Why are us taxpayers paying so much for prejudice? It’s inhumane and a massive waste of money, argues Hillary Bray.

If you listen to the Foreign Minister, you’d think Our Boys were about to go in to tackle Saddam at any moment. Australia has been involved in confrontation with the Iraqi regime militarily and through other means for over a decade now. Yet the Government insists on maintaining a refugee policy that lacks honour and decency and creates extra cost.

The vast majority of would-be refugees to arrive in Australia people fleeing first from Indo-China in the seventies; Vietnam, Cambodia and the People’s Republic of China in the eighties and into the early nineties and, more recently, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have left countries with human rights records that are inimical to most Australians. They scarcely share our values.

No-one can seriously suggest that Australia should be open to all comers but there must be a strong argument that people fleeing these regimes who do not represent a security risk should be allowed to stay.

The Howard/Ruddock current refugee policy and the ludicrous extreme of offshore processing must only appeal to populist authoritarians. It should be anathema to conservatives and liberals alike.

The conservative argument against current practice is best reflected in the example of Malcolm Fraser. While Whitlam described Indo-Chinese boat people as “f**king Vietnamese Balts with all their social and religious prejudice against us” and rejected them on ideological grounds, Fraser recognised that Australia, as both a combatant in the Vietnam War and a nation that shared the values that had lead these people to flee their homelands should accept them.

In February 1979, the Fraser Government was prepared to offer political asylum to Lillian Gasinskaya when she jumped off the Soviet cruise ship she worked on and swam to shore in her famous red bikini. This was scarcely a crucial stage of the Cold War the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would not take place until the end of the year yet the clash of ideologies justified the offer of asylum.

Our troops are in Afghanistan, we have been at war with Iraq and scarcely consider Iran a friend or approve of its government. In the Cold War, we welcomed people seeking to flee the lands of or enemies. Conservatives therefore must argue that we should do everything in our power and work with our neighbours to prevent people smuggling but, at the same time, accept people from countries with a documented history of human rights abuse if they meet security requirements and broadly share our values.

The Howard Government’s refugee policies must be unacceptable for social liberals on basic utilitarian grounds they fail to guarantee the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis are fleeing countries that are illiberal in the extreme.

Economic liberals should be concerned about the monetary cost of current policies. The Jesuit Refugee Service recently estimated the average daily cost of detention in Australia as $115 per person adding that they are much higher for those in Nauru and Manus where, according to the JRS, the Government has already spent five billion Australian dollars.

Phillip Ruddock has claimed that money is being saved in the long run because the current system discourages non-genuine refugees from attempting a trip to Australia.

“Ninety-three per cent of people claiming to be Afghans were in fact rejected,” he said on Wednesday. “So the outcome is of course a very different outcome to one which would have been seen if people had been brought onshore for processing.”

His argument is rubbish. If offshore processing costs more, then parking asylum seekers offshore, no matter what status is finally accorded to them, creates extra costs.

Why pay for prejudice?

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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