In August 2001, MV Tampa, a freighter owned in Norway, was on the high seas south of Indonesia when it picked up a May Day call from Palapa 1, an overloaded people smuggling boat with 438 souls on board. It was reported to be sinking not far from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Observing the long-time law of the sea that he believed no-one should ever violate, Arne Rinnan, captain of the Tampa, went immediately to their aid, taking them on board his boat and sitting them on the open deck. He sailed to Christmas Inland, but was stopped from disembarking his human cargo by the Australian Navy.
There was a stand-off for several days. Rinnan was humiliated aggressively and treated as a criminal.
After the Border Protection Bill was rushed through Parliament and a challenge to it was dismissed by the High Court, we eventually took the refugees from the Tampa and flew them to Nauru, from where most of them were eventually admitted to either Australia or New Zealand.
It was one of the most shameful weeks of our history, and it achieved absolutely nothing.
I grew up in the era of the White Australia Policy, with my family and school teachers instructing me fervently how important it was to keep Australia pure, and protect my father’s job from being taken by cheap Asian labour. I took it to be an article of faith whereby I should live.
This conviction gradually weakened as I began to travel the world and make many friends and business associates among people who were not white and who were more intelligent than me. I also spent a lot of time with Indigenous Australians and came to understand their grief at losing the land they had inhabited for 50,000 years.
When the Tampa incident occurred, I initially approved of it, just like most Australians, as I felt we had to protect our borders. I quickly changed my position as I came to the conviction that what we had done was wrong, legally and morally.
Of course, to believe that something was not right, but find a solution that was sensible, humane and justifiable was another matter. This commenced a long journey of my soul.
I started with the international treaties that Australia had signed, and that most nations were observing. The prime element of them is that if a person is fleeing from persecution in any nation and crosses a border into another nation, that action is legal and they must be accepted as refugees, unless they are found to be convicted criminals.
Either we observe this or we formally repudiate those treaties. We have done neither, despite that fact that there are more than 20 million refugees officially recognised as such by the United Nations. Some nations like Jordan have more than two million within their borders, and look after them better than we do with our much smaller numbers.
Then, my abhorrence of wasting money took hold of me. The offshore processing nonsense that we carry out, and which no other nation does, is a colossal waste of public money. The cheapest and most efficient way to handle refugees will be to process everyone onshore here in Australia at a refugee community established in the Northern Territory. It will also have a touch of humanity about it, as Nauru and Manus are hell holes that reduce people to the status of animals.
The issue will then be to decide who is a genuine refugee and send the rest home within seven days. The problem is that people who are refugees divide themselves into three groups. The first are genuine refugees fleeing for their lives. Second are those who are economic refugees. They are living in poor circumstances and seek a better life. Lastly, there are criminals like the Tamil Tigers or the Taliban, etc.
Only Category One can be allowed in. The other two groups must go back quickly to wherever they came from.
How do we tell who are genuine? With the capability of modern technology to give us access to worldwide data, it can be determined quickly. There is no excuse for taking years to make decisions and have our taxpayers meet an enormous cost because the bureaucracy are not up to handling the job.
Then, when we decide who can stay, we must absorb them into Australian society quickly and humanely. We must scrap the current practice of denying them work for six months or more so as deter others from coming — a policy that is absolutely dumb.
If someone is in fear of their life, the fact that they will be unemployed for a long period will not deter them in the slightest. The assimilation of refugees will require mentors from every segment of our society who are willing to be their community partners and offer friendship in dozens of ways that will give them every opportunity to become good Aussies. It is a volunteering task in which I am already involved and enjoying. But, I am appalled at how so many Australians go out of their way to make refugees feel unwelcome.
So, we need a dramatic change of heart from the politics of the situation. Both sides of Parliament vie with one another to be the harshest and most prejudiced as the appeal is made to get the votes of the lowest form of voter — the racists.
It is a sickening sight as it misjudges the vast majority of Australians who are decent people whose instinct is to give others a fair go and pick-up mates who are doing it tough. The Pollies have got it absolutely wrong as usual.
Perhaps their greatest error is the failure to invest heavily in partnerships with the governments of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to reach agreement on pragmatic means of managing the problem at its source, instead of waiting for boats to reach our shores. I hope that Kevin Rudd will pioneer this in his renewed negotiations with Indonesia.
I learned a lot about the basics of the situation by reading a non-fiction book called, “The People Smuggler”. Written by Robin de Crespigny, it tells the story of Ali Al Jenabi, who was born and bred in Iraq, imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein in Abu Ghraib, then escaped via Iran. He eventually reached Indonesia where he became a people smuggler, sending boatloads of desperate people to Ashmore Reef and into Australia.
Inevitably, the Indonesian Police closed in on him and he fled to Australia where he was imprisoned for human trafficking. Then, he won his freedom to remain here and start a new life.
De Crespigny gives the impression of being a responsible author who has researched her facts. The basics of the story appear to be legitimate and worthy of serious consideration, showing that there is more to the boat people saga than just to declare it all to be illegal.
The tale of Ali Al Jenabi emboldened me to meet some refugees personally, and I have done this on several occasions in Brisbane. Last month, I attended a meeting at All Hallows College with about 100 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. They seemed to be decent people who felt persecuted by the Sri Lankan Police and Army after the Tamil Tigers lost the Civil War, and they appear to highly value the opportunity to be good Australian citizens. I am sure that some of them are economic refugees who were not under threat other than that of poverty and should not have been let in, but most seemed to be legitimate in their claim of persecution.
I am convinced that the refugee problem will not be going away and, indeed, will be with us for at least a generation or much more. It’s time to take a sensible long-term view and handle it with much greater humanity, efficiency and justice than we do now.
It is very obvious that the “Turn Back The Boats” policy is an act of absolute stupidity, as well as being offensive to the people of Indonesia, who are not refugees themselves and who cannot adequately police the shores of the 5,000 islands that make up their nation.
It is also a massive breach of the laws of the sea. We contravened those laws badly when we terrorised the captain and crew of the Tampa who had carried out a humane act to save people who were drowning.
I am delighted that Captain Arne Rinnan received a high honour from the King of Norway for his services to humanity. He is a good guy. Just the way most Australians are when governments do not urge them to act illegally and inhumanely so as to win elections.
Left alone to do the right thing in giving people a fair go and a helping hand when they obviously need it, we shine as human beings.
Finally, can I say that if Aboriginal tribes had stopped the British boat people in 1788, my convict ancestor would not have made it here. So, I am grateful to Indigenous Australians for their tolerance of those who invaded their land. I am also baffled as to how we can revere the First Fleet, yet declare current boat people to be illegal.