Stuart Rintoul The Australian 19 July, 2012
AN African community leader standing for election in this weekend's Melbourne by-election has backed offshore processing of asylum-seekers, but says the humanitarian intake should be lifted to 25,000 a year in the short term to ease tension.
Berhan Ahmed, an Eritrean who arrived in Australia as a penniless refugee in 1987 and is now a Melbourne University professor, said the asylum-seeker issue betrayed a deep failure of political leadership.
The chairman of the African Think Tank and Victorian of the Year in 2009, he said the issue needed to be accepted as a crisis and approached with short-, medium- and long-term solutions.
"Why are we getting the boats?" he asked. "Because of a failure of leadership. Labor is trying to show that it is strong, but also soft. They want to be tough on asylum-seekers, but they also want to be humanitarian. The Gillard government, instead of taking bold action and solving the problem, is just servicing the problem."
Dr Ahmed said many African refugees were frustrated that Australia's humanitarian intake had been "swallowed" by boatpeople arriving on Christmas Island, pushing their families in refugee camps further back in the queue.
"I know fathers who have been sitting waiting for their kids for more than five years," he said. "I know a lot of refugees who are waiting for their families, but because of the asylum-seekers they can't get their families, and Labor has done nothing to address that."
He said there was strong sympathy for people fleeing desperate circumstances. "The humanitarian component has been swallowed by the boatpeople," he said.
"Part of me thinks this is not good, but part of me thinks also these people deserve a place."
Dr Ahmed backed the push by the Refugee Council of Australia to decouple the humanitarian intake, which is available to those subject to gross human rights violations and family members of refugees already living in Australia, from asylum-seekers.
He said the humanitarian intake should be raised from 13,750 to 25,000, as proposed by the Greens, but not with onshore processing. "We need to go where these people are coming from and we need to start processing. We need to show some process. A refugee needs a sign of hope."
Of the 13,750 people accepted under the program, only about 6000 make it out of UNHCR camps because of boat arrivals.
Campaigning in a by-election that could have implications for Julia Gillard's prime ministership even though it is a state seat, Dr Ahmed said the ALP, Coalition and Greens were "cocooned" in their separate policies.
The Prime Minister had been unable to break the impasse, while Tony Abbott's plan to turn asylum boats around was "very short-sighted".
Dr Ahmed shapes as the wild card of the Melbourne by-election - an independent candidate who has been a member of both the Labor Party and the Greens but who has quit both of them disillusioned.
He left the Labor Party after 10 years because of the stranglehold of the unions and factions and quit the Greens after six years, after standing as a Senate candidate in 2004, because he found the Greens impractical about solving problems in the real world.
In this election, he has directed his second preference to conservative independent David Nolte and placed Labor and the Greens seventh and eighth of 16 candidates.
Dr Ahmed was born in Eritrea. At 15, during the civil war, he left his parents and fled to a refugee camp in Sudan. He studied in a refugee school, received a UN scholarship and completed his first degree, in plant protection, in Egypt.
He arrived in Australia as a refugee at 22, "penniless, with nothing". He is now a senior research fellow at Melbourne University in forest and eco-system science. He said yesterday he was motivated by a strong desire to give back to the country that gave him refuge.
Received on Wed Jul 18 2012 - 19:11:06 EDT