In the lead-up to the Palm Sunday refugee rights rally tomorrow, pressure continues to mount on the government to change a refugee policy dubbed torturous by many. Yet most Australians still back the government.
After condemnations from the United Nations and Amnesty International, you would think the injustice of boat turnbacks and indefinite offshore detention would be evident to the voting public. But perhaps it is not that clear.
The right has hardly been fought on their own territory—few in commentary or social movements have used right-wing logic to undermine tough stances on refugees. But undermining a right-wing consensus behind the asylum agenda of the day might be the key to undermining the agenda altogether.
We also know that political decisions are made to win over undecided voters. The more reasons there are for changing our refugee policy, the more groups will vote for pro-refugee parties—pressuring the government and opposition to change the agenda.
So, what does the average Aussie think about refugee policy? Well, it’s complicated.
Based on polling from the ABC and the Lowy Institute, most Australians want to take in more refugees and believe migration is not economically detrimental.
However, most Australians also believe boat arrivals should never be settled in Australia. Also, an increasing majority of Australians consistently support boat turnbacks (75 per cent of LNP voters, compared to 28 per cent of ALP voters). And a vast majority of Australians believe asylum seekers are a threat to Australian interests.
Contrary to popular perception, most Australians want more refugees. But there is a proviso: that refugees be legal. A conservative case needs to respond to this issue and dismiss detention and turnbacks as unjust and impractical.
The Old Testament argues clearly that legality is insignificant. Native or immigrant, we were all created in God’s image and descend from Adam and Eve, and are all entitled to equally compassionate treatment.
After all, God’s prophets were once refugees, who hardly had sovereign permission as they entered the promised land.
Leviticus 19:34 says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.” Or take Jeremiah 22:3: “Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner … do not shed innocent blood in this place.”
In the New Testament, Christians are told to fight for refugees’ freedom and treat them with equal compassion. Just as Christ intervenes in an unjust world, Christians—particularly lawmakers—are called to end refugee suffering.
Obviously, for the conservative, the law is the core of a well-functioning society But for most boat arrivals there is no legal avenue.
Many refugees cannot access passports because their governments refuse to issue them. Or they are persecuted in their home country or flee so quickly they have no time to apply for one. This makes ‘legal’ plane arrivals near-impossible for many. While the UN conducts refugee status determination in war-struck countries and countries without resettlement procedures, access is limited.
Moreover, offshore detention of boat arrivals violates standards of accountability and transparency we should expect from our public institutions. The withholding of information about detention centres and the censoring of government staff should raise alarm bells—taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent.
When abuses occur, it is even harder to hold the government accountable. The camps are subcontracted to dodgy security companies outside of Australian jurisdiction in overseas territory. This practice rejects the Anglo-liberal tradition of democratic accountability, sustained since the Magna Carta.
There are alternatives. Detention costs $655 per person, per day—a grotesque waste of taxpayer money. But consider placing refugees in the community under case management—something trialled in Australia with a 96 per cent retention rate—which costs between six and 38 dollars a day. Even onshore detention is cheaper. It is fiscally responsible to #bringthemhere.
Why should conservatives oppose boat turnbacks? The principle of proportionality. Refoulement is not an appropriate punishment for arriving illegally. Forcing minorities back to the persecution they flee is often an effective death penalty—the government is wilfully sending people home for slaughter. This punishment trivialises the right to life—and while it may stop death at sea, it only does so by pushing it onshore.
These arguments are not exhaustive. But there are countless cultural and practical issues with our refugee policies that should offend any principled conservative. It is time we take these points to the right and shift the political centre.