One of my all time favorite Aussies sayings is “Fair Dinkum!” For myself, the slang encapsulates what it truly means to be an Australian. Traditionally it means we are people who are for and not against the battlers of life. We are a people who expect fair play. We have deep pockets to help the down and out. We have deep reservoirs of compassion. We don’t put the boot in when someone is down. We don’t knife each other in the back. And in return we expect the same for ourselves. Traditionally “Fair Dinkum” Aussies are hard people: We live hard, play hard and work hard. We love a laugh and a good joke. And traditionally to be “Fair Dinkum” it means for us to be straight shooters – to be upright and honest. And finally to be “Fair Dinkum” it means to give all a fair go!
And its within this traditional understanding of what it means to be a Dinky Die Fair Dinkum Aussie, I want to talk about the Boat People. In 1954 under the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, our nation signed a covenant with the rest of the western world to protect those known as refugees. The idea of protecting refugees came about as the vastness of the Jewish holocaust become publicly known after world war two, by Nazi Germany.
What is not widely known is that while the Jewish people were major targets in the attempt to destroy them as a whole: other minority and disadvantaged groups were also sent into concentration camps as slaves and killed. Children in orphanages, the homeless, those with down syndrome,cerebral palsy and other debilitating diseases and others of different religious persuasions.
In 1939 as the German nation began their political pom pom against the Jews in their country they allowed close to 1000 Jewish refugees to board the MS St. Louis to find safety in Cuba. However, Cuba wouldn’t allow them in, nor would the USA or Canada. After some intense international negotiations they ship was allowed to dock at Belgium where 288 refugees were allowed to disembark and settle in the U.K. Eventually the other 600 odd refugees were allowed to disembark at Antwerp where they were to settle throughout Europe.
While this happened in 1939, its story was the beginning of what was to set the world stage for a United Nations covenant to say a refugee is “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..”
It’s within this framework Australia in 1954 became a signatory to the UN covenant to protect refugees. Under the law, its not illegal for any person to make their way to and apply for refugee status to any country that is a signatory to the covenant.
While the covenant was originally aimed for those of European countries. but in 1967 its basis was broadened to include all the world.
Within the framework of our participation in the global refugee covenant, we have a history of taking in refugees into this nation. In the late 70’s we helped many Vietnamese who came here in desperation from persecution from communist government after the Vietnam war. As well as many fleeing conflict and persecution in East Timor and Lebanon.
Getting back to the opening of my post of being “Fair Dinkum” Australia was being true to its centrality of character of what it means to be an Aussie in helping to protect those who are down on their luck by being a signatory of this convention.
It saddens me that modern Australia has lost its sense of being “Fair Dinkum” when it comes to our popular language and attitudes towards those we call “Illegal Boat People.” For within the boundaries of Australian and U.N law, they are doing nothing illegal in making their way to Australia or any other nation to claim refugee status.
It’s important for us to note that within the framework of the Australian and U.N laws regarding refugee intakes we have the right to process and make the decision whether the application for refugee status will be accepted or not. Within the framework of acceptance, under international law, war criminals and terrorists are not to be granted refugee status. And once again, within the framework of being “Fair Dinkum” its right and proper that we don’t grant safety and refugee status to those guilty of war crimes and terrorism.
This then leads us to the area of processing and the resettlement of refugees, which I will address in a future post.