Monday, July 22, 2013
Those of you living in Australia will certainly be aware of the issue of asylum seekers travelling from Indonesia to Australia in barely seaworthy vessels. Many hundreds of lives have been lost as a result of this very risky strategy. I'm not sure how widely this issue is reported overseas. I know that other countries face their own issues with asylum seekers. The issue is extremely politicised and polarises the Australian population. Politicians are tempted to propose what they perceive to be potentially vote-winning hardline policies. Many people in our society seem to expect a quick fix to this worldwide problem.
At the end of 2010 there were approximately 15.4 million refugees around the world. Different sources provide different figures for this, but let's be clear that it is a great many people. If the Australian Human Rights Commission is to be believed, this number has been falling over the last few years as several million people have been repatriated. Let's be clear that 'refugee' and 'asylum seeker' are not synonymous. Many asylum seekers are not, finally, granted refugee status. It is difficult to find reliable figures for the total number of displaced persons; and even the 'official' sites do not always seem to maintain a clear distinction between the number of asylum seekers and the number of 'genuine' refugees. There may be as many as 43.3 million 'displaced persons' around the world.
OK. So we have established that the whole asylum seeker/displaced person/refugee issue is huge, and possibly intractable, unless we think we can suddenly fix all the many problems that force people to leave their homes. There are many reasons for this, of course, among them: war, famine, persecution, flood, and so on.
The main point I want to address here is what seems to me to be the incredibly narrow definition of refugee according to the UNHCR. Here it is: A refugee is someone who,
owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country...
So someone fleeing their country because of war, famine, flood or any other reason that does not include this element of persecution, can never be considered a refugee under the guidelines of the UNHCR. This seems to me to be a ridiculously narrow definition of refugee given the present economic, political and environmental state of the planet. It was devised at a time when it was necessary to protect certain ethnic and religious groups from persecution. This need remains. But it seems extraordinarily lacking in compassion to refuse refugee status to someone who flees their country because it is being torn apart by civil war, or because it is no longer able to provide enough food for its population, or because (as could happen in the future) it disappears under the rising ocean.
Australia, as a signatory to the Refugee convention, is only under an obligation to grant asylum to those who meet this very strict definition of refugee. Does not compassion demand more of us as a nation? Rather than seeking to narrow the eligibility of the selection criteria, don't we have at least a moral obligation to broaden them? I am not suggesting that Australia goes it alone down this path. But there is talk of revising the Refugee convention, which, after all, was put in place to deal with a fairly specific issue at the time. Let's not be fooled, though, into thinking that this will in some way diminish the problem. The only compassionate and humanitarian way in which the convention can be revised is by broadening the definition of refugee to reflect the current state of the world. This will mean that more, not fewer, people will need to be granted asylum. At the moment we are not even scratching the surface.