“… owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

That’s what the 1951 Refugee Convention (as broadened by the 1967 protocol) says about the term “refugee”. That’s the test of whether asylum seekers need our protection, the test of whether people are genuine refugees or are instead the “economic migrants” some believe are unfairly filling the refugee quota. The only test.

This is delicate stuff. New PM Kevin Rudd said he wouldn’t “lurch to the Right” on boat people before his knifing in 2010, now he’s apparently telling caucus colleagues he won’t “lurch to the Left” on the issue either. Desperate economic migrants — who deserve compassion, if not protection — may be crowding out people in even more desperate, life-threatening situations. Reviewing the assessment procedures around asylum seekers is a worthy exercise.

But is it so much to ask that we review it in a calm, considered way? Opposition Leader Tony Abbott insisted today the “vast majority” of boat people aren’t “fair dinkum” and they’ve got to “come in the front door not the back door”. He has no proof, and the rhetoric is inflammatory.

In a political climate that vilified Labor’s Ed Husic, the new parliamentary secretary to the PM, for swearing on the Koran, both sides of politics need to tone down the language and wait for the facts. We live in hope.

Peter Fray

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