It’s hardly news to say that the Gillard government has a problem with the issue of asylum seekers. Even so, when the Herald Sun editorialises against you for being too harsh on a refugee matter, that should be a signal that something has gone badly wrong.

Yet so it was yesterday, with the case of Antoun (Tony) Nahal, his wife, mother-in-law and six-year-old daughter, who are facing deportation to Egypt as early as this week — despite the fact that daughter Rita was born here and the others have lived in Australia since 2004.

Disclosure first: I know Tony Nahal; he has worked regularly for my firm, Above Quota Elections, as a poll clerk and counter over the last six years. He has been an exemplary employee — sensible, dedicated and reliable. As we put it in a submission to the then immigration minister Kevin Andrews in 2007: “There is simply no question that both Mr Nahal and his wife would make an outstanding contribution to Australian society.”

But this about much more than an injustice to one particular family: it raises the whole question of what it means to become an Australian, and what refugee protection is actually for.

Worldwide, most refugees expect their flight to be temporary and hope to return as soon as possible to their homelands. By far the largest refugee populations are in countries adjacent to the sites of conflict and persecution, where people live in camps and makeshift settlements – sometimes for long periods, but still with the intention to return. Few of them develop a sense of belonging to the country where they happen to be living.

Those who make the long and often perilous journey to Australia, however, are in a different category. They are people who have given up hope of being able to live in their old countries for the foreseeable future and decided to make a new life for themselves. It may be up to us whether we give them that opportunity or not, but to give it and then take it away again is just wanton cruelty.

The official review process has found that the Nahal family are not refugees within the United Nations definition. In light of recent events in Egypt, that decision seems rather dubious. But it also seems academic.

When someone has lived in Australia for years, worked, paid taxes, sent their children to school here, put down roots in the community, surely the question of whether they are a “genuine” refugee becomes moot. They have become Australians, and if they are willing to make the commitment to abide by our laws then we should welcome them.

Instead, too much of our refugee policy has been framed by the notion that people can be expected to return to the other side of the world when conditions there change. We want them to regard Australia as just a big refugee camp, not a new home. Hence the Howard government’s inhuman “temporary protection visas”, still championed by the opposition, which denied even to people who were admitted to be refugees the rights to work, to travel freely or to aspire to permanent residency.

In a way it’s reminiscent of the case of Robert Jovicic, deported in 2004 to Serbia, a country he had never seen, despite having lived in Australia almost his whole life. Yet at least Jovicic had actually committed crimes: the Nahals, and no doubt many others like them, have done nothing wrong.

The Herald Sun‘s editorial contrasted the Nahal case with that of an Indian immigrant convicted of assault who was nonetheless allowed to stay, calling it “bureaucratic madness”. When it comes to refugees, of course, the “madness” has been stoked by the tabloid media in the first place; if it were not so tragic for the lives of real people, it would be amusing to watch them try to rein in the monster they helped create.

Compare our mindless “toughness” on refugees with California, which has just agreed to give state aid to unauthorised immigrants to attend college. Governor Jerry Brown said the measure “benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us”.

Our government, however, persists in denying Australia the benefits that newcomers bring.

I hope that Chris Bowen will see reason in the Nahal case. But even more I hope that this government will start to rethink the direction it is taking with asylum seekers, realise that public opinion is more compassionate than they give it credit for, and decide to focus less on “protecting” our borders and more on protecting the vulnerable people who seek shelter within them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey