in refugees from Iran (one of the so-called ‘axis of evil’ nations) and 90 percent of asylum seekers in the year 2000 came from countries we say routinely commit grave human rights abuses against their citizens. Of course, were these nations to look at, say, the NT intervention, they might level similar claims against us.

FACT NUMBER SIX: Only a complete idiot would hang around and wait for a visa in a country in which they believe they’ll be killed. The fact is, in most countries from which people flee, there is no ‘queue’. You don’t line up to see the Taliban to ask to come to Australia. The term ‘queue jumpers’ is rubbish, and is only used by Australians, a fact recently acknowledged by Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights.

FACT NUMBER SEVEN: Today, there are more than 10 million refugees worldwide. This year, governments around the world will offer places to around 80,000 of them. You can do the math… or I can do it for you. If you join the imaginery ‘queue’ tomorrow, you can expect to be processed within about 125 years.

FACT NUMBER EIGHT: On a per capita basis, Australia, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, is one of the least likely to assist the world’s most disadvantaged.

In 2005, we hosted one refugee per 1,377 residents. By comparison, South Africa – once derided by Australia as the most racist nation on earth – did four times better than us.

The Lebanese – the people some Cronulla residents love to hate – hosted one refugee for every 18 citizens.

Australia takes on just 0.2 percent of the global refugee population, and according to the World Refugee Survey in 2005 “nations with per capita incomes of less than $2,000 host more than two-thirds of all refugees”. Nations with per capita incomes over $10,000 hosted just five percent.

In other words, the countries who can afford to do the most do the least, and the those who can afford the least, do the most.

So, back to the links to Aboriginal affairs. One of the great frustrations for Aboriginal people is watching one of their own turn on their mob. It’s one thing to tolerate ignorance and racism from an ‘average Australian’, but Aboriginal people are required to constantly stare down their own betrayers, those Aboriginal people who say and do anything to win the praise of the white man.

You might have noticed that my Facebook friend speaks in a rather broken English. That would be because she comes from another country. I asked her which, and she declined to answer. But she did suggest she “speaks the same languages” as our asylum seekers.

I have an intense dislike for people born into the privilege of this nation who seek to deny it to those who simply want a better life for their children. But I truly can’t stand those who’ve been welcomed to our shores, and then seek to deny the people who come after them the same enormous privilege. People like my ‘friend’ are among the worst class of humans, the ultimate NIMBYs (Not In My BackYarders). They want entry. And then they want the door closed behind them.

And there’s more in common with the black experience. Having spent quite a bit of time around remote Aboriginal communities, I can assure you one of the most startling realities is the level of racism that you often encounter from white people working there. In short, some of the most overt rednecks ply their trade in black towns.

You can probably guess where this is heading… my friend professes to be an expert on this subject, because, wait for it, she actually works within immigration detention centres. That’s right, my Facebook friend is on the front line of service delivery to some of the world’s most disadvantaged and traumatised citizens. During the week, she stares asylum seekers in the face. And then on weekends, she demonises them.

There’s one other big reason Aboriginal people should take an interest in this issue. While Australians have always had to hate someone, no-one knows the sting of Aussie racism better than Aboriginal people.

Throughout our troubled history – while we’ve directed our fury at the Italians, the Greeks, the Vietnamese, the Lebanese, and now the Sudanese – the one group we’ve hated all along is ‘the blacks’. Thus, no-one is in a better position to understand the demonisation of asylum seekers than Aboriginal people. And so no-one is in a better position to confront it, and call it what it is. Unacceptable.

I know that Aboriginal people have their hands full feeding their own, protecting their own. I see it around me every day. And I know that no-one in this nation understands and lives the tragedy and effects of incarceration like Aboriginal people do. Save, perhaps, for one group.

While we jail black males in Australia at a rate five and half times greater than Apartheid South Africa did in 1993, asylum seekers fare even worse. Through mandatory detention, we now stick 100 percent of boat arrivals behind razor wire. That’s one in every two persons seeking asylum. Only Aboriginal youths are jailed at a comparable rate.

So there is much common ground, a shared history between asylum seekers and Aboriginal people. And through adversity comes allegiance.

In a racist country like ours, Aboriginal people need all the allies they can get.

In asylum seekers – many of whom will ultimately settle here – I believe black Australia will find a grateful friend.

* Chris Graham is a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist, the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and the former founder and editor of the National Indigenous Times. He’s now a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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