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You Can't Have It Both Ways

This version 29 June 2003, originally written in July 2001 and published in The Canberra Times

It is broadly accepted that Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock is pretty nice chap. If this were still the days of the Peacock/Howard power struggles, Ruddock would probably be regarded, on issues of social policy and compassion at least, as a 'wet'. So how did he find himself presiding over concentration camps? Administering a policy that drives a man to self-immolation? Signing a letter that consigns the deceased's widow and children to an uncertain existence in Pakistan, sans husband and father?

We see the inmates of the concentration camps periodically rioting. We see accusations of brutality against their guards. We see indictments of Australia's detention policy in international forums. Doesn't look good, does it?

The proposed solution frequently put forward, at least in regards to the general inhumanity of detaining people for months or years despite their innocence of any crime, is to soften the detention policy and allow the inmates out while the status assessments take place.

This is possible, of course. But it would also result in an increase of the number of illegal entries and the melting of many into hiding within Australia's broad lands. Should this happen, Minister Ruddock would no doubt sleep a lot better, but he would be failing in his duty to implement the will of the Australian people.

That is, after all, what he is doing. We may not like the concentration camps, the immolation, the repatriation of innocents to somewhere they don't want to go. But that is the inevitable consequence of what the Australian population apparently wants.

Ruddock is not to blame. He has been handed an impossible task, and there is no way out for him. Because it is his employers, the citizens of Australia, you and me, who are to blame for these terrible injustices. No, we don't vote for walls and wire and kicking out grieving widows and children. We vote for what makes these things inevitable: restricted immigration.

People are languishing in detention centres and Mrs Kayani and her young girls are being forced back to Pakistan because of what has usefully been called the Tyranny of the Majority. It is foolish to think that democratic governmental systems are incapable of injustice. The injustice is merely directed at the politically unempowered. Political empowerment comes, of course, from membership in some identifiable coalition of vote-wielding interest.

No one is less empowered than a person who risks his or her life to pirates and dangerous vessels, arrives in a foreign land with a dominant foreign language, and is subjected to an intricate foreign legal system while being held behind walls and wire.

Some local voices speak out for these people, but these voices are speaking the wrong message.

The immigration debate has two extremes. At one end are those who would like to see immigration rates further reduced. This is made up of some extreme greens who consider humans to be least important species on this planet, and some extreme conservatives who seem to be oddly uncomfortable with exposure to people different to themselves.

At the other end are the 'radicals' who seek in increase in the number of intakes by as much as fifty per cent. Between the two are those who would like a change in the balance of the immigration quotas for the various categories (family reunion, business and so on).

Regardless of the place on this continuum each of us happens to occupy, we are each equally responsible for the maltreatment of those people in the detention centres. Because every position on that continuum advocates a limitation on immigration.

The world has dozens of truly horrible countries. And every nation on Earth is intolerable, for one reason or another, to at least some of its inhabitants. There will always be people seeking to leave one place to go to another. Some of these Australia accepts, calling them 'refugees'. In this we discriminate between people are are liable to suffer active persecution (we let them stay) and those who are suffering passive or circumstantial harm (we lock them up, then kick them out).

No matter how high the limit may be set on immigration, we will still be faced with an implacable opposition between individuals who believe they have compelling reasons to come here, and a government policy that says they can't. There will always be detention centres, or immigration officers by the hundreds chasing those who don't meet the law's definition of refugee, kicking down doors, restraining them, and then sending them away. Out of sight, each of us fervently but secretly hopes, and out of mind.

Because we, the citizens of Australia, have told our government we want it to be the bully boy, the bouncer, to preserve our privilege and keep out the many who wish to join us.

There is only one way to permanently close the concentration camps, to eliminate the injustices, petty and great, that are happening whether or not we choose to notice. That is to open our borders and allow all who wish, and who can make it here, to come and to stay.

© 2001 - Stephen Dawson