You can come to die but not to live

My country, Australia, has signed and ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention.

Grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, is the centrepiece of international refugee protection today.

In 1986, I read a lot about international agreements, resolutions and conventions. One book written by a leading Australian law professor noted that such international instruments tend to be honoured “more in the breach than in their observance”. He went on to observe that Australia was however better than most countries in meeting international instruments.

Sadly, since then we have slipped down the league table. In recent years governments of both Labor and conservative orientation have refused to provide protection in our country for those who come on boats fleeing fear, persecution, war, rape or assassination attempts. We turn back boats at sea and we incarcerate in perpetuity, in offshore camps, those who arrive by boat seeking asylum even if they are found to be refugees.

Yesterday the conservative government caved into pressure to bring an Iranian man from Nauru to Australia. He is in the terminal stage of lung cancer and in need of specialist palliative care.The originators of a petition to bring this man to Australia wrote that this would not have happened “without the support of over 24,000 Australians, 2,000 doctors, refugee advocates and the great journalists that still work hard to ensure stories like Ali’s are reported”.

The people shamed our “leaders” into softening their uncaring approach towards this asylum seeker who arrived by boat. The anarchist slogan “When the people lead the leaders will follow” seems to have applied here.

Every day Australians usually feel bound by agreement they have freely entered into. How is it that our governments feel that it is optional to respect or reject the international instruments into which we as a nation have signed and ratified?

As I write the present conservative government is attempting to make it illegal to criticise the government of the day for being in breach of international law. With a bit of luck, I might just be the first one charged. I won’t bother to defend the charge I will wear it as a badge of honour. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing” is often incorrectly attributed to Edmund Burke, one of the originators of British conservatism.

We have come a very long way since Edmund Burke walked tall but recently we have taken some weird tracks. It is a long way back to decency. But one day we will honour the international agreements into which we have entered. Then, once again, we may bring desperate people fleeing persecution from offshore camps to live here.

written 24/6/2018.