Oct 16, 2009

Meet Alex and Brindha: a media savvy bunch of boat people

The latest onset of asylum seekers isn't Rudd's Tampa, because this time the people aren't out of sight and out of mind of the media. Will it make the public care?

Sophie Black

Crikey editor

Andrew Bolt calls this latest boat docked off Merak in Indonesia "Rudd's Tampa". Part of the reason why it's not is because we've seldom seen images like this of boat people. We're never up this close. And we haven't heard soundbites from children before, or very articulate teachers like Alex. Back in the Howard years, asylum seekers were kept well away from the camera. And children were definitely not seen or heard. As David Manne, principal solicitor for the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, told Crikey:
"What we've seen and heard provides extremely compelling evidence of what these people are going through. In the past, in the last decade, the Howard government went to extraordinary lengths to keep asylum seekers out of sight, out of mind, and out of rights. There were very concerted strategies to do, with government instructions or directions to Australian authorities, including the military, to ensure that asylum seekers' identities and voices were obscured. ... This was one of the key, potent propaganda tools to perpetrate this policy, which at its heart sought to deface and and then dehumanise these vulnerable people so that their faces coudn't be seen and their stories couldn't be heard."
The images of today's asylum seekers are not as tightly controlled, but being that they're far away on Christmas Island, the Australian public never really get the chance to get up close and personal. "At the heart of remote detention policy in this country is keeping asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind," says Manne. "Because what's also clear is, and our history tells us this, once the public is able to hear the stories and see the faces of these people, it touches people's hearts and minds." Manne cites the example of rural communities and their role in advocating for refugee rights:
"One of the really important dynamics during the last decade of degeneration in the response to refugees was that one of the most important voices that opposed this was in rural and regional Australia. Many of those people who arrived by boat from 1999 to 2001 from Afghanistan and Iraq ended up living in rural and regional communities and became neighbours, became co-workers, co-parents with kids at school, and friends ... These people became part of the Australian community and some of those communities became some of the most important voices in calling for a more humane and compassionate approach to refugees."
A media scrum has descended on the boat in the dock at Merak, and the asylum seekers are speaking in soundbites. Not only that, these people have names. And cute children. They have clipped accents, they sound educated, they sound smart, they sound desperate, they sound like us. It's a little harder to work the "humane but hard-line approach to border security" angle, to try to outdo the Opposition leader in the hard-arse stakes in fact, when there are images of a small crying child pleading for help immediately preceding your soundbite. This is Brindha:
"We are your children. Please think of us. Please. Please take us to your country. It's OK if it's not to Australia. It is better if any other country takes us."

Somehow the tight-lipped demeanour doesn't go down so well when Alex, the English teacher, has just politely congratulated you on your compassion in the past, and politely asks you to continue to extend that compassion. Alex has left behind his pregnant wife in Jaffna. He said this to the media scrum:
"If you had no place, if you had no country of your own, what would you do? And how long would you stay in a boat before you were able to enter a country that will give you asylum?" We are not animals. We are not dogs. We are not stray dogs. We are people without a country to live in."

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9 thoughts on “Meet Alex and Brindha: a media savvy bunch of boat people

  1. michael james

    All very emotional stuff, but if we look past the media-awareness of their spokesperson, here are the cold hard facts.

    If Alex, Brindha and their 220 compatriots do manipulate the system to ensure that they get a refugee place, then 224 persecuted Africa refugees will have to wait in a squalid hell hole of a refugee camp somewhere in Africa for another year, as their places were taken by the well heeled and well spoken arrivals from Sri-Lanka.

    Given reports that these people managed to pay $10-15,000 a place for a seat on that boat, had obtained a passport and visa to leave Sri Lanka by air and live for a period in Malaysia, the case for their claim of refugee status appears to be increasingly shaky, hence the emotive appeals to bypass the system and be accepted.

    Ask yourself this, what makes them more deserving than a refugee from the Darfur Genocide? Is it the fact that they have money and speak English in media friendly soundbites?

    Australia’s refugee intake (which has declined somewhat from the high of over 14,000 under Howard to just over 13,000 under Rudd) can be argued that it is too small, too large or just right.

    What cannot be argued is that running a system that rewards people arriving by boat having paid thousands of dollars to do so, over true refugees from places such as Sudan, makes a mockery of any claims either side of politics may make of running a true refugee policy.

  2. David Roberts

    Watching the reports I couldn’t recall refugees being interviewed (only after they were granted asylum). They wouldn’t jeopardise their request doing this in the country they were travelling to. Interesting set of circumstances generating such coverage – Rudd asks SBY to intervene, Navy obliges, media coverage with children and people Westerners can relate to, which must embarrass Rudd (one thinks they could have kept the media away). Indonesia then looks for aid to handle more refugees. In time Rudd will regret this path.

    As an aside and more along the line of what Michael is saying – I didn’t find Brindha at all convincing. Maybe I’m a jaded, cold-hearted beast – still I’d be very happy to see their asylum being granted. Good to see this was picked up Sophie.

  3. Greg Angelo

    As you sow so shall ye reap the good book says. Another proverb says you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Notwithstanding the pros and cons of refugees and or illegal immigrants, the current government’s relaxation of the harsh regime administered by the previous government, whilst electorally popular with the chattering classes, has arguably provided a stimulus for people smuggling. The recent upsurge in numbers would support this assertion.

    It is the people smugglers, whether their clients be true refugees or economic immigrants who make money out of this vile trade. One also has to ask why Australia is the destination of choice? The answer is quite simple. Once you get here, the returns are so high to the individuals concerned that they take the necessary risk to get here. True refugees could happily settle in any one of the countries they have travelled through to get here.

