It is now over 30 years since the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, described Australians as the “white trash of Asia”. The barb stung and is still recalled with shame and hurt by Australian politicians as then prime minister Julia Gillard did in 2012. But the term has reached a new level of accuracy since the arrival of the current Australian government led by Tony Abbott, who has degraded Australia’s relations with China, Indonesia and Timor Leste close to their lowest points in decades with one piece of diplomatic ineptitude and insensitivity after another. White trash is a derogatory American English term referring to poor white people, especially in the rural south of the US, suggesting lower social class and degraded standards. The term suggests outcasts from respectable society, living on the fringes of the social order and seen as dangerous because they may be criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral While the deafening “stop the boats” mantra of the Abbott government, with muscle supplied by the defence forces in Operation Sovereign Nation, gains all the media attention in Australia and throughout the Asian region, a policy shift introduced by the government on refugees and asylum seekers has gone almost unnoticed. By accident this week, and despite the government policy of “no speaks”, I discovered something new – to me anyway. Almost since the day they arrived on the Treasury benches, the Abbott government has found a new way of persecuting victims.
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In Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s armory now is a rule that anyone who arrived by boat in Australia is unable to sponsor any other refugee or asylum seeker. Thanks to information provided to me this week in Bangkok by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), I discovered that a Sri Lankan family that has been waiting for resettlement for 13 years and was finally accepted by Australia, then had their visas revoked because relatives who reached Australia by sea were sponsoring them. I was speaking with one of the legal team at JRS, Kathryn Smyth, because of some Pakistanis I am helping with their application for refugee status. In response to a request from a Jesuit friend in Pakistan, I am effectively in loco parentis
for five (soon to be six with a birth expected in April) refugees whose only crime in Pakistan is that they are Catholics. They were forced to flee following events where they were beaten, shot at and given the popularly administered death sentence that comes with accusations of blasphemy. With Kathryn, I was checking some of the documents I’ve prepared for these people and she told me again in graphic detail something I know too well: that even if they got the first of three interviews with the UNHCR today, they would most likely not get the second interview until January 2016. And then there’s a further year of waiting for the UNHCR’s adjudication followed by an unknown wait for a country to accept them for resettlement. I said “yes, yes, I and they know about it,” only to be told of the casual vindictiveness of the Abbott government in its merciless treatment of people adjudged by the UN to have “a well founded fear for their lives on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion”. There are literally thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand. The UNHCR can’t cope with the scale of demand that the troubles in Pakistan and Afghanistan are presenting them with. When a refugee lands in Bangkok, they register with the UN for consideration of their case. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok are like my friends – Christians fleeing the terror of the blasphemy laws introduced by President Zia Ul Haq who was assassinated in 1988. Those laws allowed Muslims to allege that anyone had been blasphemous by insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Summary execution of the accused is then allowed with no action taken by police or courts to bring the murderers to justice. For refugees arriving in Bangkok, it takes between three and six months to get to first base – and initial consideration that allows the applicant to be scheduled for an interview about their case that takes at least two years to happen. And in the Thai capital, there are currently 3,100 in that category of applicants trying to get to first base. There are many thousands more in the line waiting for the interview two years hence. They live on a pittance, patiently doing all they can do – wait! For the Sri Lankan family I mentioned earlier, where do they go after 13 years waiting, finally getting acceptance only to have the prize ripped from their grasp? Perhaps the Australian government has done them a favor. Who’d want to live in a place that treats human beings this way? White trash, as mentioned, live beyond the common standards of decency and respect for human dignity, and through their assessments and actions degrade the common humanity we share. As an Australian, I regret to say the country’s performance in Asia deserves the description that former prime minister Lee gave us long ago. Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com