Kallista, Victoria

Before leaving Australia in 2006, I told my family that I wouldn’t return until there was a change of government.  Sure, I was being a petulant 20-something, but I really meant it.  John Howard’s xenophobia embarrassed me and it was causing real harm to others.  I spent a lot of time feeling disaffected and bitching about him with fellow Australians in South East Asian guesthouses.

In the blink of an eye, nearly two years passed and I found myself drinking champagne in London at 8am to celebrate ‘Kevin 07’s’ resounding election victory.  The old prime minister had lost his own seat, the new one promptly apologised to the Aborigines and then iced the cake with a speech delivered in Mandarin.  It was all very exciting – but temporary, perhaps.  As I’m yet to come home, I’ve been following the run-up to tomorrow’s federal election from Bangladesh.  I was appalled to read the following statement made by the opposition leader Tony Abbott:

“We will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Uh-oh.  Talk about echoes of the dark and distant past.  John Howard uttered those exact same words in parliament on 6 December 2001.  “Little Johnny” was the second-longest serving prime minister in our history (shame!), and therefore had the opportunity to achieve a great number of things, but Google him today and you will find that the fifth hit, after the encyclopaedic styled-entries, is an article called “John Howard: Muslims Out of Australia.”  And so forth.  With an online legacy like that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the International Cricket Council was able to find a more suitable candidate for the post of vice-president.

I’ve noticed other alarming sentiments expressed by Mr Abbott, and feel compelled to address them, midnight-hour though it may be…

Tony Abbott on people smuggling: 25 July 2010

“Stamping out people smuggling is a way to alleviate people’s anxieties and to reassure them that we are, in fact, sovereign in our country.”

Oh please.  If Tony Abbott was concerned with reassuring “people” (which people? his people??) about Australia’s sovereignty, he wouldn’t be opposed to reopening the debate on becoming a republic.  And he might want to alter the words on the first page of our passports, in order to alleviate any confusion on the part of immigration officials in overseas nations when they read the following:

“The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, being the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.”

But he won’t do anything so rash, because he’s a staunch monarchist.

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. A cabbie told me that this station was meant to be built in India, but the architectural plans were swapped by mistake!

However it’s true that the thought of people being smuggled to Australia makes me anxious – particularly when they arrive on boats.  Are those people dehydrated or malnourished?  Were they tortured?  Have they been separated from their children or partners?  Are we capable and willing to fulfil our legal obligations under international laws as well as our moral obligations to them as fellow human beings?  When the debate between the two prime ministerial candidates degenerated to arguing over whether it is physically possible to turn boats away, I became very anxious indeed.

Labor leader and incumbent PM Julia Gillard, despite also having a tough stance on the issue, gave a response to “the boat people” [refugees] question that I admire:

“I say to those engaged in this type of rhetoric: ‘Stop selling our national character short. We are better than this. We are much better than this.”

At the time when John Howard was accusing asylum seekers of “throwing their babies overboard,” I was a law student at Monash University and I came to know a group of refugees from Afghanistan.  I picked them up from a legal aid centre in Collingwood and drove them to their new home in Dandenong, as they didn’t have money for a train ticket.  I like to think that the favour was returned when three Pashtun men took me along the Khyber Pass to the border with Afghanistan in 2007.   I know it’s corny, but I remembered one of the guys in the car talking about the mountains in Afghanistan when he first saw the Dandenongs in Victoria.

Over the next few months I became good friends with a young man called Habib, who had paid a lot of money to be smuggled to Australia.  He eventually told me why he did it – but not how he got the scars on his face.  He’s now working as a taxi driver in Melbourne and he’s doing really well.

Case study of a person who was smuggled to Australia

Habib was a teenager when the Taliban arrived in his home city of Kabul in the 1990s.  He and his family were kicked out of their home and forced to live in a house with several of their neighbours.  The Taliban installed themselves in this way along most of the main streets, and Habib said that none of the locals knew who the Taliban were, because they shared no particular ethnicity.  This was especially terrifying.  After living in cramped and stressful conditions for many months, Habib’s uncle arrived in the mail – chopped up into small pieces.  Habib decided to leave Afghanistan and he reached Indonesia, mostly by overland routes, several months later.  He paid a hefty amount to spend six months living in a room with around 40 other people who were also waiting to be smuggled – to no country in particular.  Habib did say, however, that the smugglers tried their best to feed everyone adequately.  One morning, the people smuggler boss announced to the group that they would set sail that day.  When Habib saw the size of the boat and the number of people that were attempting to board it, he became very frightened.  The boat sank before it reached Australia, but a Norwegian vessel rescued more than 400 people and placed them onboard the MV Tampa.  The Australian government refused to allow the rescued people onto Australian soil, and quickly passed a new law called the Border Protection Act, which aimed to “determine who will enter and reside in Australia.

Habib spent the next two years in a detention centre on the coral atoll of Nauru (NB: also a sovereign nation) waiting for Australia to determine whether he could enter.  Of course he was grateful to be accepted, but Habib said that those last two years were tougher than the Taliban and worse than anything else he went through.

Rye Beach on a Tuesday morning

It’s my belief that, like his party predecessor John Howard and a growing number of Australians, Tony Abbott suffers from “island mentality.”  Unlike the vast majority of nations, Australia doesn’t share a border with anyone – yet it’s as though we’re turning into the only-child who never learnt to share.  If Australia could somehow spend a year located next to a porous border it could do us a world of good – pardon the pun.  I lived in London for two-and-a-half-years, and was struck by the UK’s (mostly) liberal attitude to immigration.  The government there didn’t even know how many people had arrived, let alone how to stop them!  Tony Abbott has complained that under Labor leadership, the net migration to Australia increased from 210,000 to 300,000.  That’s a few football stadiums worth of people, so we should be worried, right?  Well, at least not until the UK starts freaking out.  Every year, the UK accepts 510,000 people – yet it’s less than a thirtieth of the size of Australia.  And anecdotally speaking, it didn’t seem too crowded to me…  If anything, the diversity and energy, especially in London, was one of its greatest strengths, both economically and culturally.  Furthermore, the UK has granted 250,000 Australians the right to reside in the UK at present, which is nearly the same number of immigrants that Tony Abbott would permit to enter Australia in an entire year.  I’ve not heard him comment on the fact that there are currently 1.3 million Britons living in Australia, but presumably this should also be a cause for concern?

Whilst it’s possible to play around with numbers all day, I’ll add just two further statistics in conclusion.  According to UN figures, in 2009 there were 44 million displaced people around the world.  Last year, Australia accepted less than 3,000.

And finally, I’d just like to say that I know many talented and creative people here in Bangladesh who would be thrilled to live, work or study in Australia.  In my mind, it would only be our loss not to welcome them.


A few weeks later….

I hope the clever person who designed this will regard its reproduction as 'fair use'!!