Listen: Julian Burnside in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Australia prides itself as being open and inclusive; the ‘Land of the Fair Go’. However, leading human rights advocate, Lawyer Julian Burnside, QC, begs to differ.
He describes Australia as “the worst in the western world” when it comes to how we treat asylum seekers.
Speaking on Open House at the beginning of Refugee Week, the eminent QC says we are not treating asylum seeker with any compassion. He believes we could and should do much more. He deplores the system of offshore detention, something we spoke about recently on Open House with World Vision CEO Claire Rogers.
Julian Burnside explained the context of his remarks and why he is deeply worried about our national values, during an interview on Open House.
“We take 13,750 refugees per annum. That is generous on a per capita basis but that’s a very small number . The ‘Golden Rule’ is about treating others as we would like to be treated. I can’t imagine, not for a moment, so-called Christians in our government would wish to be treated the way we treat asylum seekers trying to reach safety in Australia.”
Australia accepts more refugees per capita through the office of the UNHCR than any other country in the world. However, fewer than one percent of the world’s almost 70 million refugees are handled through the UNHCR resettlement program. In his statement marking World Refugee Day 2018 (June 20), UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, emphasized that caring for displaced people is an issue for everyone.
“As conflicts emerge, recur, persist and deepen, 68.5 million people are uprooted around the world. Nine out of 10 are in their own countries or countries next door, and the impact is massive – on refugees themselves, and on the communities that open their doors to them. Now, more than ever, taking care of refugees must be a global – and shared – responsibility.” said Mr Grande.
There is no queue
Julian Burnside is very concerned about the shift in how the issue is being framed here in Australia.
“My real concern is the way we have treated boat people since 2001 is gradually, little by little, redefining what we are as a nation. We judge people by what they do and we judge nations by what they do. What we are doing now shows us in a light which is very different than the way we’d like to see ourselves.” says Burnside.
Responding to claims that people arriving by boat are queue jumping or at some advantage over other refugees Burnside said people don’t appreciate that you can’t just turn up to some international refugee receiving point and be given a number.
“First of all there isn’t a queue. So if people say they are queue jumping let them identify where the queue is. But I don’t think anyone who knows about this thinks there is a queue anywhere.” he says.
Redefining our ‘fair go’ values
Burnside believes how we act toward refugees says a lot about our national character and what kind of place we want to live in.
“The second thing is this. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are in a very special position and it’s this – they fall at our feet. We have a choice, we can treat them decently or we can kick them in the head and tell them to go away.”
“We regard ourselves as a decent nation that respects human rights. We regard Australia as a nation that believes in a fair go for everyone. I don’t think there is anything fair about mistreating people who are desperate to reach safety.” explains Burnside.
“It is commonly the case that people who meet a refugee and hear what they have gone through change their mind about how they should be treated.”
There is also a great deal of evidence that, if given the opportunity, migrants and refugees make real and lasting economic and social contributions to their new home. Respected journal, Nature has this week published an analysis of 30 years of data from Western Europe. It refutes suggestions that asylum seekers pose a financial burden.
Unthinkable twenty years ago
Julian Burnside’s lawyerly skills come to the fore as he deconstructs the government line that having tough policies on boat arrivals is actually a humane response due to the danger they may drown.
“There is a subtle argument that the government, and to some extent, the opposition, run. That is that we have to be tough on boat people because we are worried about people drowning. Now to be worried about a person drowning seems absolutely, incontrovertibly, a good argument. It seem like a good thing to worry about someone perishing in their attempt to reach safety. But the difficulty with that is if they were genuinely worried about people drowning, they probably wouldn’t punish the ones that don’t drown- but that’s precisely what they do.” he explains.
“What really worries me about Australia is that the things we are now doing would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.” he says.
To listen to the Open House podcast of this story, click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.