Bring 100,000 tsunami refugees to Australia, fast


Bob Gould

The awesome scale of the natural disaster around the Indian Ocean rim has moved the world, including Australia, deeply. Australian doctors and nurses, military personnel and Federal Police have volunteered in large numbers, and are doing courageous and dangerous work in immediate disaster relief with the full support of other Australians, who are responding generously to the relief funds. The enormous proportion of the disaster is brought home to Australians by our increasing connections with the region. Many relatively recent migrants have relatives in the affected areas. Southern Thailand in particular is a favorite Australian tourist spot, which is why the Australian victims are largely concentrated there. The Australian Government has pledged an initial $60 million in immediate disaster relief, a good start.

The question in the minds of many Australians is what more can we do?

What will be most effective?

There are some historical precedents. Immediately after World War II, the then Labor Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, was personally shattered when evidence of the brutal Nazi holocaust against the Jewish people in Europe was confirmed.

Calwell’s response was to bend the existing immigration rules, and to even dedicate a special ship to bringing holocaust survivors to Australia. For this he was reviled by some newspapers and anti-Semites, particularly the recently deceased conservative MP Joe Gullett, who made an extraordinary anti-Semitic speech in the Parliament. Nevertheless Calwell stuck to his guns and those holocaust survivors have contributed enormously to Australian life.

The Vietnamese boat people

After the end of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who supported the losing side in that civil war took to the south China Sea in small boats. To his great credit, Malcolm Fraser, the then Liberal Prime Minister, adopted a proactive attitude to this problem, and recognising Australia’s moral responsibility as a protagonist of the South Vietnamese side in the civil war, launched a refugee program, additional to the existing migration program.

Under these arrangements many tens of thousands of people from Indochina settled in Australia. As relatives and members of communities in Vietnam have joined these initial migrants, the Vietnamese community in Australia has swelled to more than 300,000 people. They are a hard-working, productive section of Australian society.

One of the deep ironies in this situation is that this connection has led to substantial Australian trade with Vietnam and remittances from Vietnamese Australians to families back home have played, and still play, an important role in Vietnam’s economic reconstruction.

Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, with a booming economy and a relatively small population

Despite the current drought, and serious environmental problems, Australia has a modern, relatively stable economy — so much so that in some sectors there’s a certain labour shortage, which has led reactionary conservative politicians to float the idea of bringing in 10,000 so-called guest workers from China, who would not have the rights of permanent residents.

Quite properly the Australian Workers Union has opposed this scheme, pointing out that the precarious situation of guest workers without permanent residency would make them vulnerable to exploitation, and would introduce the possibility of breaking down Australian wages and conditions.

A modest proposal for an emergency migration program for victims of the Indian Ocean rim tsunami disaster

Australia currently has a migration program that brings in around 100,000 new migrants annually, of which a relatively small number are refugees.

I propose that there be a one-off tsunami refugee program, in addition to the existing migration program to bring in 100,000 extra people.

There are five million or more people who have lost their homes and livelihoods in this enormous human catastrophe. They face the prospect of living in terrible conditions in primitive refugee camps for many years.

The United Nations is already talking about a 10-year reconstruction program. The most effective thing Australia can do in the short and longer term would be to turn all of our modern techniques and resources to bringing 100,000 of these people to Australia, with initial full permanent residency, leading quickly to Australian citizenship.

This program should be bipartisan, supported by all Australian political parties. Unless such a program is adopted quickly we face the possibility of thousands of refugees again trying to come to Australia in leaky boats.

The breakdown of sources for these migrants would look something like this: 1500 from Somalia, 1500 from the Maldives, 2000 from Burma, 5000 from Thailand, 20,000 from Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam, 20,000 from India (half from the Andaman and Nicobar islands), 50,000 from Aceh.

The breakdown for the settlement in Australia might look something like this: 30,000 to NSW, 25,000 to Victoria, 15,000 to Queensland, 12,000 to WA, 10,000 to SA, 3000 to Tasmania, 2500 to the ACT, 2500 to NT.

The existing detention centres for refugees and asylum seekers could easily be converted to their original use as migrant holding centres, and the few hundred refugees left there could be released into the community under suitable arrangements.

Economic and social benefits for the tsunami survivors and the regions they come from

It’s a well-known fact about migration, particularly refugee and disaster migration, that immediately they get work such migrants remit a large part of their earnings to families back home. If such migrants in Australia are properly paid, and not subject to intimidation like “guest workers” it’s easy to envisage an enormous income stream flowing back to the home regions from employed family members in Australia.

This was true of my Irish ancestors, who immigrated to Australia in the aftermath of the Irish famine in the 19th century, and it has also been true of more recent migrants form Vietnam, East Timor and elsewhere.

An immediate transfer of a substantial number of refugees from the refugee camps to Australia would obviously ease the pressure in the camps. This emergency migration program would be the most powerful and effective help that we could give.

Economic and social benefits for Australia

Such an emergency immigration program would solve the short-term labour shortage in some sectors of the economy for a few years, until this cohort of migrants eventually moved up to better jobs, which is an inevitable part of the migration process. It would alleviate the labour shortage while avoiding the anti-social aspects associated with any scheme for “guest workers” without permanent residency.

The rapid immigration into Australia of economic and social refugees from the rich kaleidoscope of races and religions in the Indian Ocean rim: Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, would further break down xenophobic racism in Australia as human familiarity evoked the usual warm response in Australians to people of other cultures whom they have actually come to know.

The response of ordinary Australians in country towns to Afghan refugees demonstrates this. In addition, such a program would go a long way towards integrating Australia in the Asian region and relegating the White Australia Policy to the distant past in the minds of both Asians and Australians. In addition, the economic benefits of increased trade between Australia and the Indian Ocean rim are obvious.

The scale of the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean is enormous and the circumstances demand a quick and effective response.

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