Australia’s complex refugee debate

Will history see the country as a pioneer of offshore prisons for asylum seekers, or a pariah for having them?

He’s called Houssein, and he’s a dangerous man, my Uber driver said. He used to run a drug-ring in Iran.

Now he runs one in western Sydney.

Houssein, said my driver, came to Australia by boat, pretending to be a refugee. He fooled Australia’s officials and, ultimately, was allowed to stay.

Then he set about bringing over his criminal gang, one by one, from Iran. Hussein coached them in what to say in interviews with immigration inspectors. His top tip? Cry a lot.

My driver said Houssein now has a “kitchen” in Sydney’s western suburbs – a lab where he makes methamphetamines.

READ MORE: Peter Dutton – No objection to Nauru-NZ deal on refugees

His team sells what’s made in Australia.

My Uber driver – who I won’t name – also came from Iran, although he’d travelled to Australia not as a refugee but as a student on a visa.

What did he think, I asked, about Australia sending many of his compatriots to offshore prisons in Papua New Guinea and Nauru?

Never Australia policy

About 2,000 people, many from Iran,  have been deported from Australia since 2013 when its government brought in a Never Australia policy towards refugees who come by boat.

“It’s tough on the genuine ones,” my driver said.

“But the policies are necessary.” Before them, people like Houssein and his gang were sneaking into Australia.

Do Houssein, his drug kitchen and his gang exist? I don’t know.

READ MORE: Nauru – Australia’s Guantanamo Bay?

My driver was woolly on the details. But I repeat the story to illustrate the complexity of the “refugee debate” in Australia.

Often it is presented as Australia’s government against the rest. But the truth is many, perhaps most Australians support their government’s position.

Among them are people from the countries from which most refugees come.

I interviewed Peter Dutton for Talk to Al Jazeera last week.

I pushed him hard on why Australia has deported refugees and asylum seekers, including children, to impoverished Pacific island countries where corruption is common.   

Australia’s Dutton: New Zealand could take Nauru refugees

I questioned his claims that his policies were “saving lives” by stopping people drowning at sea.

Weren’t desperate people, I said, simply taking different journeys now?

Weren’t they still dying, I asked, in the Bay of Bengal or the Mediterranean Sea rather than on their way to Australia?

With an escape route closed, aren’t some who might have headed Down Under instead still being persecuted, or killed, at home?

I debated with Dutton on whether thousands of allegations of abuse should be reported by the media.

I questioned him on the media blackout imposed by Nauru, Papua New Guinea and – goes the suspicion – Australia too.

READ MORE: Nauru – A place of abuse and desperation

He denied as “outrageous” the suggestion by some that Nauru and Manus Island are Australia’s Guantanamo Bay – places Australia sends its unwanted, where it has power but doesn’t take responsibility for. 

At times, the interview got feisty.

But Dutton made his points and repeated them strongly.

The tough policies towards refugees who come by boat allow Australians to be generous, he said, when offering places to refugees settled through the UNHCR’s more orderly process.

Watching and learning

Australia has, since 1945, settled more than 800,000 refugees. It’s a record, Dutton said, of which his country is proud.

For all the international outrage in the media over Australia’s tough policies, other governments are watching – and learning.

I’m told officials from a number of European governments have travelled to Canberra to see whether they could copy elements of Australia’s policies back home.

Because, for all the outrage, history might yet see Australia as a pioneer of tough policies, rather than as a pariah for having them.

Read the statement from former Nauru workers issued in reponse to Peter Dutton’s interview with us on Talk to Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera