We Are All Boat People

By Shira Sebban – posted Monday, 21 May 2012

We Australians are a caring lot. We are so worried about asylum-seekers risking their lives on leaky boats that we want to dissuade them from taking the dangerous ocean voyage in the first place.

If they actually make it to Australian waters, the Opposition wants to turn the boats around “when safe”, while the Government’s ideal would be to resurrect the Malaysia deal and send the “queue jumpers” to the back of the line.

Both parties agree that offshore processing should be resurrected as a deterrent to the ever-increasing “illegal” hordes encroaching on our shores. The only problem is they can’t agree on precisely where that processing should occur.

Meanwhile, the true motives of boat people are questioned. Are they genuine refugees or merely economic migrants, daring to pick and choose where they would like to live? After all, they seem to be able to afford the exorbitant fees charged by the people smugglers.

Those who manage to reach our shores are routinely placed in mandatory detention, where they can languish for years – thereby hopefully discouraging their fellow countrymen from following their example. As for the relatively lucky few, who are now, if begrudgingly, being processed onshore and released into the community, how dare they get “preferential treatment”, enjoying such luxuries as television and a microwave when Australian pensioners are so badly off? Not to mention the jobs they could eventually take away from Australian workers…

The more I read of how much we care, the more puzzled I become. Surely, the solution is obvious: Why not simply improve the efficacy of “legal” channels used by “genuine refugees” to reach Australia “legitimately”? As a start, we could increase the speed at which the 16 million or so refugees languishing in camps around the world are processed. After all, to quote the Coalition: surely we want “to give Australians the confidence that only those invited to come to our country will enjoy the safe haven of our nation”?

But what about those who can’t seem to wait for an invitation and simply show up? Shh… don’t tell anyone, but there actually isn’t an orderly and polite line of refugees waiting patiently somewhere out there, preferably outside an Australian embassy or consulate.

The world according to refugees is chaotic and desperate, as it always has been. And usually it is only those with an urgent need to flee some immediate danger, who would be prepared to ignore any deterrent to make that dangerous journey on a leaky boat themselves or to send their children to freedom, an entire village scrounging around to pay for the “lucky” one or few … I should know: my family history is full of stories of boat people, as I’m sure, is yours.

My father’s father was fortunate enough to be allowed to settle in Toronto, Canada, after escaping the pogroms of Ukraine, arriving on Ellis Island in 1913 as a teenager with his widowed sister and her three children. No one “invited” them to come. A few years earlier, his future wife and her family had docked in Halifax in Novia Scotia after fleeing the Polish township of Lodz. While they would struggle with poverty during the Great Depression and my father would have difficulty finding a job in the Toronto of the 1940s due to his foreign-sounding name, they grasped at the opportunity to make a better life for themselves – still the aim of the majority of boat people to this day.
In 1925, my mother’s parents had the foresight to leave Poland for Palestine, thus avoiding the fate of much of the rest of the family, which was decimated by the Nazis some 15 years later. Then, on the eve of World War II, when my maternal grandfather was unable to find work to feed his young family, legend has it that he went down to the harbour in Tel Aviv where he found two ships, one destined for South America and the other for Australia. Fortunately, he boarded the ship bound for Melbourne where he settled in 1938, finding work as a laundryman. Today, he would be called an economic migrant, who left his home in search of a better life elsewhere. What shame is there in that? Isn’t that how your family progressed too? How many non-indigenous Australians can say they have been here since time immemorial?

Australia may have proven to be a safe haven for my grandfather, but the society he encountered was very closed. The White Australia Policy was in full swing, and 1938 was the very year when Australia’s Trade and Customs Minister Thomas White spoke against large-scale Jewish immigration at the Evian Conference, stating that “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”.

After World War II, however, my grandfather, like many others, took advantage of the gradual opening of Australian society and the start of the waves of post-war immigration to bring out the other members of his family by boat, beginning with my mother in 1946.

Others were not so fortunate. Who remembers the MS St Louis today? I recently retraced the infamous “Voyage of the Damned” during a visit to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. The story of the ship dispatched by the Nazis on 13 May 1939, carrying close to a thousand hopeful German Jewish refugees, only to be rejected first by Cuba and then by the US and Canada, remains seared in my memory.

After 40 days spent largely hovering off the coast of “the free world”, all avenues in the endless rounds of complicated negotiations were seemingly exhausted, and the “ship of shame” returned to Europe. Hitler had apparently been right: people seemed largely indifferent to the fate of those “filthy parasites”, despite the fact that they had paid the equivalent of thousands of dollars attempting to satisfy visa requirements. While several European countries were persuaded to provide the refugees with temporary shelter, close to a third would eventually perish in the Holocaust.

A memorial to the victims of the St Louis, erected last year in Halifax and known as the Wheel of Conscience, blames their rejection on hatred, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The passengers had been expected to “wait their turn” as the US, increasingly resentful of refugees, who were seen as competing for jobs made scarce during the Great Depression, did not even fill its restricted quotas – a fact only officially acknowledged 60 years later.

Sure, Nazism on the whole is dead and gone and those asylum seekers we reject today are not going to share the fate of those poor souls of yesteryear. But most of those who reach Australian waters are eventually found to be genuine refugees, even if they do not arrive with the appropriate documentation.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. To deter those who, according to the 1951 UN Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, have the right to seek protection from us and all other 147 signatories, is to ignore our obligations as a democratic nation. We would be returning people to a situation where they run the real risk of persecution, or transferring our responsibilities to a third country, usually among the world’s poorest. Sadly, refugees have come to be seen as a “burden” rather than as people who can make a real contribution to their adopted home.

We do not choose our families or where we are born. As my own story shows, a quirk of fate can mean the difference between a life of freedom and the chance to acquire prosperity and a life of misery and subjugation. All we can do is to make the best of the cards we have been dealt. Human effort is the key to survival and improvement.

This point was brought home to me recently when my family celebrated Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, with a Ukrainian couple and their teenage son. Although they had managed to find a new home in Sydney 20 years ago, this was the first time they had participated in such a celebration. “The Soviet Government tried to make us like everyone else,” the father told me. “They destroyed our synagogues. We did not have any Jewish libraries or books.” He was born near Kiev, the same city as my paternal grandfather, who had escaped to Canada about a century ago. Had he not done so, my own life experience could have been very different.

As I write these words, I sit surrounded by more than a hundred children of diverse creeds and cultures – a microcosm of modern Australian society – attending a chess competition in an RSL hall in Lidcombe in Sydney’s west. The room contains so many of the best elements of being Australian: Friendly rivals united by common interests, learning new skills and aspiring to improve. I cannot help but feel pride every time I come here.

Surely whether born here or only recently arrived by boat or by plane, we all share aspirational goals to make our way in this still relatively “lucky country”, which has given our families such a precious opportunity. Let’s not deny that opportunity to others.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should shoulder all the world’s refugees on our own. Nor should those people smugglers and others, who take unscrupulous advantage of the vulnerable, escape prosecution.

But even now, with the onshore processing of asylum seekers, the “floodgates” have not opened, despite fears to the contrary. In 2010 – the year when the largest number of boat people reached our shores – there were around 6500 unauthorised arrivals. Last year saw a total of about 4500 boat people, roughly half after the Government announced onshore processing arrangements last October. So far this year, about 40 boats have arrived, carrying around 3000 passengers. Compare this to the vast numbers who arrive here by plane or who access Europe or the US by boat. Australia is just too far away or too hard to reach by boat other than by the truly determined and desperate.

What I am asking for is a little kindness and understanding for those less fortunate than ourselves. After all, there but for a quirk of fate go I… and you… and indeed, the majority of Australia. And if you were that desperate, wouldn’t you want someone to extend a hand to you, as indeed was extended to your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents?
About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children’s school.

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Author: Shira Sebban

I am a writer and editor, passionate about helping refugees and about exploring the challenges life throws at us through my writing. A former journalist, I previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. I am a member of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS) and have also served on the board of my children’s school for the past 13 years, including three terms as vice-president. My work has appeared in online and print publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Independent Australia, New Matilda, Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward and Online Opinion. I can be contacted at sebban@tpg.com.au

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