Phillip Adams - Photos,

Phillip Adams – Photo,

PEOPLE have been seeking sanctuary in holy places from the dawn of history. Their entitlement to do so was recognised by the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, though it was Good King Ethelbert of Kent who first codified the right to seek asylum in AD600. Fast forward from Joseph and Mary to Quasimodo in the bell tower of Notre Dame. And to the all-too-few Jews people-smuggled from the Nazis’ human abattoirs.

Not all refugees cross borders. In the US, victims of the dust bowl and Hurricane Katrina – like the millions dispossessed by our interventions in Iraq and the slaughters in Syria – were detritus in their own countries. Think of the Palestinians.

And the GFC has countless “economic refugees” (a new expression of contempt to add to “illegals” or “queue jumpers”) on the move, seeking somewhere, anywhere, to get a job. Soon their numbers will be drowned by the tidal movements of climate change refugees, as rising waters submerge Bangladesh and the Pacific islands, and by the dispossession caused by drought.

It takes a lot to force people to abandon their homes, villages, cultures. It takes “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. From an English decision to evict the Scots from their highlands to the machetes of Rwanda and butcheries of the Balkans. Or the simple crop failure of the Irish potato famine. Such unwilling migrations are central to human history and are destined to increase by orders of magnitude in this century. Judging by recent Australian behaviour the world will fail utterly to cope.

For the past 20 years Australians, whose problems with refugees are minuscule in the scheme of things, have allowed themselves to be panicked and politically herded by politicians into a very dark place. Pauline Hanson fired the starting pistol – and off they went. The Libs, the Nats, and to its eternal shame, the ALP. Turning elections into auctions where each tried to outbid the other in cruelty and stupidity.

For decades we’d kept people of the wrong colour out of this country with a pre-emptive form of ethnic cleansing known as White Australia. In the late 1960s and early 70s we decided we were tolerant – proclaimed that as our national virtue – and scrapped the poisonous policy. Only to bring it back in our incremental responses to “boatpeople”. A term that can be applied to every non-indigenous Australian in this democracy of diasporas. John Howard won his “dark victory” election after Tampa by throwing compassion overboard – helped by Peter Reith slandering asylum-seekers as terrorists and baby-drowners. Now Tony Abbott wants to repeat electoral history – with shameful rants about a few desperate families being the greatest threat to Australian security since World War II – one requiring a military response with its own “three-star general” heading some gimcrack joint chiefs. Turn back the boats? What next? Sink them? Only to find Kevin Rudd outbidding him in the auction. Two leaders who make much of their Christianity are advocating policies that would have Jesus, that brown-skinned Middle Eastern, behind the razor wire.

Since Kim Beazley tossed in the towel over Tampa, Labor’s history on refugees has been disgraceful. People forget Mark Latham wanted to out-Ruddock Philip Ruddock, as did Julia Gillard. And now Rudd. Exaggerating the phoniest crisis in our political history — handing over the governing of this country to shock jocks. Reds under the bed? Now it’s a few browns in boats. Every religious teaching, every ethical precept, every iota of common sense, tells us we’re behaving badly. Yet where are the protests from church and synagogue? Where are the leaders willing to risk unpopularity by proclaiming this simple truth? That our approach to the boatpeople is brutal, bigoted and absolute bullshit.


First published in The Australian – 30.7.2013