There are reported to be thousands of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere paying large sums to get on boats to Australia in the hope of landing and entering the country in contravention of immigration laws.
The story of the boat people rings a bell with Jews. Throughout our history, Jews have desperately tried to find new havens in order to escape persecution and death. If bribes would get us across borders, we paid. If we needed to be smuggled into a country without any guarantee that we would avoid being sent back, we took the risk. If getting away from danger placed us in a new type of danger, we still did not hesitate. Those who succeeded in escaping the concentration camps, those whose rickety ships landed them on the shores of Eretz Yisra’el – they did not worry too much about negative government policies and blockades. So we can well understand the plight of modern-day refugees who are desperate to save themselves and their children.
It is not enough for Australians to say, “We don’t want you”. The boat people are human beings. Washing our hands of them is hypocritical for a humanitarian democracy. We must have room for genuine refugees. The government plan to say, in effect, “Try somewhere closer to where you come from”, is fair enough, but it still does not absolve Australia of moral responsibility.
Of course Australia has its rules and procedures. Fine, but don’t apply so much red tape and delay that in effect we consign refugees to the death penalty. Jumping the queue and gatecrashing are certainly not fair to those who go through the normal channels, and this has to be controlled – but the best way is to have a more expansive immigration policy, let genuine refugees know that Australia understands their plight, and make it possible for them to make application for entry without feeling it is a lost cause.
Some will say, as has so often been the case when immigration waves were contemplated, “But they’ll take our homes and jobs”, or “They’ll be a burden on the Australian taxpayer”. To the first argument the answer is that migrants do not take homes, they create a need for homes to be built and thus stimulate the building trade; migrants do not steal jobs, they create opportunities for employment. Do migrants become a charge on the taxpayer? Some do, and there is a limit to what the taxpayer can be expected to fund. But an initial welfare allowance could certainly be considered, on the condition that thereafter the newcomers are on their own.
There remains the serious problem of those who charge the boat people exorbitant amounts, supposedly to get them to Australia or some other destination. If such traders in human misery are Australians, there are ways of dealing with them under Australian law. But since it is more likely that they are from other countries, there must be an international effort to try and curtail what they do. In any case, if Australia gives refugees the chance of open and legal entry into the country, the exploiters may find no victims.
(First published November, 1999.)