Refugee policy under fire

By John Lewis

More than 300 people packed into The Woolshed for Wednesday night’s Fairley La Trobe Lecture by high-profile barrister Julian Burnside, where he delivered a stinging attack on the Federal Government’s refugee policy.

La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar said the attendance was ‘‘an unprecedented response to a Fairley lecture’’, which left 80 people on a waiting list.

A veteran advocate for refugee rights, Mr Burnside’s theme for the free lecture was Building the Past, Building the Future: Immigration, Refugees, Multiculturalism.

He began by praising Shepparton’s role as a model of multiculturalism.

‘‘Shepparton’s mix of people from across the world is a model of the way that multiculturalism should be implemented in every city in Australia,’’ he said.

Mr Burnside said Shepparton’s fortunes had been built by people who had arrived from other places — including lecture patron Sir Andrew Fairley, who arrived in Australia as a child and who went on to become chairman and managing director of SPC.

‘‘Refugees have felt free to help build Australia, and will do so again in the future if we only give them a chance,’’ Mr Burnside said.

He remembered growing up in Melbourne during the 1960s when newly-arrived Italians and Greeks were criticised.

‘‘People said they they don’t learn English, they wear black, they’re too religious,’’ he said.

‘‘These are the sort of things you hear people say about Muslim migrants to Australia today.’’

Mr Burnside said the cultural habits of new migrants should be accepted.

‘‘The wearing of the hijab or burqa or niqab, we shouldn’t make a fuss about these, we should simply roll with it,’’ he said.

‘‘These are cultural aspects which do not do any harm to any of us.

‘‘Shepparton seems to have worked its way through things like this and is able to look at these things without feeling we are under attack.

‘‘I think it would be a great benefit if the rest of Australia had the same positive attitude that Shepparton has.’’

He went on criticise the Federal Government’s border protection policy.

He described the immigration department’s treatment of asylum seekers on Christmas Island as degrading and scandalous.

‘‘These were people who had not had enough to eat or drink, they were terrified and wearing clothing marked by their own excrement, but the immigration department of Australia doesn’t even let them change before they are interviewed to see whether they had valid refugee claims,’’ he said.

‘‘If they have any medical devices such as false teeth, or spectacles or artificial limbs, or medicines or medical documents, these are taken and not returned.’’

Mr Burnside singled out Prime Minister Scott Morrison for special criticism.

‘‘Morrison as immigration minister issued a directive to the immigration department that those people known formerly as ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ must thereafter be referred to as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’,’’ he said.

‘‘He called boat people illegal probably more often than any other minister of the crown in this country.

‘‘The problem with that is — it’s a lie because they don’t commit any offence whatsoever by coming here.’’

He said United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Australia was a signatory, stated all human beings had the right to seek asylum.

‘‘He (Mr Morrison) lies about boat people being illegal then he treats them like criminals to reinforce the message,’’ Mr Burnside said.

He also accused the Prime Minister of hypocrisy in relation to his 2014 maiden speech to parliament in which he referred to the importance of family and his Christian faith.

‘‘My recollection of Christian teaching suggests that his response to boat people is very far from the Christian message. So he’s a dishonest hypocrite,’’ Mr Burnside said.

His remark, ‘‘offshore detention is outrageously cruel and outrageously costly,’’ earned a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.

He ended his speech by saying offshore detention costs taxpayers $5billion a year, but if 250000 refugees were allowed in and given access to welfare and medical benefits it would only cost $500million.

‘‘There is a better way of doing things,’’ Mr Burnside said.

‘‘Let’s assume that boats start coming again.’’

He then listed a detention cap of one month followed by release on an interim visa that would allow access to benefits and the right to work.

‘‘Thirdly, they would have to stay in regular contact with the department of immigration,’’ he said.

‘‘Finally, until their status is decided they must live in a regional town or city.

‘‘I would hope Shepparton would be at the top of the list.’’