Alternative Law Journal
by Mary Crock and Ben Saul; Federation Press, 2002; 134 pp; $24.95.
This book caught my eye immediately. As the standoff between the people on board the Tampa and the Howard government caused intense interest, I wanted to better understand the situation from a legal point of view. I recommend Future Seekers to those interested in the detail of the refugee situation.
The book draws the reader in by recalling recent experiences with refugees in a quite different-that is, more welcoming - environment, like the influx of Kosovo refugees in early 1999. There is mention of Australia's history-among the young country's blemishes was the 'White Australia Policy'. From this unpalatable note, the authors gently move the reader into the present time.
In the earlier chapters there is emphasis on the government's stand, preparing the way for when the authors question the more restrictive laws. The authors refer to the cost incurred because of the government's stubborn stand. They give figures and statistics to backup the arguments. They also talk about the behaviour and frustration in the detention centres -those centres not being an appropriate environment for victims of persecution. The authors speak about how Australia propagates false information, like how asylum seekers are illegal-but the fact is that refugees have the right to come to the Australian shore and apply for status as a refugee.
Future Seekers covers the international law on refugees. It compares Australia's obligations with its actions, for example, by looking at the Refugee Convention and the Torture Convention. However, it does not explain why, besides fulfilling its duty, Australia should be more tolerant of refugees. To reconcile Australia's sovereignty and the duty to uphold human rights is difficult and, while advocating the latter, the book does not fully consider why the government and the people (as the government was acting according to public opinion) are seen to be the villains. The authors mention that some refugees in rebellion sewed their mouths in protest. They suggest that this is because of a number of problems found in the detention centres like overcrowding and very little or no assistance in areas such as mental health and learning English. However, most Australians seem to believe that the government is doing the best it can.
The book does not address all the arguments made by the government and Australians. However, it does respond to statements made by the Minister of Immigration like 'all on shore refugees are "queue jumpers"' and 'Australian asylum procedures are among the most generous in the world and more generous than those of the UNHCR'. The authors, among others, believe that Australia's move to cut donations to the UNHCR and its poor effort in foreign aid are indicative that Australia is not per forming as well as the Minister would have us believe. Readers are informed that even though various committees – Australian and international – have voiced their dissatisfaction with the system, Australia has not followed the recommendations. Perhaps the authors could have conjectured why. What are commendable are the arguments sym pathetic to refugees, with reasonable, legal support for the rights of refugees. For example, there is a list of the rights of refugees under international law (p.93).
Finally, the suggested law reforms are forward thinking. At the end, after stating their case and their views, the authors conclude with the hope that Australians will be enlightened and open to new ideas.
People from various backgrounds with a fair command of English will find this book quite readable, as the chapters are not too long. The book is divided evenly into eight chapters and separated according to issue. However, the legal terms may be confusing to non-lawyers.
There is excellent use of recent newspaper articles interspersed within each chapter that are contemporary to the boat people situation. But these articles are often placed in the middle of a paragraph and this disturbs the flow of the statement. Each supporting article would be better placed at the end of the chapter to allow readers to develop their thoughts in a logical sequence.
Mary Crock and Ben Saul wrote this book to better inform the general public about refugee issues. This aim has been achieved. While only a slim book, its scope is comprehensive and it is written in plain English. In conclusion, I enjoyed reading Future Seekers and, whatever your opinion about the refugee situation, this book offers useful legal information.
Wendy Gong is studying a combined law and science degree at Flinders University.