This Sunday 20 June marks World Refugee Day, and the start of Refugee Week which seeks to highlight and celebrate the many positive contributions refugees continue to make to Australian society. Given the pending election, it might be tougher than usual for this message to get through amongst the din of fear-mongering about asylum seekers.
In Brisbane, the Liberal National Party are marking the lead up to Refugee Week in their own special way, distributing a leaflet in Wayne Swan’s electorate accusing him of putting a “secret detention centre for illegal immigrants in our suburbs”.
As has been reported in the Courier-Mail, this so-called ‘secret’ detention centre which Mr Swan has purportedly “allowed to open” is actually the long established Virginia Palms Motel, which sits in Swan’s electorate of Lilley. The LNP’s desire to do a bit of good old fashioned grassroots hate-mongering is such that their leaflet kindly relabels this well known local business as the “Virginia Palms Detention Centre”, which I’m sure the motel’s owners and employees are very thrilled about.
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The Liberals have made it very obvious in recent months that they have clearly decided to label asylum seekers and refugees as “illegal immigrants” at every possible opportunity, despite undoubtedly knowing this is a false description. I suppose there’s no point letting a minor thing like accuracy get in the way when there may be an extra vote or two to be won by inciting some hatred.
The leaflet clearly isn’t just some off the cuff thing whipped together by an over-enthusiastic campaign volunteer, or even one of those fake race-baiting election leaflets that Jackie Kelly liked to think of as just a “Chaser style prank”. It repeats the same phrases used by the LNP’s local Lilley candidate, Rod McGarvie, when he spoke to the Northern Chronicle, the suburban paper which covers the area.
That story makes it crystal clear that asylum seekers and refugees are people who should be feared, emphasising that the “boat people hideout” was “in the middle of a residential area and across the road from a school.”
The school in question is actually Nudgee College, one of Brisbane’s two most prestigious Catholic schools. Knowing how much support many Catholic institutions have given to refugees in Brisbane over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the main thing that annoys them about having the asylum seekers over the road is that they aren’t given the chance to properly welcome them, as the federal government is not making it overly easy for people to visit.
Funnily enough, the LNP seem to be completely silent about the fact that asylum seeker families were kept in motels and the like at various times under the Howard government. And about the fact that the only reason this occurred then or now is because both Labor and Liberal are so bloody minded about maintaining a policy of mandatory detention.
What makes this sort of local level fear-mongering even more unfortunate is that the immediately surrounding suburbs contain quite a number of recently arrived refugee families who are in the process of trying to acclimatise and settle into Australian society as permanent residents. Some of them arrived through Australia’s off-shore resettlement program and some have come from Christmas Island after their refugee claims were assessed and recognised. Rather obviously, the process that was followed in their being granted Australian residency has no impact on their appearance.
Regardless of your views on what our laws and policies relating to asylum seekers should be, it should be blindingly obvious that whipping up fear and antagonism about asylum seekers at local level can seriously impair the ability of refugees to settle smoothly and start contributing to and become part of our community.
It increases anxiety and insecurity amongst recent arrivals (and many not so recent arrivals), and increases the prospect that they will be met with hostility and antagonism rather than welcome.
It is a fairly sure bet that during this Refugee Week, there will be some LNP politicians participating in public functions celebrating the wonderful contributions refugees have made and continue to make to Australian society, culture and economy. It is a good thing that they do this.
It would be an even better thing if they could then get those in their party who think it is acceptable to whip up fear and hatred against asylum seekers to realise that their actions are directly undermining and impeding the ability of refugees to make that contribution, and that is far too big a price for Australia to pay just because there might be a few votes in it.