21 February, 2011

Monkey Swap Mayhem

When I was in primary school there was always a great emphasis placed on the daily ritual of lining up for class. While the simple activity of forming a queue was our teacher’s only means of achieving a modicum of structure among an otherwise rambunctious group of sixth graders, the apparent arrangement of the aforementioned queue also held a measure of significance for the students. You see, managing to get to the front of the line generally afforded an individual the advantage of being able to sit in their preferred seat. Though the benefit may appear inconsequential, many children perceived their relative position to both the chalkboard and their friends to be a serious matter and would thus devise ways of achieving their ideal location.

The most common tactic employed was referred to as the ‘monkey swap’. This maneuver allowed an individual to graciously let another person in front of them only to immediately have the favor returned. The result was a less than subtle exploit of the unwritten laws of Queuing Theory which managed to inconvenience everyone else waiting in line without troubling the individual who decided to allow their friend to cut in. Now to a group of young children who were consistently being taught the significance of sequential gathering this was never perceived as a fair transaction. Yet it was important for us to learn that our opinion of society isn’t the only one that matters.

The notion of a queue is a western invention that represents our opinion of civility and our desire to create order out of the perceived chaos of the natural world. It appeals to our noble, yet often misguided sense of fairness. In most parts of the world however, that vast portion of the globe that isn’t informed by Hellenistic philosophy, there is little understanding of what it means to “wait your turn.” This does not make these cultures primitive or less enlightened; it is simply a different way in which we might perceive and relate to the world around us.

Yet however we inevitably structure society, the concept of a queue does not accord with the reality of the asylum process.

There are currently an estimated 42 million people worldwide who have been forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution. This figure represents many different types of refugees, including those in protracted exile, stateless individuals, as well as internally displaced people. Yet as it stands, less than an approximate 900,000 refugees are actually registered with the United Nations as seeking asylum. It is clear therefore, that the number of asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR does not reflect the magnitude of individuals in need of resettlement.

Furthermore, asylum claims made to the UNHCR do not represent any order to those who face situations of displacement. To clarify, refugees who are currently registered with the United Nations are not necessarily those in the most danger, nor do they necessarily represent those who have been waiting for resettlement the longest. The only distinction between those who have lodged a claim for asylum and those who have not, is simply their ability to do so.

Take protracted refugees for example. These are individuals have been in exile for more than five years with limited hope of finding a solution in the near future. While they make up almost 25% of the worlds displaced people, a lack of administrative resources and the effects of considerable political instability means that very few are actually registered with the UNHCR. Meanwhile, almost 80,000 claims for asylum have been lodged in the past 24 months by refugees uprooted by conflict in the Middle East. Asylum claims are therefore no indication of who has been “waiting the longest.”

Further suggestions claim that Irregular Maritime Arrivals cause a delay in the resettlement of offshore refugees. Again this represents a flawed understanding of the asylum process. The administrations of onshore and offshore asylum claims are independent processes that rely on completely separate infrastructure. Therefore, Australia’s ability to manage internal applications for asylum has no effect on the administration of the UNHCR to refer asylum claims to signatory countries nor does it have any significant effect on the 80,000 resettlements each year.

It should also be noted that refugee’s do not in fact have the right to be resettled, nor is there any obligation by signatory countries to resettle asylum seekers, it is purely a voluntary process. However, according to international law every individual has the right to seek asylum and obtain protection. Refugee resettlement therefore compliments and is in no way a substitute for the provision of protection for people who apply to a signatory country for asylum under the United Nations Convention for the Status of Refugees.

While it becomes quite evident that the asylum process is not indicative of a queue, the most appropriate question we must ask ourselves is how might we respond to this issue as individuals who espouse a message of justice?

It is of course difficult to ignore the multitude of scripture that addresses the matter. For example, Leviticus tells us that “when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt.” This message is consistently reiterated through the ministry of Jesus who encourages us to "love your neighbor" and “offer shelter to the poor wanderer.” While these references are specific in nature, they represent the fundamental call of scripture; a call for justice. So it would seem our response must be two fold.

First to challenge a cultural ignorance toward oppression and to reshape societies flawed understanding of asylum seekers. An example we often face is that many people possess an irrational yet somewhat understandable fear that there will not be enough resources to support an increase in refugee intake. This is simply not true. If we as a nation are willing to wholly embrace those seeking asylum in our country then the adaptable nature of our social structure will inevitable integrate these individuals into our economy.

For example; If we have more people, we need to build more houses, grow more food, create more energy, and develop more infrastructure. However, for each of these processes we also need more workers: such as builders, farmers, engineers, teachers, doctors, etc. But wait a minute... we have more people! Those refugees that we let into our country, the ones who need the houses and the food and the energy and the infrastructure. And the beautiful thing is when they are employed they’ll pay the government more tax so we can build more houses, grow more food, create more energy and develop more infrastructure. Now I appreciate that our system of economics is significantly more complicated than just described, but as a very simple explanation this is how assimilation generally occurs.

Finally, we must look within ourselves and be challenged to set aside our shallow and often self-seeking understanding of justice to embrace the suffering of these people (and there’s the key word... people; as in real people) who approach our shores with nothing but the clothes on their back. We have to approach this situation not with a fear of those who are different but with love and compassion because we are inherently the same. And we need to get over our petty and often misunderstood notion that boat people are the inconsiderate brats of the class who choose to monkey swap their way to the front of the line with little concern for anyone else who might be pining for their preferred seat.

There is no such thing as a queue, only a terrible mess of hurting people.

Eli Koops

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