are human rights only for those born “here”?

The asylum seeker incidents currently occurring around the country have no doubt caused a great deal of angst for many Australians. This has been made clear to me in a number of personal exchanges over the last couple of days.

“They should be more grateful!” some have said, while others have stated, on an apparent whim, that we should deport many detained asylum seekers for their “criminal activity”. This is, sadly, the apparent position of the political spokespeople for immigration in both major political Parties (see Chris Bowen’s comments and Scott Morrison’s comments).

But there is a deep irony with this kind of position (and I am not referring to Australia’s history of European “boat people”, though this is highly relevant).

That irony rests in the fact that Australia, a country that is so quick to judge other nations on their human rights abuses, has a history of human rights violations against the most vulnerable people within its borders.

Harsh? Most probably. But true?

Australia has, in many ways, been a generous and welcoming nation. But in other ways the opposite has been evident. Our treatment of Aboriginal people over the last two centuries comes to mind. Our treatment of asylum seekers, particularly over the past decade or so, has been much the same.

While some have pointed to the recent burning down of buildings at Villawood Detention Centre as cause to punish the refugee offenders, we must see the forest for the trees. For those wishing to discern right from wrong, ask yourself which is the worse crime:

a) the destruction of inanimate property, or;
b) the indefinite captivity of 7000 people who, without charge, are held within the mentally crippling state of wondering whether they will be allowed to stay in the land they have risked their life to enter, or whether they will be forcibly returned to the nightmarish scenario from which they have fled?

Australia badly needs a reality check. On the one hand Julia Gillard has been in China the last few days, discussing among other things the human rights record of the Asian superpower, on the other our human rights record has been lambasted by the international community, not least in the area of asylum seekers (what nerve, Julia!).

Australia’s review by the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva in January found our human rights wanting. We were encouraged by this Council to enact a comprehensive national human rights act (which we don’t have), and also to abolish our mandatory detention laws, which the UNHRC has consistently claimed is in breach of basic human rights standards.

In regards to asylum seekers, who have broken no law in coming to Australia, and most of whom have come from demonstrable conditions of war and persecution, Australia has an international obligation to protect them. But greater action is required in light of the fact that, despite all notions from the media, our refugee intake is remarkably low compared with other nations, both developed and developing. For example, in 2009, Tanzania, with a population of around 42 million, and with far less wealth than Australia, took 322,000 refugees. Australia took just 13,750.

In addition, recent studies on the mental health of asylum detainees have shown almost universally that detention and temporary protection visas damage the mental health of refugees (notable studies that I am aware of have been conducted by UNSW, Medical Journal of Australia, and British Journal of Psychiatry).

Is it not strange, or possibly even depraved, to point out the desperate protesting and destruction of property by detained refugees while ignoring the gross human rights violations of Australia against them?

It would be like jailing a man for stealing a loaf of bread when it was in fact the authorities who were keeping him broke and hungry in the first place (add the fact that the same authorities are fighting a war on his farm so he is forced to find bread elsewhere!)

Before anyone claims that Australia does not have enough money to look after its own before dealing with refugees, let us consider some facts. One is that Australia, by world standards, has plenty of resources to go around for all its inhabitants; the problem is not lack of wealth, but rather wealth disparity – currently the top 10% of wealth holders in Australia own 45% of everything, while the bottom 50% own just 7%.

Second is the fact that any one of the community-based alternatives to mandatory detention (such as those in European countries like Sweden or France) would be much less expensive than Australia’s current practice. It is both sad and funny that being more humane would also mean being more cost-effective, but Australia’s refugee program is trapped under the weight of media hysteria and community ignorance.

While I realise what I have said here does not address anywhere near the fullness of this issue’s complexity (it’s just a short blog post after all), hopefully it will get us thinking about Australia’s human rights record and the way we treat the most vulnerable people in the world. This is not for the sake of sterile political discussion, but for voices and action on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Theologically-speaking (this is, after all, meant to be a theological blog), didn’t Jesus command us somewhere to care for the most vulnerable? I could swear…

Add to this the reality of the image of God in all humans (tarnished or not) and the kingdom ethic of human relationships without reference to race (neither Jew nor Greek), and you have a formidable theological basis for what I have said above. This discussion must, however, await a subsequent post.


