Go Back To Where You Came From
Last Friday morning, on a busy street in Sydney, I hailed a cab to head back to work. Nursing a broken arm in a sling, and carrying a bag full of research for that night’s Insight, I was feeling a bit apprehensive.
I’d had five long weeks off, but the specialist treating me had warned I might need longer. “The workplace is hazardous” he’d said “and I’ve seen you on TV, you throw your arms around a lot.”
A taxi quickly pulled into the kerb and as I peered through the window, I hoped I’d see a friendly face - someone willing to help me with all my stuff and drive slowly over the bumps. A slight dark haired man looked up at me and broke into a warm smile. He was out of his cab in an instant, opening the door, taking my bag and checking to see if I was OK. “I know who you are” he said, beaming. “SBS! It’s an honour to have you in my cab.”
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Two things I hate: hunger in a world of plenty and ignorance where information is plentiful.
Waste and unfair distribution of food, energy and water are major sources of global misery, the proximate cause for the breakdown of social cohesion and the fuel of wars.
Most of us recognise this and for 60 years development agencies have been at work reshaping economies and the world trade system to reduce inequality. There is a long way to go; 2 billion of the world’s population still cling to the margins of survival, but the overall direction is positive. The same can’t be said for the eradication of ignorance in a world of plentiful information.
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A little bloke called Mohammed broke my heart. He’s 14 and his face is lit up by huge white teeth and an unfailing impish grin. It was his grin that struck me and it’s that smiling, welcoming face that’s dead-set haunting me right now.
Looking at photos I took of him and other kids when I was in his camp in Ethiopia, it is shocking to know that he’s still there - alone, in a desert tent city of about 200,000 people.
He’s got no mum or dad. One of the UN agencies is his nominal guardian. Where he lives, near the border with Somalia, the UN people arrive at nine or so in the morning and they take off to get back inside their fortified camps at three in the afternoon. There are no police. There’s no government in the camp.
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Asylum seekers are back on top of the news cycle again. It’s almost like those heady days when MV Tampa was anchored threateningly off Christmas Island. This time round there is a delightful little twist.
Rather than anxiously imagining the horrible wretches that threaten to penetrate our sovereign territory, viewers are instead invited to ponder the imagination - or lack thereof - amongst a representative sample of middle Australians who suffer from refugee anxiety.
The most interesting aspect of this undertaking is that Go Back To Where You Came From resembles an Escher engraving. All those years ago, the Howard government recognised that boat-borne asylum seekers could be used to stage an extremely successful political pantomime. It had pirate-like people smugglers, captured cargo ships, illegal immigrants, the Navy, the Army: a great ensemble by any measure.
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I’ve always half-liked the Labor Government’s Malaysian solution on asylum seekers. I like the half that involves bringing an additional 4000 refugees from Malaysia to Australia. It’s a small additional burden that our rich little country is very capable of bearing.
It’s quite a clever strategy, too, in light of new research showing humanitarian arrivals are generally younger and more likely to live in regional areas, thereby helping to counter our rapidly ageing, urbanised population.
But I abhor the other half of the equation – the part that involves sending 800 asylum seekers to Kuala Lumpur, where 90,000 mostly Burmese are already rotting in a refugee quagmire in the hope of a better life they’ll never get.
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