On 17 December 2013, in a Senate Committee Room in Parliament House, Canberra former Governor-General Sir William Deane AC launched a collection of essays entitled Refugees and asylum seekers: Finding a better way. This collection, edited by Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak, marked the completion of the first phase of an Australia21 project designed to contribute to the development of a process for dealing with asylum seekers which is fairer and more humane than the one we have been using in Australia in recent years.
Below is a transcript of Sir William’s remarks at the launch, which is published with his permission.
Paul Barratt’s acknowledgment of the traditional custodians, in which I respectfully join, serves to remind us that, apart from Indigenous Australians, we are all migrants or descended from migrants. And that many of us were asylum seekers or are descended from asylum seekers.
My own Great Grandfather came to Australia, with his wife and young family, including my Grandfather who was 7, from Tipperary in 1851 on a wooden sailing ship called the Harry Lorrequer. They sought asylum on this side of the world from the devastation of the Great Famine. After disembarking in Melbourne and time on the goldfields at Ballarat, my Great Grandfather took his family to Wahring near Nagambie in rural Victoria where he became the legal owner of land taken, without compensation, from the Taungurung people. That land provided the basis of his and his family’s subsequent well being.
The first point which I wish to make through that brief reference to a rather typical Australian family history is that we Australians should have understanding and compassion for the actions of those who subject themselves and their families to serious risk of disaster at sea to escape from violence or terror or unbearable hardship and seek asylum in a new country which they dream of making their homeland. We will never know precisely how many of the wooden sailing ships bearing asylum seekers from Europe to Australia in the Nineteenth Century didn’t make it or how many men, women and children died through the awful sicknesses and conditions on the way. The Harry Lorrequer did make it. But parts of the journey were so stormy that some were washed overboard on the way (see footnote (1)) and the youngest of my Great Grandfather’s children, Martin, died as a result of the sicknesses which threatened all on board. Perhaps some would criticise all those early Australians and present would-be Australians for subjecting themselves and their families to such awful risks. Most of us would, however, see them as bravely seeking a better life for themselves and their families in circumstances where they saw or see no really worthwhile alternative.
The other point is that, from the earliest days of European arrivals and constantly thereafter, our country and its people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have faced extraordinary and at times seemingly overwhelming challenges and problems. The challenge which we, as a nation, face in relation to refugees and other asylum seekers who arrive, or attempt to arrive, by boat is a very difficult one. But it is not the most difficult which has confronted our nation. And while it seems to me that there are no obvious complete answers or solutions, I believe that we are, as a nation, capable of dealing with it with both justice and decency. In that regard, it is well to remember that other countries are facing much greater challenges as regards refugees than we are. For example, as the violent crisis in Syria enters its third winter, Lebanon, with a considerably smaller population than ours, is currently engulfed by more than 800,000 refugees.
The book which we are gathered to launch - Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Finding a Better Way - demands the attention and careful consideration of any Australian who is concerned with that challenge. Its contents are of immeasurable national value and importance as a basis of understanding, of discussion, of planning and of hope. The authors of the essays are outstanding Australians with extraordinary expertise and profound practical and theoretical experience in the field. They identify what they see as current problems, difficulties and shortcomings. And suggest what they see as possible lines of investigation, discussion and solution. As the editors explain in their thoughtful Preface, the objective of Australia21 in initiating and publishing the book has been to provide the foundation for the convening of a roundtable of stakeholders and decision-makers next year to examine the feasibility of a fresh new bi-partisan approach.
It is only a couple of weeks since the world’s most respected authority on Refugees, the United Nations High Commission, delivered its assessments of our Detention Camps - officially called “Regional Processing Centres” – on Nauru and Manus Island. There is close correspondence between the published findings in relation to each place. As regards the Nauru Centre, which has been established or re-established for more than a year, the United Nations Refugee Agency found that “the current policies, conditions and operational approaches … do not comply with international standards”, “constitute arbitrary and mandatory detention under international law”, “do not provide a fair, efficient, and expeditious system for assessing refugee claims” and “do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention”. As regards the children who are in our nation’s care and detained on Nauru, the Agency found “the harsh and unsuitable environment ... is particularly inappropriate for the care and support of child asylum seekers” and that “children do not have access to adequate educational and recreational facilities”. Finally, and relevant to the description of the Nauru Detention Centre as a “Regional Processing Centre”, the Agency found that “only one claim for refugee status [had, at the time of inspection,] been finally determined and handed down in the 14-month period since the transfer of asylum seekers to Nauru commenced in September 2012”.
Hopefully, our government and other relevant authorities will, in due course, properly respond to the UN Refugee Agency’s criticisms. But, pending such a response, one cannot but fear that at least some of the findings, particularly those relating to children held in detention and unsatisfactory processing, are justified. If they are, the United Nations Reports diminish our country’s hard won and long justified international reputation as an upholder of human rights and dignity. More important, they give rise to questions relating to our decency and sense of fairness and justice as a community and as individuals which we cannot properly ignore.
In that context, the publication of this book and Australia21’s call for open discussion and dialogue and a search for national consensus about a new and better way come at a particularly apposite time. I sincerely hope that all concerned, particularly the legislators and the decision makers in government and the administrators in the field, will welcome that call and fully participate in any ensuing discussions and exchanges. And that at every stage of such discussions there will be a conscious awareness of the fact that the lives, the wellbeing and the futures of extraordinarily vulnerable human beings, including children, are involved.
Let me conclude by congratulating and thanking all who have contributed to the initiation, writing and publication of this book – authors, editors, publishers and the members of Australia21. I join you all in wishing it every success.
Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Finding a Better Way is formally launched.
(1) In my oral comments at the launch I said: “45 passengers and 7 sailors were washed overboard”. Those numbers were drawn from an unpublished family history. Since then, I have become aware that a contemporary source (The Melbourne Argus of 15 March 1851) states: “35 deaths occurred during the Passage” (WD).
For more information about this publication and how to obtain a copy see Refugees and asylum seekers: finding a better way.