    By relaxing the controls the government is encouraging more of this activity but it will not face up to the reality that relaxation of these controls is probably a significant cause of the influx. People smuggling by boat is but one channel of illegal immigration, and overstaying visas and shonky training colleges are much greater source of illegal migration into this country. Perhaps if the government cracked down on those alternative channels, it could provide more opportunity for genuine refugees to come to Australia. Unfortunately this would involve a policy decision which would upset the growing number of ethnic diasporas , especially as once illegal migrants get a foothold in this country it is difficult to get them out.

    So the simple solution is to look good by relaxation of controls at home for domestic political consumption, and get the Indonesians do the dirty work for you. That way you can play the good guy at home and use the Indonesians as your police.

    It would be much better if the government, if it wishes to control illegal immigration jointly to reinstate the harsh controls provided by the previous government and strictly enforce the rules in relation to illegal migration through overstaying of visas. Then as a consequence we could increase our intake of genuine refugees, identified through United Nations agencies and not by some self assessment process facilitated by people smugglers.

  4. corbie68

    Whether someone has money or not is beside the point of defining who is a refugee or not, I got the following from the UNHCR website:

    “The most important parts of the refugee definition are:
    Refugees have to be outside their country of origin;
    The reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution;
    The fear of persecution has to be well-founded
    The persecution has to result from one or more of the 5 grounds listed in the definition,
    that is race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political
    They have to be unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country.”

    Considering the history and recent events in Sri Lanka these people are most likely to be refugees, it doesnt matter that they are middle class and well educated much the same as the people who are fleeing imprisonment, torture and possibly death in Iran after the failed pro-democracy protests earlier this year.

    Also if you look at the history of why there is a refugee convention in the first place, it was in response to the failure of many countries around the world to absorb Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and who paid to board ships (with money earned from their businesses or middle class professions) which were then turned away by countries like Australia (I don’t know the specifics but you get the idea, and we’re still at it of course!)

    OF course this doesn’t mean that it is fair on people waiting around in squalid refugee camps in Africa having also escaped unimaginable horror, but as they say the whole situation is unfair – so much conflict, so much injustice.

    As a result of the unpredictable nature of global conflict and repression, and the fact that we are signatories to the UNHCR unlike Indonesia and Malaysia we do have to deal with people on a first come, first serve basis, so quit the spurious Howard era rhetoric.

    Also you comments remind me of definitions of the “deserving poor” eg. pensioners vs. the “undeserving poor” eg. unemployed.

  5. Jenny Morris

    A funny thought occurred to me yesterday while watching this footage. More than ever, people are on the move in the world . Refugees, but also professionals (and ordinary working folk), popping across to the US, UK, Asia, Europe, for a spot of work and lifestyle. We’ve recently heard stories in the media of parents of eg. autistic children, leaving Australia to live and work in England, so their children can access apparently better support services.

    Strikes me that’s all people like Alex and the other unfortunates on this boat want – a better life, something different, a chance for freedom. Only in their case, there are “push” factors like religious and racial discrimination, and in some countries, worse.

    Why does it surprise, astonish or offend us that people want a better life somewhere else than where they live now? It’s trendy if you’re off to New York or London to work for law or accounting firm, or to work in a pub, but if you just want a safe life for your children, you’re an illegal immigrant, an “economic refugee” which seems to be the worst the Liberal party can throw at someone.

    We are privileging some movements over others. Got dual citizenship or a blue chip professional job? Come on board. Being persecuted? Bugger off.

    Someone who is willing to risk all this for their children strikes me as the kind of have a go type this country has been energised by for many years. And not very different from the parents who pay thousands for their offspring to attend private schools.

  6. ..fred

    sure, taking the boat people is supporting the people smuggling trade

    (aside…why is people smuggling a vile trade?)

    but denying them is supporting the genocide, the torture, the hardship, the dictator

    (after all what is a dictator without his oppressed..just a dick, no?)

    which would you prefer to support?

  7. Tom McLoughlin

    well said Fred. Science Rudd is a sound bite looking for a moral principle, not realising it’s already a puddle next to his office wall.

  8. Glenn Brandham

    C’mon Fred. Under the other regime, SAS were used illegally to board the Tampa, refugees were then used by Peter Reith to inflame the population, with plenty of assistance by perps like Andrew Bolt, in order to whip up a frenzy of stupidity which resulted in Iraq being fingered for the deeds of Bin Laden and INVADED and DESTROYED, all in our grand country’s name. Meanwhile Bin Laden is still apparently free, so is Bolt, so is Reith…Rudd is doing something quite legal and heck, we even get to see and hear of the plight of some of these scary and dangerous refugees.

  9. michael james

    Sorry Glenn, your grasp of maritime law is a bit shaky.

    The Tampa was within Australian territorial waters, and had failed to comply with the orders of the relevant authority (the Commonwealth) and was then boarded by representatives of the Commonwealth to enforce the orders of the Commonwealth.

    Similar to the arrest of the Pong Soo off the NSW coast or the arrest of illegal fishing boats in the waters off Heard Island. These two were ships breaching Australian laws by refusing to comply with the orders of the legally constituted national authorities responsible for the waters in question.

    Thus they were boarded, including the Tampa, all legal and above board despite your objections to the actual rights or wrongs of the situation.

    The Tampa incident had no bearing on the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan which followed the September 11 attacks on the US.

    They were refugees from Afghanistan yes, but their nationality had nothing whatsoever to do with the war in Iraq and almost no bearing on the conflict in Afghanistan and the Taliban forces resident there with the active support of the Afghan government..

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