Refugee Me

I don’t write much about issues around asylum seekers, here or elsewhere. I spend relatively little time thinking about the issue for someone of my politics, basically because I find it so depressing. I think I am up to tackling one of the issues of Climate Change and refugees in depth, and I am pretty sure which one I can make a more useful contribution around.

Nevertheless, every now and then one needs to step up to the plate, and this looks like the time.

Whenever people comment on my name they ask if it is German, Dutch or something similar and I explain that it is Lithuanian Jewish. I’ve never been to Lithuania, but it is part of my identity. At one point in time, I understand, Lithuania had the highest number of Jews relative to the overall population, of any nation on Earth. Now it has almost none.

Some of this is a result of decades of immigration through the 19th and early 20th Century, but there were still plenty of Jews there in 1940. Not any more.

Some of those who left would today be described as economic migrants. Others were refugees, responding to pogroms and persecution. The distinction is much harder to make than the likes of Bob Carr would have you believe. Many of those seeking better economic circumstances were doing so because certain job opportunities were denied to Jews. Others got out at times when persecution was not particularly bad, but could see the writing on the wall. I am the beneficiary of their foresight.

By the time my parents were born my grandparents, all of whom were either born in Lithuania or were from there a few generations back, were in South Africa. Virtually the entire South African Jewish community came from Lithuania – Polish, Hungarian, Russian and every other sort of Jew went to the US, Argentina, Australia and countless other places. Lithuanian Jews did too, but some also went to South Africa and started a migration that proved very fortuitous. In the 1930s South Africa was prepared to take more Jewish refugees than most other places – at least they were white. As a way of propping up white rule it turned out to be a bit of a mistake. While some South African Jews ended up supporting Apartheid, most didn’t. For 13 years the only parliamentary opposition to the government came from Helen Suzman, who besides being Jewish herself represented a very Jewish area of Johannesburg.

While South Africa supplied a safehaven for many of my relatives, my family tree is filled with those who did not get out in time, and passed through the gates of the death camps, never to return. Lithuania was not well stocked with the righteous gentiles who saved so many Jews in other places, won the applause of aspiring opposition leaders, but would now be dubbed people traffickers.

I’m pretty disconnected from the Jewish community – my position on Israel makes me shunned by the majority while being seen as soft by the loudest, if not most numerous, opposition voices. Nevertheless, it is times like this I feel the most at home. I believe there will be a Jewish contingent at this, and intend to march with them.

My parents came to Australia as economic migrants – my father clutching a job offer from the University of Melbourne, but they were political refugees of a sort as well. As my mother often put it, “If you couldn’t stand the system your choices were leave, stay silent or go to jail.” Her cousin chose neither to leave or stay silent. He spent five months in solitary confinement, eventually did leave but stayed close enough to home for the South African security forces to place a bomb under his car which cost him an arm and an eye. However, he survived to return with the fall of Apartheid and ended up legalising same sex marriage. I can’t say I have a fraction of his physical courage, but on a scale that has his moral courage at one end and Rudd and Gillard at the other I like to think I’m not doing too badly.

All of this means that, while I don’t think I have the perfect answer to how we should respond to asylum seekers, I know bad policy when I see it. It is common for advocates of more humanitarian policies to ask people to consider what they would do if confronted by the Taliban or Sri Lankan government. The implied answer is that everyone would flee. I know from my family history that this is not true. My father’s paternal grandparents did not, and died in the death camps as a result. The more correct answer is that everyone should flee. The people we are demonising for getting on boats differ only from those they left behind in having more initiative and perhaps being a little more far-seeing.

The idea of dumping such people in a nation teetering on the edge of being a failed state, with some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world and a culture and economy that makes it particularly hard for new arrivals to find a place is simply sickening.

Advocates of policies like this have a split personality. Some justify it by dehumanising those seeking refuge, but others try and pretend they are acting in the interests of those huddling in Indonesian camps. They’re concerned for their safety, not wanting them to die on the high seas, apparently. Indeed many are inclined to damn those who support more humane policies as having the blood of those who have drowned on their hands. See for example commentator Mel in this thread at John Quiggin.

66721_10151815497079913_1209168425_nThis attitude has been devastatingly satirised in this cartoon, but it deserves a more thoughtful answer. Fundamentally, the problem with this line is it assumes that those fleeing persecution are unable to make judgements about the best course for themselves. If people are risking their lives getting onto leaky boats there are three possible explanations: 1) they don’t realise how likely the boats are to sink 2) they are mentally unstable and cannot form a judgement on risk or 3) the alternative is so bad it is worth taking the risk.

I’m willing to be that in most cases the answer is actually 3). If Rudd’s policy works in stopping the boats it will only be because it has made the prospects so bad that people either prefer to chance it with the Taliban, or similarly murderous rulers, or settle for a half-life in hopeless camps in intermediary countries with no prospects of liberty of the pursuit of happiness. Since these are people whose peers have previous decided such things are worse than a high chance of drowning followed by years or decades in appalling prisons, I think we can see just how bad those alternatives are. Rudd and Abbott’ quest is to find something worse.

Rudd is to be preferred over Abbott on this because he is promising to increase the refugee intake, which will effectively mean that those who have boarded boats in Indonesia, while gaining no benefit for themselves, will have forced a change to benefit their compatriots left behind. However, for those pathseekers themselves Rudd’s proposal looks to be at least as bad as anything Abbott was likely to do in the short term, and a stepping stone to the “solution” both Labor and Liberal may eventually adopt of simply machine-gunning future generations of refugees, as many of whom may be fleeing climate disasters as genocidal rulers.

Because, as I said at the start, I don’t think about the topic as much as I might, I don’t really have a position over whether the Greens policy is the right one. In a world with more displaced people than any one country could handle I don’t know if there is a perfect solution.

But I can distinguish between those who are making an effort, who seeing the common humanity in those coming ashore, and those who aim only to stoke the fires of racism.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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3 Responses to Refugee Me

  1. angelasavage says:

    Stephen, I’m glad you did have a go at addressing this distressing topic. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts.

    And I think there’s something crucial in your line: ‘In a world with more displaced people than any one country could handle I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution.’

    The fact is, the world has changed and refugee numbers are only likely to increase. I believe we have to stop treating this as a problem to be solved but rather as a new reality to adapt to and accommodate. The first step lies in recognising that common humanity.

    Thanks again for this thoughtful piece.

  2. Drew says:

    Beautiful work Stephen.


  3. Pingback: Burn Explanations | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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