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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001

The poor, huddled masses vs. the Aussies


LONDON -- The difference between "the poor, the huddled masses" of refugees and economic migrants who filled up the United States and eventually had the Statue of Liberty erected in their honor in New York harbor, and the huddled masses of Afghan refugees and economic migrants who were trapped in the hold of the container ship "Tampa" off Christmas Island for eight days, is merely a matter of dates. The Afghans were about 100 years late.

It's almost too easy to vilify the Australian authorities, whose clumsy attempts to pass the Afghan parcel to other, poorer states in the region provided the world's media with such an easy target over the past week, though they richly deserve vilification. So does the great Australian public, whose panic at the prospect of being inundated by yet more seaborne asylum-seekers from exotic places (over 4,000 in the past year, or fully 0.0002 of the population of 19 million) reminded the rest of the planet that the country long had an explicitly racist "White Australia" immigration policy.

From the initial decision to send SAS troops aboard the "Tampa" and stop the 430 people aboard from going ashore on Australian territory, through the bullying attempts to make poorer neighbors take the refugees instead, down to the final solution of sending most of them to the island of Nauru for "assessment," every action of Australian Prime Minister John Howard's government was driven by its terror that racist voters would turn against it and cost it the next election (due in a few months) if it let the Afghans set foot on Australian soil.

A very few of the 430 may finally end up in Australia if their claims to be refugees are accepted as valid, but Canberra is promising that most of the "legitimate" ones will go to other countries, while the rest are presumably sent back where they came from. In the meanwhile, about 150 lucky ones (women, children and families) will go to tolerant New Zealand -- and all the single men will go to a tent city on the mid-Pacific Ocean island of Nauru, the world's smallest and most desolate republic.

"A wasteland of mind-boggling proportions," says the Lonely Planet guide of Nauru, a 30-square-km island once entirely covered with a deep layer of bird droppings (guano) that has now been strip-mined off, leaving only bare pinnacles of rock behind. There is only a single road and a narrow band of topsoil circling the island, and 12,000 large, bored Nauruans who pass their time consuming fast food and soft drinks in prodigious quantities.

Nauru's guano runs out in two years, so it was hard for its government to say no to Australia's offer of cash. As a result, several hundred Afghan men will spend six months of their lives on the least attractive dot of land in the Pacific before being sent God knows where. Globalization at its best: you couldn't make it up.

But though Australia has not come well out of this episode, the pressure of people trying to get into the rich countries is such that nobody trying to cope with it walks away with clean hands. If everybody who wanted to come actually came, those countries would no longer be rich, nor indeed even culturally recognizable. There are probably several times as many people who would move from the poor to the rich countries if all the barriers came down as the entire present population of those countries.

So there must be barriers and controls of some sort, and that's where it gets tricky. Morally tricky, because so-called economic migrants will suffer mainly from poverty if they are sent home, whereas genuine refugees may suffer imprisonment, torture or death -- so naturally, most illegal migrants claim to be refugees. And tricky in practical terms because barriers will always be breached by the more resourceful and desperate migrants.

Take the Channel Tunnel between France and England. A long rail tunnel should be the easiest thing in the world to guard, but several times last week the Chunnel had to be shut for hours after groups of illegal migrants broke out of the Red Cross refugee center near the tunnel entrance on the French side, cut through the security fences, and tried to walk through the tunnels.

The people aboard "Tampa" had already paid a lot of money and come a long way before their chartered Indonesian vessel foundered and "Tampa" rescued them. When they found that it was heading for Singapore, they forced the captain to head for Australian territory instead. They had no guns, but the small crew dared not say no to so many people with so much at stake and so little to lose, so the Afghans effectively hijacked the ship. Nobody has clean hands.

There is no tidy or consistent policy available. Barriers must be maintained to prevent a free-for-all, but millions of people have to be allowed through them both on humanitarian grounds and because the aging societies of the industrial world need the immigrants. The process of choosing who gets in will never be fair, and it will not always even be humane.

So maybe we should view the "Tampa" incident not so much as a human rights disaster (for none of the would-be migrants has been killed or hurt, and they were illegal), but as the year's most spectacular public-relations disaster. This sort of thing goes on all the time, but more adroit governments manage to keep it from becoming a media drama.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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