Post-Malcolm Fraser, there has been something grossly immoral about Australian government attitudes towards asylum seekers and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is showing that he, too, is not immune from this trait. For the leader of one of the richest countries in the world to call the President of a developing world country that is struggling to lift millions out of poverty in order to save the political skin of the former is sickening, but this is exactly what Rudd’s weekend plea to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono represented. And never mind that a group of desperate men, women and children fleeing a life-threatening situation now have a likelier chance of dying, courtesy of the selfish Rudd.
Rudd’s phone call to President Yudhoyono pleading with him to have the Indonesian navy “swoop” on a boat load of 260 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka — where a ghoulishly triumphant government is making life hell for anyone it suspects of being Tamil — was made simply because his government’s Christmas Island facility would have exceeded its capacity of 1200 if the boat had arrived and Rudd might have to contemplate doing the humane and sensible thing and allow these people to be processed on the vast Australian mainland.
While not quite up there with Tampa and the Pacific Solution for sheer cravenness, Rudd’s conduct does not bode well for those who thought Australian politicians might be overcoming their weird fear about what to do with a handful of refugees.
What is Rudd going to do next time? Ring his buddy, SBY, and ask him again to get the sailors out to deal with these naughty people who, in the complete absence of timely and fair official channels, resort to a market solution in the form of people smugglers to find a better life for themselves and their families? Given the fact that 80% of the world’s merchant trade passes through, or close to Indonesian waters, and the Indonesian navy has barely enough equipment to undertake its domestic duties this would seem a little unfair on Rudd’s part.
Then there is the fact that in seeking to push asylum seekers back to Indonesia, Rudd is increasing dramatically their chances of being sent home to persecution or death. The Age reported on September 12 that 376 Afghan asylum seekers in Indonesia were offered money to return home. No wonder, given that Indonesia has, according to figures released by the UNHCR last month, recorded a 925% increase on the numbers of Afghan asylum seekers alone in the first eight months of this year, compared to the whole of 2008.
Rudd and the rest of the Canberra political elite, particularly those in the heartless Liberal Party such as its migration spokesperson Sharman Stone, might care to examine if they think Australia has a moral obligation to help Sri Lankans displaced by that country’s war. On any analysis a country such as Australia, rich and democratic and with ample capacity to cater for the needs of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka who face a long-term wretched future in refugee camps, has such an obligation.