Posted on April 28, 2011, in Advocacy, Current Events, Politics, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Matt please help me understand a few things…

    A peruse through the website which highlights that approximately 13000 refugees and asylum seekers arrive in Australaia every year through “onshore” and “offshore” programs. If this is accurate, and then the people that arrive by boat through people smuggling are on top of this and they by their arrival decrease the amount of “onshore / offshore” individuals, how can we say the people that arrive by boat have done nothing wrong. I am loathe to use the term queue-jumper but this is certainly the appearance of things to many.

    I agree with you that I think Australia can and should increase our refugee and asylum intake to at least 20000 per year in the current climate, however this would have to be in my mind driven by the immediate deportation of those who did not come through the official UNHCR channels.

    In regards to long periods spent in detention centres, my understanding is this is not the case for those that bring as much documentation of their previous existances. Colleagues in anecdotal conversations have pointed out that it is ridiculously hard and time consuming to prove boat arrivals bona fides. As a sovereign nation we must be allowed to process these individuals as much for their safety as our own. Surely if “some” of these individuals do not provide documentation for their character and origins (to the point that a few allegedly destroy their own docs) they are just as complicit in their internment as we are, are they not? (This is pointed out in the full knowledge that it is a few and not all.) But the few compound the situation for the rest.

    In regard to those that riot and destroy property… In extreme exasperation, often individuals lash out at others in the hope of doing something is better than nothing… absolutely and understandable. However, rule of law must prevail, otherwise a state of anarchy exists. Many of us are frustrated by life changing decisions, that never gives us the right to harm others, place other lives at risk or lead us to violent confrontations.

    I would be in favour of a processing stream with a points system, that means those with the most information or documentation go to the head of the queue, those with the least docs and info go farther back. Those with abherrant behaviour have points actually deducted.

    I am sure we will disagree on some stuff here, but I would always as usual value your thoughts.

  2. Matt, thanks for bringing up some very important questions surrounding our practices as a country. Just read a great article in the Lancet exploring human rights as a legal measure involving issues of law jurisdiction (which appear in the same vein of ‘government critique’ you have mined into) . Apparently the non- binding nature (believe it or not!) of state principles surrounding issues of health as a human right.

    Nonetheless, this has been the impetus for several pushes in health reform, particularly regarding the ‘individuals right to health’ (ie Universal Declaration 1948 Article 25) enforceable in court; putting pressure on policymakers to be held accountable for the ‘shots they call’.

    The rights of health belonging to individuals is one that can so easily be labelled as efforts in ‘foreign aid’ and ‘consultancy’ that the ‘log in ones eye’ that you speak of; may often turn tired eyes to the review of progressive judicial authorities and local governments having respect for the rule of law (whatever this ‘rule so happens to be in Australia). This has become a rather significant issue in regards to the treatment of people on our own shores, particularly surrounding the often ‘invisible’ issue of Mental Health that I am so glad you have brought up. We as a nation obviously have a lot of reform to be accounted for in the immediate future.

    I end my amble with a quote from Francis Coralie Mullin addressing the Administrator of Union Territories in Delhi, 1981:

    “The magnitude and components of this right would depend upon the extent of economic development of the country, but it must, in any view of the matter, include the bare necessities of life and also the right to carry on such functions and activities as constitute the bare mimimm expression of the human self.”


  3. I must admit I get nervous when people start talking about “rights”. Have you seen the mess in America, they have a Bill of Rights. When we start as a nation demanding our “rights” we overlook the issue that when we live in community, we pretty much give up our individual “rights’ to peacefully coexist with each other.

    In the sense that, I have the “right” in many states to carry a loaded firearm, have you seen how my “right” in this circumstance impacts more often than not too many innocents.

    We don’t live in America, we live in Australia, where we adopt an approach more condusive with, most good for the majority. Please if we’re going to start pushing for individual “rights” let me know early so I can get off and head for New Zealand.

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