History’s lesson lost in election year’s politics of fear

Illust: Mark Horton Illust: Mark Horton

The family wants to leave the country. Although they have enjoyed some prosperity and would be described as middle-class, the political environment has changed and they are frightened. There are rumours: of people being taken away to God knows where. They see their rights gradually eroding. Seeking to travel legally out of the country is a risk in itself. It will bring them under the scrutiny of the authorities with unknown consequences.

Someone knows someone. Someone who will help them get out of the country. It will cost a considerable sum of money. Officials need to be paid to turn a blind eye and passage on a boat has to be paid. They do not know if the destination country will accept them. They will need to leave everything behind. It is dangerous for all involved. There are no guarantees but there is at least hope.

So, one night, the family slips away and, as far as anyone in town knows, just disappears.

Although not based on an actual situation, the above story was typical of the experience of some Jewish families living in Germany in the lead up to World War II. By 1938, approximately 150,000 or 25 per cent of German Jews had left the country, most to America.

An international conference was called at the instance of the American president to address the Jewish refugee ‘problem’. It was held in the French resort of Evian on Lake Geneva with delegates from more than 30 countries in attendance. Each country expressed sympathy to the Jewish plight. All but one country, the Dominican Republic, refused to accept more refugees. One of the Australian delegates, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas White, the Minister for Trade and Customs made this statement: “...we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration ...”

Of course, we now have the benefit of hindsight and I imagine many of us would say, “Well, that’s awful, Australia should have helped these people.” To Australia’s credit, a few months after the conference, we did increase the refugee quota after some especially violent attacks on Jewish people and property in Germany. The trick was, by this stage, legal migration had become very difficult.

We now know the atrocities perpetrated on the Jewish people during World War II and that approximately 6,000,000 European Jews were killed.

I put this to you: if we were not directly involved in World War II, if what was happening to the Jewish people was internal to a handful of countries, would we see the situation differently? Would we see the family I described above as “queue jumpers” and undeserving because they were able to pay to get out of the country? Would we be threatened because they might compete for “our” jobs during these uncertain economic times? Would be see them as “illegal boat people” and a threat to our border protection?

So, here we are. Another election is looming and the two main parties are peddling the politics of fear, chest beating about “turning the boats back” and “breaking the people smugglers’ business model”. We don’t really hear about who these Irregular Marine Arrivals (IMA) are and who is helping them.

How much do you really know about what’s happening in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka? I have to admit that I don’t know a lot. I do know some of these places are deemed to require a significant foreign military presence from countries such as the USA and Australia.

Nor does anyone mention that it is not illegal to seek asylum or to assist people in seeking asylum and that we are signatories to international treaties to this effect.

We don’t hear that, in terms of global statistics, Australia sees only a very small percentage of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Or that, over the years, the non-IMA entrants to Australia (people who usually come to Australia on planes with passports and visas) and in particular people who overstay their visa far outnumber the IMA. However, the IMA seem to get all the media and political attention, most of it negative.

Perhaps what we really need to do is rethink “the problem” in order to come up with a solution that is humane, viable and sustainable. To quote Welcome to Australia, we are talking about:

People seeking a better life.

People fleeing violence and oppression.

People searching for belonging.

People who love their kids.


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