THE most important lesson of the remarkable SBS program “Go Back to Where You Came From” was the sad misjudgement that lies at the heart of our refugee program.
It goes by the rubric of “mandatory detention” which was introduced by the Keating Government in 1992 and came into force in 1994. At the time the “wave” of boat people – mainly Cambodians and Chinese – was less than 500 a year. Chinese boat arrivals peaked at just over 1000 in 1994. The refugees were processed on the mainland and the overwhelming majority granted visas.
The concept was enthusiastically embraced by the John Howard’s Liberals and over the next few years a new and potent element was introduced. The refugee focus shifted from our region. The war in former Yugoslavia, together with George W.
Bush’s Iraqi disaster, meant that an increasing number of boat arrivals were Muslims. And, of course, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist confederates – Muslims all – were the enemy.
Then Tampa won Howard an election and not only were we fighting them on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in 2002 their fellow religionists in Indonesia committed the Bali bombing atrocity.
After that, the Labor Party – dominated by the “whatever it takes” attitude of the NSW Right – threw principle and humanity to the wind and joined the rush to the political underbelly.
Kevin Rudd, to his great credit, tried to stop any “lurch to the right”, but by then the civil war in Sri Lanka had added to the arrival numbers and while he sought a more humanitarian regime, not even he was prepared to tackle the real demon embedded in the heart of the issue: mandatory detention itself.
Indeed, his Christmas Island solution only seemed to magnify the issue and provided the Liberals, led by Tony Abbott and the egregious Scott Morrison, with the chance to fire up the darker angels in our nature.
They are not fools. They know – as indeed does Julia “lurch” Gillard – that the moment you fence off a group of people from the rest of the community you devalue and eventually dehumanise them in the eyes of the majority.
History abounds with these lessons, from the slave trade to the Jewish holocaust. All it needs is a roll of barbed wire and those inside become the “other”. And we’re prepared to abandon all our better angels in our treatment of them.
The SBS program brought this home like a knife to the heart. It also revealed just how fatuous both the Nauruan and Malaysian “solutions” really are.
The truth is that we could absorb 15,000 refugees – including 3000 boat people – each year into our 21 million-strong community with barely a ripple. And they could be “processed” while living and working with the rest of us.
SBS revealed quite starkly the way face-to-face meetings dissolve the barbed wire of prejudice. It also showed that it’s not too late – hatred and political opportunism do not have to define us as a nation. We’re better than that… or are we?